IN ALL THAT JAZZ, the camera is an ethereal, puckish tap-dancer, never holding an image for more than a few seconds, popping around incessantly in search of new perspectives. Director Bob Fosse seems to want every possible angle on a scene; even when he holds a shot, a huge mirror in the background offers a second view. The visual style of the movie is nothing less than epic, but it's at war throughout with the relentlessly limited perspective of the heavy-handed script, with the characters who remain flat from any angle.
The protagonist, Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is Bob Fosse--no point in rehashing the one-to-one correspondences. He is a talented director/choreographer staging a Broadway musical starring his former wife, editing a movie about a stand-up comic, and indulging his active libido in assorted hopeful chorines. He drives everyone hard, but himself the hardest ("To be on the wire is life; the rest is nothing"), waking up with Dexedrine and cigarettes--a tortured, uncompromising bastard. He is also a song-and-dance man, who doesn't know "where the bullshit ends and the truth begins." "I got insight into you, Gideon," says the actor playing the stand-up comic, who exists in the movie to say the following lines: "There's a deep-rooted fear of being conventional... the dreadful fear that you're ordinary--not special." All That Jazz is about Joe Gideon's confrontation with death--a massive coronary as a result of his lifestyle--and about his realization that his love and life and all that jazz is bullshit.
SAMUEL JOHNSON WROTE that "a judicious and faithful narrative" of any man's life could prove useful and instructive; certainly the life of a genius like Bob Fosse ought to be more interesting than most. Would that Dr. Johnson had written All That Jazz! It was written by Robert Alan Aurthur and Fosse himself and it is very bad. There are five levels in the movie, at least three of them dull. The first is Physical. This is the Broadway and Personal milieu, littered with caricatures of producers, dancers and composers. ("But they're caricatures in real life!" Fosse would probably cry. But so are a lot of people, and it's the artist's responsibility to uncover the quivering jelly of humanity beneath.) Gideon's sexual relationships are adolescent and trivial; his steadiest girlfriend (Ann Reinking) is a good dancer and very trite. "I just want to love you," she tells Gideon, a line which has probably been uttered millions of times in millions of bedrooms and you've probably uttered it yourself; but when that's all there is to a principal character in a movie it's dull.
The next level is Metaphysical. Gideon holds conversations with a mysterious and beautiful Lady in White in a ghostly nightclub, surrounded by vaudevillian props and masks out of his past. They provide running commentary on the Physical level and play illuminating word association games. This is lazy writing, made even more irritating by its artsiness. If Fosse and Aurthur knew how to integrate psychological observations into the lines themselves (which is what drama is all about), they wouldn't need to have characters look into the screen and say, "You're this, Joe; you're that, Joe." They would show it. Part of this failure is surely Fosse's lack of faith in his audience's ability to perceive anything that doesn't repeatedly whack it over the head. (Such is the sad fate of many who work in musical comedy.) So every half-baked idea in the movie is reinforced ten times, from the futility of sex to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of dying (which appear in the stand-up comic's monologue and are illustrated in Gideon's hospital stay).
The third level is Fantasy, expressed in over-blown production numbers. At one point in the movie, Gideon watches from his hospital bed as a pretentious television critic tears apart The Stand-up, rating it half-a-balloon out of a possible four. Among her criticisms: "Razzle-dazzle obliterates story." Well, in All That Jazz, Fosse has integrated the razzle-dazzle into the movie's themes with solemn thoroughness. It's a clever idea to present a choreographer's nightmares as gaudy, Dantesque versions of Busby Berkeley, but the movie has four of these sequences and they're not short. (They account for approximately 30 minutes.) Fosse has never before failed to find weird beauty in sleaze, but these numbers are gaudy and ugly beyond the call of duty, cinematically uninteresting despite the cutting and zooming, and they're horribly didactic. (The funniest thing in them is Gideon's daughter singing, "You better stop screwing around, Daddy!")
The fourth and most successful level is the Artistic, or "Can That Man Sublimate!" Anyone looking for fluid dance sequences, uninterrupted by camera tricks, had better go back and see The Turning Point. This is Cinema as much as Dance; All That Jazz is a dancing movie in that it is a movie that dances. The best sequence is "Come Fly With Me," the greatest group grope in the history of movies, climaxing in smoky half-light. Fosse can give you bodies one segment at a time, cutting from an undulating thigh to a face in the audience to a medium shot of half-naked dancers reaching to two glistening torsoes intertwined--rhythmically tantalizing, exhaustingly erotic, you hang on every suspended limb. What a shame the number ends on a preachy note, something about taking you everywhere and getting you nowhere: the most sensual of show-biz choreographers dumping on his most sensual number for the sake of a few themes.
THE LAST LEVEL is Transcendental, and involves our perception of the Director himself. The furious cutting, multiple perspectives and numerous alienation devices cannot help shifting attention to the man behind the camera and his relationship to the film audience. (If the cutting is any indication, Fosse is back on Dexedrine.) One wonders whether Bob Fosse, like Joe Gideon, really knows where the bullshit ends and the truth begins. This kind of work is the last resort of the bullshit artist trying to express the truth, by giving you the bullshit and simultaneously telling you it's bullshit--which leaves us, of course, back where we started.
The truths and half-truths that Fosse tears out of his breast do not necessarily constitute art. Fosse, like Woody Allen, puts his audience in the psychoanalyst's chair, shoveling random associations and experiences onto the lap of the innocent viewer. If I wanted to play doctor instead of critic, I could probably speculate about Fosse's distortion, fantasy and death-wishing. But I won't. It's the responsibility of the artist to supply his audience with some sort of coherent overview--even if it's a warped overview, even if he is creating in a desperate attempt to stave off despair or insanity. Silly thought: When Bob Fosse filmed Joe Gideon filming himself in a hospital bed, did he glance uneasily over his own shoulder?
Roy Scheider is unpretentious and quite likable and there are two or three superb scenes, but in the end one must return to that blind and foolhardy script. Didn't anybody read it before they let Fosse do it? Or is it just that the people who did read it--businessmen, producers, wide-eyed girlfriends, musical comedy writers--had no taste? ("Bob, baby: That's deep.") Bob Fosse needs critics, not to stomp on the man, but to egg on the artist.