Monday, January 5, 2015

Cabaret

Behind the camera, Bob Fosse seemed hell-bent on dropping the glittery façade common to stage musicals, the kind for which he was renowned. To strip away the grand mask of theatrical unrealism. While his film debut, SWEET CHARITY, was a splashy bit of sunshine, every subsequent film was cloaked in an often suffocating, relentless darkness. Films that I feel were all brilliant but at times hard to watch, beginning with 1972's CABARET.

Pre-WW2 Berlin. Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) is an American who flaunts a devil-may-care lifestyle in between her gigs as a dancer at the Kit Kat Klub. When she chances upon a polished Brit called Brian (Michael York, appropriately fey), a new arrival to the same boarding house in which she sleeps, her bohemian existence takes a backseat to perhaps unfamiliar emotions. Or maybe ones reawakened.

It doesn't start that way. She initially thinks the boy is queer, but soon friendship goes further, inevitably tested by other lovers (some bisexual), increasingly political instability, and the rise of Adolph Hitler. Romance burns and fades. There is a tragic decision regarding Sally's pregnancy. There will be more and more Nazis at the Klub.

CABARET is a deliberately paced film, rarely glacial, aside from one draggy scene in which Sally and Brian join friends around a table one afternoon. Apparently many significant changes were made for this film adaptation of the 1966 Broadway musical, which was based on the novel The Berlin Stories and the play I Am a Camera.  Of what I've read, Jay Presson Allen's screenplay suits Fosse's appropriation of this material, his worldview. While some may come away with the message that showbiz is a jealous mistress that rarely co-exists with any other kind of life (certainly a theme in Fosse's films), having the tightening vise of the Third Reich adds an interesting dimension.

Fosse's direction is meticulous but never seems flashy or overly orchestrated. Even in surrealistic moments, as when adults and children chillingly sing Nazi songs at a picnic, it feels organic.  The restraint is what makes CABARET work as a film, a dramatic piece rather than merely some adapted musical. At the end, we have a long pan over a reflection seen in a piece of gold artwork on a wall; it is one of the most effective final images I've seen on film.  Fosse established himself as a cinematic artist with this film, and what a tragedy we would only get three more.

Minnelli would later star in Scorsese's NEW YORK, NEW YORK, playing a very different sort of character in a different time and place, but many elements of the story were essentially the same.  So goes the showbiz life?

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