Tuesday, March 20, 2012
As someone in possession of a post-Elvis rock sensibility, I often find it hard to understand the case for musicals—or that's the impression I generally have of myself. But looking at my list I see it's scattered with movies that fit the bill all too well. Cabaret is something of an anti-musical, similar to other projects of the time, anti-westerns, anti-romances, etc. (This all in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde, which changed so many things.) Director/choreographer Bob Fosse deliberately adapts a property that places the action in Berlin in one of the darkest years of German history, 1931, and makes the rise of Nazism a central feature of the story. Ironically, Hollywood musicals of that very same era—1933's Footlight Parade, for example, a Busby Berkeley picture—were doing pretty much the same thing, acknowledging the dreary tenor of the times and the hope for escape from it that song and dance and illicit activity provided.
But Cabaret is a '70s picture, not a '30s picture, and its sense of "divine decadence" comes more figuratively out of David Bowie and Los Angeles than Alfred Doblin and Berlin. It's no less thrilling for that. Fosse's dance numbers are as sharp as they can be, it's Liza Minnelli's great moment and best performance ever, Joel Grey is the secret ingredient all through, and the story comes with a surprising number of nicely handled complexities.
The video at the link is the first five minutes of the movie, which lets you see how it enters into itself, setting the frame, casually introducing main characters and their circumstances, and stressing the unique function that the cabaret itself will play. I call your attention to what happens at 4:40, when Fosse cuts to a wide shot and the tiny confines of the overcrowded stage are revealed. At that moment the song comes into a brilliant focus, having built up a nice head of steam, and suddenly it all blows up and ends on something explosive and energizing, alluring and exhilarating. It's a harbinger of what's ahead for the duration.
Phil #43: Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick 1975) (scroll down)
Steven #43: Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)
Yeah, more me not understanding our audience—lots of love for this one out there actually, it turned out, where somehow I was just expecting derision or at best skepticism. Now that I think of it who, of a certain age, does not love it to pieces just like me? Steven would have it in his 30s. I had already written about it here (and cannibalized as necessary). Commenters claimed for it a high position in their variously speculative top 5s, and the more I think about it the more I am inclined to put it higher myself. On the other hand, Phil proved resistant to it, I think on the basis plain and simple of its being a musical, an objection that would almost inevitably surface again, of course.
On the other hand, on another day, it's equally possible that either one of Phil's or Steven's picks in this position could go very high on a list of mine too. I will get into this more down the line, but for some reason I had a very hard time comparing documentaries against narrative films for this exercise, and ended up giving up and leaving them out. Phil and Steven did not have my problem, and included many documentaries. Conversely, I believe this is the only place we see Kubrick.