Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Rest Is Waiting

It can be near impossible to avoid thinking of the past, especially at the end of the year. Remembering what you did, how you screwed up, or if you did anything at all. And sometimes you think even further back, as far back as a decade, wondering what your world used to be and how things changed, going over the things you did wrong and what you could have done instead. In our minds we hope for the best, we have to, but it can be difficult to face the truth as we wonder how much time we really have. Too much becomes our own fault if we’re willing to admit it. So at the end of the year, at the end of the decade, maybe all we have left is the chance to just wait for the next one, the next chance to make everything all right. That is, if there really is a chance.

If Bob Fosse is ever in danger of being forgotten that was likely delayed in 2019 with the airing of the FX miniseries FOSSE/VERDON which was enjoyable but never very substantial in spite of inspired moments from some of the performances. Drawing conclusions based on what seemed to be its own thematic goals more than anything having to do with history, watching it was like eating halfway decent Chinese food; enjoyable to munch down on but it left me feeling empty in the end. Some of the stylistic approach was clearly inspired by Bob Fosse’s own films, because how could it not be? And when I say ‘stylistic approach’ I’m basically saying it was hard to watch it at times and not think, isn’t this just ALL THAT JAZZ? And it didn’t even spend much time on ALL THAT JAZZ. Regardless, ALL THAT JAZZ turned 40 this year and it wasn’t Fosse’s last film but feels like it was meant to be, possibly serving as the final statement of a creative life and everything that it meant. ALL THAT JAZZ is exhilarating and addictive like few other films I can think of, one that draws me back to examine it, to wrestle with it, to try to deal with it, wishing that what happens could go in another direction even as you know the inevitable. Kind of like a recent decade I can think of. But unlike that decade, as I go back to this film I ultimately embrace it. It means too much to me, it speaks too much to me. It’s about as close to a perfect film as I can think of but it’s also better than that, not a pristine jewel but a complicated piece of work that’s still messy enough to allow for exploration of its parts and what it all means while trapped in the parade of our own lives. Maybe while trying to figure it out I find myself in there, but I suppose we all do.

Legendary choreographer Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is beginning rehearsals on the new Broadway show that he’s directing while simultaneously attempting to finish editing his latest film. As his days ping-pong back and forth among the various projects with the women in his life all a part of it, including ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer), off-and-on girlfriend Katie (Ann Reinking) and daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) while in his head we see Joe with the only women he can be totally truthful with, a spectre of death named Angelique (Jessica Lange) who of course knows all his secrets. But when he’s rushed to the hospital with chest pains in the middle of working on the show, Joe’s total denial of his condition soon begins to catch up to him and he can’t fight where all this is going for very much longer.

It’s showtime, folks, as Joe Gideon says to the mirror every morning with his Vivaldi tape playing as he puts on his face on for the world, ready to start the performance all over again, even if he knows he can’t hold this face forever. Written by Robert Alan Aurthur and Fosse, ALL THAT JAZZ is an extraordinary film but it’s the kind which feels like it was never meant to be anything but an extraordinary film. What would be the point if it wasn’t? A musical unlike any other, an examination of the Broadway world and a man at the center of it with an energy to it all that puts us right in there. So much of what we’d ever need to know about Joe Gideon is his morning ritual complete with cigarette hanging from his mouth in the shower, but it’s the opening audition montage set to “On Broadway” that tosses us in without any orientation as if we’re one of those dancers looking to be validated by this legend but it gets us to understand the world instantly. The desperation of all those hopefuls isn’t his problem and to him the work which leads to all that brilliance is all there is, searching for his own inspiration as he choreographs his dancers, no qualms about fucking some of them who he may or may not decide to cast before torturing them to do better. Even the ones he’s not fucking get some of that treatment anyway.

The cutting style is as insistent as CABARET but this isn’t an extension of Fosse’s earlier films as much as a culmination of them but of course it’s really a culmination of his whole life anyway. And even more than those other films ALL THAT JAZZ is unrelenting in its pacing with each new shot adding to the intensity of the neverending delirium. To be on the wire is life, says Joe, the rest is waiting. It’s a justification for what he does, the pain he causes, the sound of coughing heard right from the start which serves as a tell of where this is all going to go. Angelique points out how theatrical the phrasing is while also getting Joe to admit that he didn’t come up with it. Everything about his life needs to be theatrical and even if someone in this day and age doesn’t know Bob Fosse, it’s impossible not to get a sense of a life that never slows down, that never waits. And Joe Gideon clearly never had any interest in waiting.

ALL THAT JAZZ is no doubt supposed to be too much, gloriously so, with an approach that goes beyond what you'd expect from any normal film with truly phenomenal musical numbers that go on and on to the point that you realize they have to be that long to mean as much as they do. Even the stylistic extremes it goes to during unexpected moments add to this feel whether the hospital delirium of the second half or the way all sound drops away during the script reading when Joe mentally checks out. But it’s how Fosse seems to find a way to shoot every moment with such life and vitality in the first place, the spectacular Airotica number for the backers of his new musical NY/LA featuring the truly awesome Sandahl Bergman coming out of seemingly nowhere and the power it gives off even in that tiny rehearsal space makes us dream not only of the fully produced version but offers an unexpected intensity which allows us to fully believe in his talent that's been talked up so much, even if it does come out of his own insecurity and desperation. That’s what the film does, especially in the first hour when it’s the creativity being focused on and it plays like a drug.

Over multiple viewings through the years I would gravitate towards that first hour and its unrelenting exhilaration, then feeling always a little let down when Joe entered the hospital for the second half where it would feel like the momentum halted. But seeing the film in 35mm at a New Beverly screening a few years ago (paired with LENNY) it all made sense—this is one of those nights at that theater which has stayed with me, a packed house (an audience that included Robert Forster, who we lost this year) that gave the night an undeniable energy felt from the unrelenting power of the second half that as it went on became emotionally overwhelming by a certain point, taking this film I’d already seen before multiple times and transforming it via that cinematic experience into something that I didn’t want to let go of, just as Joe Gideon doesn’t want to let go, as if the film ever let you off the hook that energy would dissipate.

Just as Bob Fosse was and in some ways still is, Joe Gideon is a god in this world with the way all his dancers look at him, whether he’s already fucked them or not, always looking for the answers they know his genius will provide, no matter how much he anguishes and the seduction of one of them set to Nilsson’s “Perfect Day” playing catches the perfect mood for the seduction. With Joe looking out from the cutting room of his big budget film at a strip club across the street to remind him that the two aren’t so far apart, the cynical laughs come from the inside sleaze of this world and the money men without a shred of art in their bones, so it’s all how much his life when he’s not around to be an artist comes down to dollars and cents. At times in watching this film I’ve wanted a little more of the world around these people, connected to all those young girls limbering up all over the place and the 1979 New York out there on the streets but that’s never where Joe Gideon is, he’s inside in that showbiz world where it feels like you’re going to live forever, like the 24 year old who finally gets “a house in Beverly Hills” that his ex-wife Audrey is so determined to play. It’s an entire world based on putting off death, no matter what the subject of the musical is (I’d still like to actually see NY/LA, whatever it might be) but it's also about putting off anything resembling an actual commitment that would take you away from it all just as Ann Reinking, more or less playing herself as girlfriend Katie, knows which buttons to push as she desperately tries to get him to give her a reason to stay.

The film is overwhelming but it has to be and it’s the only way for it to make sense, while Joe Gideon stands in the center of it, already aware of what everyone wants from him. Gideon’s latest film that he’s editing is so obviously meant to be LENNY it doesn’t even try to hide that, with the film’s comic played by Cliff Gorman, who won a Tony for playing Lenny Bruce on Broadway only to have Dustin Hoffman take the role in the film version. The glimpse at the cutting process shows him listing off the five stages of death as part of his stand-up routine, patter that gets repeated a few too many times and it’s maybe the one thing in the film that strains my patience over multiple viewings. But it’s not like subtlety is ever really the goal, either in this world or in this film and even the repetition feels intentional, a reminder of what Joe is working on running in his head over and over so when his film gets trashed by a critic for giving free reign to the star, after all the time he’s spent obsessing over every tiny change in the cutting room, it’s a clear sign that the people who aren’t there for the creation don’t know. Joe’s talent, if not his brilliance, is never in question, but it’s clear none of that means anything if everything else is ignored. Maybe in trying to analyze ALL THAT JAZZ all anyone can do is simply not become that snarky critic and just try to understand what the film means for them deep down in a way they’ll someday have to admit to themselves.

It’s the whole death thing that matters in this freeform dive through Joe Gideon’s mind, going perfectly with the forced gallows humor that he can’t keep up forever. That attraction to it he’s always had only adds to the delirium of his interior dialogue with Angelique and the whole unresolved Fellini quality of these scenes, always feeling like there’s something outside of the frame in his subconscious. It’s like the film is a non-stop war between the danger of his lifestyle and how much living in this world gives us the rush of creativity, whether the eagerness of the dancers in the rehearsal scenes or with Katie and Michelle’s private performance of “Everything Old Is New Again” just for Joe, serving as the feeling of what this music does, what all this does, if only it could always be this joyous, keeping the cynicism at bay for a few minutes. Through all this is a game of which past Fosse project is being referenced at any given time, not to mention whatever he’s pulling from his own life and all of this detail means every new shot pierces your soul, shepherded by the editing mastery of Alan Heim (who appears onscreen as the editor of THE STAND-UP, adding one more mirror to things) in connecting the richness of those images photographed by Giuseppe Rotunno together. It all remains completely alive right up until the very last shot, which as anyone who’s seen the film knows is the way it has to be.

However critical (or self-critical) the film is about him, it’s done in a way that is deliberately self-regarding as if Bob Fosse himself in the guise of Joe Gideon saying, I’ll hate me enough for both of us so please love me. Which is still a justification in the midst of all that self-loathing but it still feels more honest than the FOSSE/VERDON approach of simply trying to poke holes in the myth. The unrelenting and extraordinary “Bye Bye Life” sequence which serves as the finale puts the lie to the concept of people criticize a scene like this for simply being indulgent because there is no film otherwise, there’s no way it would come anywhere near this power if it wasn’t. And without it we wouldn’t feel the tragedy of what’s being lost and grieved in the shot of Joe’s daughter embracing him one last time. There's no point in saying 'if only he could have known' because of course he did. It just didn’t do any good. He is who he is. We’re all who we are as we get closer to the end, facing a little piece of truth at the end of each year, like no business I know.

Roy Scheider, Oscar-nominated for this performance, is absolutely remarkable and totally transformed, without an ounce of his more familiar screen persona and light years beyond anything else he ever did, making me wish we’d gotten more of this side of the actor in the following years but how many films like this are ever made? Even if the film has to shoot around how he’s not really a dancer, Scheider’s very physicality in every movement sells it and he perfectly finds the balance of where his brilliance comes from, how he can command a room even while that self-loathing is never far behind. Maybe because in spite of everything we still see ourselves in there. Playing Joe’s ex-wife, the remarkable Leland Palmer (who I guess we mostly know for serving as the namesake for a certain famous fictional character) finds just the right balance between her bitterness and being unable to hide her unending love for him, always finding something unexpected in the tiny moments including the very last thing she does in the film. As his current girlfriend, Ann Reinking builds up to the yearning she feels for him until it can only be contained in giant close-up, desperate for a shred of his love, whatever he really feels. Erzsebet Foldi as Joe’s daughter is almost too believable in what looks to be her only screen appearance, displaying such directness when acting with Scheider and such joy in her musical numbers that provides more raw emotion than anything else in the film while Jessica Lange, somewhere between KING KONG and TOOTSIE, tantalizes as the vision of death outside the main world of the film but always ready to challenge Joe on his legend, knowing what has to come eventually. Every performance, however small, fits perfectly including Deborah Geffner’s dancer looking to be a movie star and willing to be seduced by Joe, the desperation of Anthony Holland’s songwriter to keep the show going, Ben Vereen’s oozing insincerity as “O’Connor Flood” always making introductions on his variety show and the nasty, fragile ego of John Lithgow as rival director Lucas Sergeant.

Like it or not, the end of the year always feels like waiting anyway. You’re done with the holidays, itching to get back to whatever it is you do and just want to see the damn ball drop already. But The End is still something we think about since it can mean a lot of things. Even Bob Fosse made it another eight years after this so there was no way for him to know everything about it, not even after making this film. For a film about The End, ALL THAT JAZZ is still alive like few other films I know. Maybe because in its way the film is saying don’t be afraid of all that, just try to do a few things better while you’re here. Don’t fuck up. That’s the sort of lesson worth taking from what might be one of the best films ever made. So, as the New Year approaches, it’s back to waiting as I get ready to begin again. Sometimes we don’t have a choice.


Coyote said...

Barring kid-friendly special cases Lucas and Spielberg, this was one of the very, very first auteurist films I ever saw. Excellent work, Mr Peel.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thank you very much for saying that, Fred, it means a lot.