Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What Sort of Sun Is Rising?

“Serious sport is war minus the shooting.”

--G. B. Shaw

As a person who believes geographical allegiances should be local rather than national and who has only the dilettante’s interest in competitive sports, I find the fanatical devotion characterizing the World Cup as amusing as the tournament itself. The World Cup produces intense feelings, which manifest themselves in a variety of aspects including facial paint, lucky charms, bizarre costumes, wild inebriation and customized cheering. For most followers of the competition, the World Cup is an opportunity to feel a uniquely communal agony or levity, dependent on the outcome of a match to which the fan has had no part in but who undergoes the winning or losing as if it were one’s own experience.

In Japan, this loyalty involved some ungodly match times due the time difference East Asia enjoys in relation to South Africa. When Japan advanced to the Round of 16 after defeating Denmark, 3 – 1, thousands of fans erupted into the streets to celebrate the victory. It was just after 5:00 AM on a muggy Friday morning and Hachiko Crossing, the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world, had erupted in such pandemonium that the casual non-fan might have been forgiven for believing that Japan had defeated Brazil to win the tournament itself rather than just the first of five rounds, a feat accomplished by fifteen other teams. Were such celebrations a spontaneous outburst born from low expectations? Was it a fit of pride, anomalous good news for a nation suffering through two decades of slow growth that has seen their economic cachet dwindling against China and other emerging East Asian markets? Or was it simply inevitable that thousands of young fans staying up all night drinking beer would want to get down and party when their team won?

To say the least, witnessing such an outburst in Japan is highly unusual for a culture famed for its social reticence. The Japanese may open themselves to others but rarely do they thrust their joys so deliriously upon strangers. The peculiarly Japanese cartoon types— exuberant in blue superhero suits, Yukio Hatoyama gag masks, and bright blue afro wigs (blue being the team color)— worked the fans like deft cheerleaders, gathering crowds and stirring them into a frenzy. Thousands of people streaming from Shibuya’s teeming bars towards the central train station threw off their exhaustion to improvise a jig with strangers, actions they would view with bewilderment in more sober circumstances.

The atmosphere had that rare whiff of danger, as one might expect in an environment compounded by sleeplessness, alcohol, and a sports victory. Yet this danger did not seem so much physical as it did psychological. You could hear it being screamed and sung in wild cacophonous eruptions, “Nippon! Nippon! Nippon!”— a cry as aggressive as any outburst of “USA! USA! USA!” to those not given to national self-mythologizing. They say one man’s meat is another man’s poison; thus the peril, which sometimes requires the competitive energy of a sporting event to make evident, is nationalism.

Like nearly all countries, Japan has its share of right-wingers, nativists, and xenophobes. Though they are ostensibly a minority, their soapboxes and bullhorns, ubiquitous at train stations and embassies, mean they are politically loud. However, they seem to be a dying bunch, grumpy old men with long memories of losing a great war.

I was thus surprised then to witness Japan’s Imperial Flag brandished by a heap of twentysomething soccer fanatics. There it was billowing in the morning wind with all the suggestiveness of history dyed in the bright red rays emanating from a rising sun. You might call it beautiful if you didn’t know better but for those who do, it symbolizes Japan’s catastrophic attempt at empire: colonies in Manchuria and Korea, gory battles in Iwo Jima and Okinawa and of course, the apocalypses of Hiroshima and Nagasaki— the fluttering cloth becoming an object of collective pride for hundreds of young, intoxicated, impressionable young men.

But soccer teams, like governments, do not always succeed in what they set out to do. Promises cannot always be kept. Despite a plucky performance the Japanese team was eliminated from the tournament in a tense, hard-fought finish against Paraguay. Those fans screaming the loudest will have to process the humility in losing with their convictions of national pride. This synthesis can only bring them into the greater fold of humanity, which may be the point of the World Cup after all.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Why the Disenchanted Enchant

“Fame, romance, success—these things were so precious that no one could be entrusted with their possession for more than a moment.”

-- Budd Schulberg via Manley Halliday

If we are to employ the old standby, “There are two kinds of people in the world…” to Americans, we would say there are winners and losers, but it is not a black & white world of course and there are permutations to the categorization— what about losers who come to win and more spectacularly, winners who come to lose? What is it about déclassé failure that makes us feel better about ourselves? Are Mike Tyson, Richard Nixon, Michael Jackson, and Mark McGwire, to name but a few great legends that received their comeuppance, more famous today for their declines than their greatness? Are they not interchangeable? For example, can you talk about Nixon without mentioning Watergate or McGwire without steroids? It’s fascinating that the term for taking pleasure in others’ pain, schadenfreude, is a loanword borrowed from the Germans, since, with all the pleasure we take in our heroes’ downfalls, you would have thought by now we could have come up with our own Americanism for the blissful joys reaped from the public disgrace of others.

One of the greatest novels ever written on the subject is Budd Schulberg’s The Disenchanted (1950), which is a dramatization of Schulberg’s experience teaming with the legendary F. Scott Fitzgerald, who by the time he was hired out to work on an inane studio script was more legendary for his boozing than The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald died before he could finish his comeback novel (from whose notes for The Last Tycoon include the famous, clairvoyant line, “There are no second acts in American lives.”) But Schulberg, most celebrated for his screenwriting credit for On the Waterfront, made the most of this opportunity, developing a story that not only indicts Hollywood, but the Jazz Age itself, the generation that spawned Fitzgerald and the excesses that would create the Great Depression.

Budd Schulberg

In The Disenchanted, art imitates life: it is the winter of 1939, the world is heading towards another war (“how calmly they floated towards the falls”) and Shep Stearns, a lit-grad and idealist leaning towards Marxism, has taken a low-level screenwriting job because he believes movies are “the great new folk art.” Shep is youthful, enthusiastic, and can talk the talk, even though he knows Hollywood-speak is “a world fenced in with exclamation points… a world where hyperbole is the mother tongue.” But he’s accommodating since he desires to marry his sweetheart and avoid a regular job, i.e. inheriting his father’s studio car rental business. So Shep’s written a stinker of a college romance called “Love On Ice,” which he knows bears no relation to realities or art but “is the most convenient of apologetics: the means to an end.”

The studio head, Victor Milgrim, a rags-to-riches nouveaux riches aristocrat emblematic of the early studio founders, sees potential in Shep’s script but wants to polish it so he’s hired Manley Halliday to work on the script. Halliday is a legendary but mostly forgotten Jazz Age novelist. He is also a recovering alcoholic trying to glue himself back together long enough to finish his final literary masterpiece. Milgrim wants them to travel cross-country together to Shep’s alma mater, the fictional Webster College in New Hampshire, to shoot background scenes at the Mardi Gras festival. He believes the adventure will inspire their writing endeavors (though Halliday is sure that Milgrim, an intellectually insecure millionaire, is pushing for an honorary degree and wielding Halliday as bait for the prize). Manley, dependent on his live-in girlfriend, Ann, agrees to go in spite of grave misgivings regarding what might befall him on the journey. His fears are perfectly ground. The great novelist soon falls off the wagon and the consequences are disastrous.

The problem is that screenwriting is all wrong for Halliday, an idiot savant, prolific with the most exquisite prose but incapable of correctly folding his suits. Screenwriting “wasn’t writing; it was diplomacy” and as a younger man, powerful, free and a bit of the snob, “he’d been able to indulge in a lofty contempt for movies.” But Halliday needs quickie cash and lots of it— he’s paying down the debts racked up from the wild living: back taxes, back alimony, back rent, his ex-wife’s analysis, his son’s prep school education. As in the case of Shep, the lure of Hollywood money is more powerful than pride or convictions.

But the young screenwriter turns out to be a tonic to the old artist: Shep has not only read all of Halliday’s books, he quotes liberally from them and whose generation he inexplicably, guiltily, envies and admires. On the flight to New York, Shep shares with Halliday a few bottles of champagne, which is the first burst of the floodgates. The taste of booze is the flavor of memory and once they arrive in New York, Manley operates in a twilight consciousness revolving around a glorious past, a catastrophic decline, and an inebriated, less than elegant present. And rather than writing, Shep is compelled to live up to his name, shepherding Manley safely through numerous crises, mostly of the self-inflicted variety.

Like Fitzgerald suffering his beautiful Zelda, Halliday’s bête noir was a flapper named Jere. Much of the novel’s thick middle is close third person stream of consciousness covering the couple’s witty banter, bad behavior, terrific parties, and wholesale crack-ups not dissimilar to the Fitzgerads’ very own. It’s a life of gay yachting parties on the Riviera and grim sanitariums in Upstate New York. And though we veer from the plot (will Manley get it together and solve the damn cipher of this silly movie?) the digressions provide some of the most exquisite prose in the novel. After falling in love in Paris, Armistice Night, 1918, Jere “made his young manhood a time of bewitchment, when springtime was the only season and the days revolved on a lovers’ spectrum of sunlight, twilight, candlelight and dawn.” As long as Halliday had the Golden Touch they thrived vivaciously: “we weren’t a-Freud of anything.” But neither Manley nor Jere could transition to the austere 1930s, as “the trouble with both of them… was that they thought youth was a career instead of a preparation.”

The Good Old Days:
Two Flappers and a Gentleman

Failure has embittered Halliday, who can’t help but loathe the new generation. Jealous of the youthful love between Shep and his girl, he comforts himself with the knowledge that “the happiest of people were machines running down.” Pressured by Milgrim and Shep to produce something usable pronto, Halliday fortifies his incapacity to create with his condescending view of writers that churn out material by demand: “Writing comes easy… when you’re a natural hack an’ haven’t got any self to express.”

Nevertheless, Halliday sees himself as a professional. When it’s sink or swim, Manley can riff on the plot, adding poetry and dimension to the staid college romance formula. Shep’s impressed, but dubious, for “it was much too good for what they needed. But for what they needed, not good enough.” Unfortunately for them (but felicity for the schadenfreude-happy reader) when they finally reach Webster, Halliday is “too stupefied to tell day from night, gin from vodka, love from hate.” When the great writer humiliates himself at a college mixer to the delight of colleagues and students, Shep is furious: “Manley was drunk and he was a spectacle. But they seemed glad this had happened to him. That is what galled.” It’s that damn devil, envy, working itself into a fit again, expressed in shits and giggles. Halliday knows the source of their spiteful laughter all too well, as from a time when he nearly conquered his own demons through self-reflection:

“Ruthlessly he made a list of all his faults and found them all to be the same fault, an over-supply of vanity, an over-developed concern to hear his name at the end of the cheers. The wish to be publicly admired. To be a Success. Like the others he had sneered at the Babbitts with their ordinary business success, their abysmal bourgeois ignorance that passed for ‘being a smart operator’ and yet inadvertently he had allowed himself to be caught in the great American net.” 

Thus written is the central dilemma of living in a consumerist society: this is the mother of our disenchantment and our insatiable appetite for the new and the next. It may even be defined by that vague catchall word, “cool.” We have an unfortunate tendency to compare our fortunes to those of others, whether it be money, knowledge, gadgets, or style. When we fall short, for we inevitably do because there is always someone better, faster, cooler, loathing is the default emotional reaction. There is only one great truth to salve such insecure feelings, true then, now, and forever and for a moment, Halliday nearly grasped it:

“Men as far apart as the Bible poets, the Elizabethans and the French symbolists all seemed to agree that if there was a single wisdom it was simply To thine own self be true… All he had to do now was decide what was his own self.”

Manley Halliday only seemed to really understand Manley Halliday in the process of writing, in great confessional prose that excoriated his blunders and romanticized the things that were worth making beautiful. In a difficult culture where morals are compromised and pride despised, art is the single greatest outlet afforded the honest man. In Halliday’s own intoxicated language, “No good work of art I mean there’s no good work worthwhile work of art without the artist exposing himself.”

The Great F. Scott, circa 1938

In the end, Halliday has exposed too much in real life and it destroys him. When he is dying in a hospital at the end of the story, Shep, in spite of the promise of his hero’s unfinished manuscript, believes that only in death will his friend reach immortality: “Let him be lowered into his grave so that disciples may begin to worship, so that readers may savor the pleasure of rediscovery. Let us bury the remains. Let the Halliday revival begin.”

Sometimes life follows the inspirations of art. F. Scott Fitzgerald died at the young age of forty-four. Posthumously, he has become a larger-than-life success, The Great Gatsby being quite possibly the most beloved book of our culture, the so-called Great American Novel. Death, it seems, can save a reputation. Schadenfreude has only so much emotional reach before sentimentality overwhelms it and we Americans are more famous for being maudlin anyway.

Unfortunately, forgiveness comes too late but at least it does arrive in time for posterity.

Monday, June 14, 2010

It’s Showtime!

“To be on the wire is life; the rest is waiting.”
Bob Fosse as Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon

In Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, the director’s altar ego, Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), part-time choreographer, part-time director, full-time bon vivant, may improvise his experiences as they happen, but his mornings necessitate a certain consistency in ingredients and routine: plenty of cigarettes, a hot shower, a pair of Alka Seltzers dissolving in a cup of water, a handful of Dexedrines, Visine squirts in both eyes, Vivaldi’s gloriously optimistic Concert in G on the tapedeck and finally, properly fueled, the best “It’s Showtime, folks!” Gideon can muster to his middle-aged, goateed reflection. Unfailingly, it is this ritual that keeps him sane and steady through an unpredictable and eventful daily life.

Being a film about show business, there is of course, a show and the film opens with a mass audition of aspiring stars, young men and women in their Hellenistic primes pirouetting, swaying, and diving to the sounds of George Benson singing a funked-up version of The Drifters’ hard-luck wannabe-famous anthem, “On Broadway.” (“They say I won’t last too long on Broadway/ I’ll catch a Greyhound bus for home, they all say/ But they’re dead wrong I know they are/ Because I can play this here guitar/ and I won’t quit ‘til I’m a star/ on Broadway”). Within five minutes of watching Gideon at work, we learn what kind of man he is— a perfectionist, a chainsmoker, a flirt, that he has a weakness for dancers’ good legs, and that he is his own man, casting his choices for the production and disregarding the advice of his financial backers. His will is formidable, with the charisma to back it up.

Not many make Joe Gideon's cut

All That Jazz
is the story of how this busy choreographer juggles his career obligations with his personal life against the pull of a failing physical health. An unconventional artist, Gideon struggles to put together a dance routine for a showtune inspired by commercial flying and his vision finally results in a very bawdy sketch with the makings of a mile-high orgy, leaving the big brass producers flabbergasted. (“I think we just lost the family audience,” one groans to another.) The dance numbers are great as you’d expect from an old master like Fosse, but what is most intriguing is the meta-mixing of reality and cinema Fosse indulges in so that frontiers between fiction and autobiography are no longer discernable and the audience becomes confused by the razzle-dazzle confessionary storytelling— is Fosse the ventriloquist, Gideon the dummy, and we the audience, the priest? Expected if not to forgive, then to understand?

"Now Sinatra will never record it."

Comparisons to Fellini’s 8 ½ abound since it too was made by a philandering director with autobiographical pretensions (Fosse had even used one of Fellini’s cinematographers, Giusepe Rotunno). Both Fellini and Fosse developed their sensibilities in yesteryear entertainment mediums; Fellini fascinated by clowns and the circus, Fosse grinding it out in vaudeville. One can credit Fellini with inspiration but then a line should be drawn: Fellini has no copyright on a great artist’s storied decline. All human lives, especially those weaned on show business, have their own tragic follies and brilliant failures and Fosse deserves credit for making a brave film.

There are both professional and personal connections between Joe Gideon and his creator. Like Fosse, whose last film was a dramatization of the comic Lenny Bruce, Gideon works late hours in the editing room, cutting a film about a philosophical funny man (whose routine about the five stages of death: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance, haunts Gideon in his physical and mental dissipation). Fosse’s real-life live-in girlfriend (Anne Reinking) plays Gideon’s best girl, Katy (for there are others…many others). When Gideon and Katy have a serious talk about love and fidelity, Gideon defending his capacity to give, Katy agrees but elaborates, “I just wish you weren’t so generous with your cock.” The effect on Gideon is not one of shame for his running around, but appreciation for the turn-of-phrase: “That’s good! Maybe I can use that sometime.”

Joe employs a delightful sense of humor when dealing with the accusations of the women closest to him, including his ex-wife, Audrey. In the same argument with Katy, in a clever twist of logic, Gideon assures her she is the most important person in his life because, “I go out with any girl in town… I stay in with you!” In another scene, when Audrey challenges him to name “the blonde with the television show from Philadelphia,” a worked-up Gideon blusters, “I remember her name because she meant something to me. The blonde with the television show… her name was ‘Sweetheart!’”

The difference between Joe and his women are that they are keeping score and he is not. He’s not even playing the game to win, but for the fun. Gideon doesn’t know any different and never will and the women tolerate his adulteries because they perhaps intuitively understand his present-moment living. As the cigarettes, the pharmaceuticals, and the situational amorous whims attest, he has a go-go appetite, insatiable for pleasure and passion even after he is admitted to the hospital, disobeying doctors' orders.

“Never bullshit a bullshitter,” Gideon jests. On the usefulness of saying ‘I love you,’ he declares in self-deprecatory fashion, “Sometimes I don’t know when the bullshit ends and the truth begins.” He may sneak around but when the moment comes to telling the truth, Gideon never wavers as when he needs to pep talk Victoria, a long-legged beauty with faltering self-confidence: “I can’t make you a great dancer. I don’t know if I can make you a good dancer but if you keep trying and don’t quit I know I can make you a better dancer.”

You Don't Need an Appointment in Samarra to Meet Her

Gideon is absolutely straight with Angelique (Jessica Lange), the Angel of Death, whom he carries a running conversation with in some fantastic dream-like state (more reminiscent here of Bergman than Fellini). She is alluring, delicate, and gentle, but her kiss, as enticing as it may be, has symbolic repercussions. The Angel of Death is calling because finally the tobacco, the speed, the booze and the pursuit of carnal knowledge were withdrawals to be paid back with interest. When his time comes his mental space becomes a great theatrical stage where Joe Gideon is introduced by an emcee (Ben Vereen) for his final performance in a hip language of extended epitaph so rich in its damning, it deserves to be quoted in full here and now:

“Folks, what can I tell you about my next guest? This cat allowed himself to be adored but not loved and his success in show business was met by his failure in his personal relationship bag. Now that’s where he really bombed. And he came to believe that work, show business, love, his whole life, even himself and all that jazz was bullshit. He became a numero uno gameplayer to the point where he didn’t know where the games ended and the reality began. Like for this cat, the only reality is death, man.”

"Bye-bye Life."

Far and away, this is the greatest-ever musical meditation on mortality. Fosse, who came up with the idea for the story after suffering a heart attack himself, has created a film touching on what nearly every person who ever lived has ruminated: the meaning of his or her death, and thus inevitably an examination of the meaning of one’s life. Gideon goes out with a showstopping bang, ad-libbing the Everly Brothers’ hit “Bye-bye Love” to “Bye-bye Life” and “I think I’m gonna cry,” to “I think I’m gonna die.” Everyone who ever mattered is in attendance: producers, rivals, dancers, doctors, the wife, the women, his daughter, Michelle. It is the greatest sayonara party ever imagined.

So ends Joe Gideon and his mornings in front of the mirror. His signature mantra, “It’s Showtime!” is not about a real show per se, since as we the audience know him, his life revolves around auditions, rehearsals, story conferences, trysts and dinners with his daughter. Rather, the ecstasy of Showtime represents his existence in its entirety, from beginning to end a masterpiece lived rather than created. Any dramatization, no matter how well choreographed or acted, will only be an echo of the real thing.

To quote a line from the director’s more famous film, “Life is a cabaret, old chum!”

For Bob Fosse as Joe Gideon, it certainly was.