Monday, December 1, 2014

All That Jazz

Every morning, he reminds the mirror that "it's showtime." It used to be approached with real zest and anticipation. Hands outstretched and smile wide.  Lately, the face is weary. Dexedrine and Alka Seltzer make standing up even possible. The eyes are bloodshot and require frequent hits of Visine. Vivaldi pieces provide his soundtrack. Another cigarette is needed. The sheets reveal another partner spent the night.

1979's ALL THAT JAZZ is one of the most brazenly self-indulgent, pretentious ego trips you're likely to see. To watch director Bob Fosse's spectacularly downbeat, ersatz episode of This is Your Life is a frequently painful two hours. The celebrated theater and film director and choreographer suffered a heart attack in 1975 after years of punishing schedules and destructive behavior.  All fodder which Fosse has worked into this screenplay, his very own 8 1/2, Fellini's ode to self from the early '60s.

The Fosse doppleganger in ALL THAT JAZZ is called Joe Gideon, played by non-music and dance guy Roy Scheider. He was not the first actor considered, but he owns the part, really dives into the muck and hangs on to the very bitter end.  By the glitzy finale, as his body lies dying on a hospital bed and he imagines the final number, a splashy death-take on the Everly Brothers tune, "Bye Bye Love", he apologizes to his wife, daughter, and every one else he has abused and/or neglected in some fashion. It's a long, excruciating send off, fitting for a movie that can be described likewise.

Gideon is mounting a new stage production. Possibly his most ambitious. The dance routines are complex and the material embraces erotica. There are a plethora of bad jokes.  He loathes it.  His contempt is obvious as he sits at a roundtable read through, one of several lacerating moments in ALL THAT JAZZ. Gideon is also editing his latest movie, a bio of a tormented comic, not unlike Fosse's 1974 film LENNY. The cutting is torturous. Studio people are worried. Back at the theater, more worries. Gideon's been here before, perhaps would have it no other way. More cigarettes.

And sex. Gideon has a variety of overnight guests, often his own dancers. They mistake his carnal interest for love.  He can't even love himself.  So why is he broken when one of them admits she's sharing another's bed? Is there a glimmer of a human being in there? He does encourage one of his charges after she repeatedly blows a routine: "I can't make you a great dancer, but I can make you a better dancer."  Maybe he just wants it all. Too bad he didn't "die young and leave a good looking corpse".

Periodically during ALL THAT JAZZ, Gideon chats with an attractive woman (Jessica Lange) who we guess is some sort of angel of death.  Maybe the Grim Reaper.  She flirts with and teases him while he opens up like a psychiatric patient on some celestial couch.  He asks her the same questions he throws up to God:

How can you make something so perfect as a rose, yet I can't?!

Why am I not talented enough? Funny enough? Deep enough?

Perfectionist, tortured artist inquiries.  Of course, he's his own worst critic. Is he trying to achieve perfection in his personal life? He rather seems swept along by his own vices, helpless to mold his family life and professional relationships into a letter perfect ballet. Unlike some monsters, he's all too aware of himself, his failures.  He does in fact give a shit, but seems paralyzed to change.

It's obvious Fosse put everything he had into ALL THAT JAZZ, from its eye-filling opening - herds of dancers during tryouts set to "On Broadway", to that final duet with Ben Vereen, Fosse the artist dissects Fosse the artist and the tortured mere moral within.  His film is relentless, especially in the later passages with its repeated intercuts between Gideon's heart surgery and moments of lavish choreography.

Once in a while, the film takes a breather, as when Gideon's daughter does a lovely, almost impromptu bit of choreography to "Everything Old is New Again" with his girlfriend at home. Or when we meet a rival theater director played by John Lithgow.  All the while, choking self analysis comes off by turns as smug, self-deprecating, astounding egotistical, crushingly depressing, but maybe even hopeful.  I don't know if the movie can be called a cautionary tale, because likeminded genius/talents wouldn't have their lives any other way.  Maybe they're just incapable.

And kudos again to Criterion for such an astounding remaster!
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