Finally, after months of delay, it’s time to complete the second half of the Cannes Film Festival Series I began after last year’s festival. I have no proposed schedule, but let’s just say, if I’m on my best behavior, I hope to be done by this year’s festival in May.
Both frigid and wicked-hot, All That Jazz envisions the movie musical as both erection and erectile dysfunction. A violent apocalypse of kinetic corporeal flesh, Bob Fosse’s self-stoking, self-hating deal with the devil is one of the most flagellatingly hedonistic motion pictures to arrive out of the back-end of one of the most self-indulgent eras in motion picture history. If the era was going to burn though, it was going to commit arson. It wouldn’t go down without raising a ruckus, kicking and screaming, and refusing to be demarcated by anyone boxed-off meaning. All That Jazz is at once a castigation of pop culture, a celebration of kaleidoscopic fantasy, and a premonition of the impending nuclear fallout of the American New Wave, hoist on the petard of its own ego. Foregrounding the holocaust of backstage life as a cocaine-addled delirium, All That Jazz casts itself as both distended embodiment of an era’s end and an effigy erected in atonement for the toxic death-drive of an era in American filmmaking.
At the center of it all is Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), a lotus-eating mask of Fosse himself, a sybaritic maestro of carnival-barking self-destruction who encapsulates the temperamental dialect of the artist and the art as mutually-constitutive enemies not only lacerating one another in the throat but threatening to cut each other off at the head. Expending his days grappling to rig a Broadway play for success and his nights exerting even more effort to jerry-rig his own demise, Scheider’s flustered, nearly demonic Gideon embodies Fosse’s bipolarity with frightening clarity. With theater enshrined as the acme of expressionistic performance and burlesque attraction, Fosse executes a live-wire trapeze act of cinema thirsting, desperately, to smack Gideon with the kiss of life. Along with co-writer Robert Alan Arthur, he also intimates the perilous fall awaiting all who perish on the path to success, and more tremulously, the suggestion that the wire the artist walks on is itself a Stygian stream with Gideon, or Fosse, as our Charon.
The peppy warps into full-on mania and the high-spirited liquifies into a heart attack in Fosse’s film, a weekend bender embroidered in Giuseppe Rottuno’s murderously sweaty cinematography of pop-art pastels popping into the foreground only because they fail to disguise the murky, dingy, disaffeced New York swamp of reality left behind them. Rottuno spent enough time as a fellow traveler to the clutch of great mid-century Italian directors to know how to frame excess undercut by personal intimacy and despondency. But his time with Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti – two debonair devils of self-reflexive, ornamented cinematic exuberance as both material intoxicant and psychological riddle – prove most foreboding here. The scorching, nearly astringent Angel-White meets Vantablack number – a perverted take on La Dolce Vita as an unconscious Gideon directs his own death in hopes of experiencing the impulse he never could in life – is a hypercontrasted firebrand of luxuriant cinema, the final wish of a man devoid of luxuriance elsewhere.
All That Jazz plays like an amphetamined, nitrous-fueled Visconti with a vision of expressionist imagery as sexual, nocturnal emission and unconscious, fatalistic dream. Fosse’s own choreography – especially in the avant-garde Art-rotica showpiece where the promiscuous serves as portal to the underworld – is both gallantly curvaceous and deceptively diagonalized. Dancers sequester one another off, slicing each other into isosceles horror-shows of abstracted geometric forms that only resemble human flesh if we squint, or are especially inebriated to begin with. With harsh angles sabotaging the roundness of the piece, All That Jazz could be a one-note anti-musical. But the film’s inveterate endorsement of the ambidextrous potency of the musical form to critique and reaffirm itself in simultaneity is nearly unmatched in theater or film. The odd melding of acrid, acute angles and disco-ball-smooth glimmer (as much a result of a murderer’s row of production designers and costume designer Albert Wolsky) is, rather than a self-immolating attack-dog, instead a breathing community of contrast and divergence.
Cinematography and production design aside, All That Jazz truly comes alive as a work of disruptive, redistributive editing. With Alan Heim’s savage, asynchronous cutting, the film achieves a level of vulgar, invasively tympanic dislocation, at once Machiavellian and insouciant, that at once preys on human clay by cutting on motion and predates our sense of the temporal realm, devouring not only our feeling of contiguous space but regimented time. The temporal realm is at once supersonic and in standstill. The senses are alive and heightened with every second of All That Jazz only because they’re challenged, exhausted, strangled, and threatened with embolism, embroidered as they are with pinprick pain and disorientation. The late ’70s was the end of a nearly two decade period of anemically catered movie musicals that satiate the pulse and derive sanguine complacency only by coagulating their fluids in filmically lame, ossified cholesterol. In All That Jazz, the sanguine flows free; it’s hair-brained, blood-raising, sweaty hysteria that concludes in a debaucherous flurry of torrid, high-blood-pressure, fever-dream imagery until the arteries burst.
As a sensory expression of a man unable to perceive his senses, All That Jazz wisely shuns the rigidly austere psychological tomfoolery of having its cake and eating it too; Gideon’s disaffected demeanor, his sensorial numbness to the physical realm, is not the cause of his troubles, but a failed respite from the icicles of frigid alienation. Gideon’s inner-life remains a mystery surrounded by a shield of plastic, but All That Jazz’s mission statement is not to discover Gideon’s truth. Instead, it’s to express, in white-hot, vivid strokes of sordid, animated flirting-with-disaster cinema, his attempts to shake down the world and shake up himself, to use theater as a way of life. Or barring his ability to connect with life, to turn to theater as an angel of death.
The result is a frantic, bewildering quasi-character study, neither hagiography nor demonization but out-of-body experience. Although the nominal tempo is the musical, Fosse relies on his bread-and-butter medium as a set of guidelines to bend and nearly fracture with the tensile strength of inimitable cinematic whiplash. Libidinous and sexually ferocious imagery is counterposed with a palpable, death-marked melancholy, especially when the film concludes with a show-stopping number as Gideon affords himself in death the show business finale he never allowed himself in life. Basically, it’s a discordant anti-harmony of cinematic conflagration that confidently essays the theater neither as savior or devil but as tormented state-of-mind. Released near the beginning of a new spurt of movie musicals in the late ’70s and early ’80s, mostly warm shower comfort food for the safe people of the world, All That Jazz is contrapuntally caustic acid rain.
I should point out: All That Jazz is an honest musical, one head-over-heels with passion for the notion of the genre as a natural communion of sound and visual, song and dance, as well as a blending of multiple bodies into a greater collective whole. But All That Jazz evokes, like so many other backstage musicals if they simply were to let their guard down (and ingest vastly more acid), the often-violent behind-closed-doors construction of this unholy communion of body and sound which often seems so natural on the screen, forever questioning the “just a touch of whimsy” vibe which many musicals strive for. Fosse’s film deconstructs the facade of ease and normality emanated by certain musicals and extends this quagmire to the point of abject chaos. And all this while heating the motion of cinema toward the point of no return, visualizing kinetic dance as a drift toward apocalypse and a carousel of perpetual manic-depressive chaos. It attempts, and pulls off, something only a mad cinematic scientist would dare: to enmire cinema in its own scrambled cadences, the editing constantly hopping and skipping and jittering, suggesting a film-length dance routine where the performers, ie the shots themselves, are constantly on the verge of tripping over each other and toppling to the ground.