The Death of Hope: Sweet Charity and All That Jazz

I picked up a copy of Sweet Charity from the library. It was Bob Fosse’s first film, and his most straight forward. The choreography is probably the best I’ve ever seen. And the songs are great, with lyrics by Dorothy “The Way You Look Tonight” Fields. And the whole “A Doll’s House” plot. But most of all, what I like is that Charity sings the end of “If My Friends Could See Me Now” while hiding in Vittorio’s closet. Up to that point, it had been triumphant and then it is—quite suddenly—sad and wise.

All of Fosse’s movies are about destruction—usually of hope or something like it. Since I was on a Fosse roll, I watched All That Jazz via Instant Watch on Netflix. Sweet Charity is about the destruction of Charity’s hope and illusions. All That Jazz is similar. It is given that Joe Gideon is self-destructive; the movie is about his acceptance of the consequences of his life up to that point. It is about the destruction of his hope for a do-over. Right before he dies, he tells the orderlies, “This is just a rough cut you know; I don’t have the titles in yet; and the underscoring’s not in. It’s not really finished; I need more time.” It is the most important and poignant line in the movie, but the first-half is said in a long-shot, facing away from the camera; the second-half is said off camera. At that moment, he has but a sliver of hope.

Bob Fosse only directed five movies—additionally Cabaret, Lenny, and Star 80. Yet, it is remarkable that they are all at least very good. It is also remarkable that even though he was really a theater director-choreographer, his films are easily as cinematic as any film director in the world. It annoys me when he is compared to Federico Fellini—it seems whenever an American film ombudsman has to deal with a film that isn’t a traditional narrative, they start talking about Fellini. In particular, All That Jazz has often been compared to . I think this is due to the autobiographical nature of each of these films more than anything. Also, whereas All That Jazz is Fosse’s best work—probably one of the ten best films I’ve seen, is not—although I think it is a rather good film. (Just a note: I don’t see how All That Jazz was influenced by even indirectly.)

Although Fosse lasted nine years after Joe Gideon, it does seem that Fosse’s hope died with him. He certainly worked less after All That Jazz—maybe for health reasons, I don’t know. But Star 80, the only film he made during those nine years, is certainly his darkest. So his film arc took him from the bittersweet in Sweet Charity and Cabaret to the self-destructive and redemptionless world in Lenny and All That Jazz to the utter hopelessness in Star 80. Who knows where he would have gone from there, but I seriously doubt it would have been a remake of Oklahoma!

Two weekends ago, I attended Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. There were many young people at the event. In fact, I sat right in back of a young couple who were very much in love. It is always nice to see youthful optimism. It prompted me to pull out my notebook, but not to write about them. I wrote only a single line—and it was about the arc of my life: “The death of hope.”

Update

In 1958, eleven years before he made Sweet Charity, Fosse choreographed the film Damn Yankees. It is remarkable just how generic the choreography is. Frankly, it looks a lot like Onna White’s choreography for The Music Man. I don’t say this to slam Fosse or White. It is just remarkable that the very next time Fosse is choreographing on film (in Sweet Charity), he had fully developed his craft.

0 replies on “The Death of Hope: Sweet Charity and All That Jazz”

  1. karl paniczny says:

    I agree completely with your take on Bob Fosse.
    I have taken some film classes and worked in the field. For years I have tried to convince others: teachers, instructors and fellow ‘cinephiles’ that Bob Fosse is possibly one of America’s greatest filmmakers.
    In my opinion, he would be great if, for nothing else, than that he was one of the few directors who achieved making (almost perfect and…) pure ‘cinematic’ gems. In contrast to MANY (lauded and highly touted) filmmakers who create:’filmed theater’.
    You pointed out correctly, the rather ‘ironic’ fact that Fosse came to cinema via the theater (musicals no less!) which has often proven to be the undoing of many a great film and filmmaker. However, Fosse never seems to have fallen into this trap-admittedly, the one film I haven’t seen is Sweet Charity.
    But you’re right. Fosse knew his craft all too well, he was (IMHO) one of the ‘masters’ of filmmaking, and I can only imagine what he would have gone on to make had his life not ended so soon.
    Perhaps it was BECAUSE of his experience in theater and not a lack of experience in theater that allowed him to arrive at filmmaking from a most pure and honest of place?
    I find his films to have NO trace of the ‘theater’ (other than obvious depictions or filmed routines-as per: All That Jazz), his films seem to encapsulate ONLY a sense of pure cinema. He seems to have completely and totally understood how films work, by sheer intuition and talent? As you said, he only made 5 films in his short life and they were ALL, at least, very good. How many filmmakers with a dozen films or more can that be said of?
    I also take issue with the oft-sited comparison of All That Jazz with 8 1/2 or Fellini in general (I too have never been a GREAT fan of Fellini, though certain works of his are: interesting, compelling and worthy of viewing and study) instead I find Fosse’s work almost solely born of himself. He is a perfect candidate for ‘auteur theory’, as there is very little trace of other ‘authors’ in his work. They look as though created and made by one ‘hand’. In contrast, many directors today (Quentin Tarantino as an obvious example & considered a ‘cinematic genius’) I tend to, ironically, see much reference to and signs of the ‘theater’ in. However, in Fosse I get the sense he is creating his very own, very personal world of pure cinema, and isn’t that, after all, what all filmmakers should be striving towards?
    I find it both frustrating and irritating that Fosse is under appreciated and nearly forgotten as a ‘filmmaker’. I’ve found that he usually is relegated to a footnote in film history: ‘choreographer’ turned ‘director’.
    However, I always saw more to his work than that. Instead I see a filmmaker working in and towards an almost wholly pure and sincere form of art: ‘pure cinema’ and I don’t think this is discussed enough. I’ve found that filmmakers that work towards ‘pure cinema’, receive little recognition in general.
    When I say ‘pure cinema’ I mean (in case it isn’t clear) a piece of film which could ONLY have been made for THAT particular medium, like: ‘pure theater’ or ‘pure writing’.
    Cinema, like most art forms, has a certain form to its ‘proper’ creation that’s dependent upon ‘rules’ and ‘procedures’ (they can, of course, be broken and discarded as the creator wishes, but I feel they’re not clearly defined or taught in the first place) that a filmmaker should strive towards and attempt to attain. For instance: using images to move the story forward, keeping the images as uncomplicated as possible, so the film doesn’t become ‘loaded’ with visual ‘flourishes’ and ‘clever artistry’ that, all too often, seem to distract and cover weaknesses within the film.
    To my mind Fosse is one of the masters of cinematic story telling. He uses the visual imagery to tell his stories first and foremost. Never relying on words and dialogue to push his story and characters forward.
    Perhaps, his genius at choreography is what helped him develop the way he created his work? He seemed exceptionally adept at using the body and parts of the body. Isolating the essential body parts to move (as he chose) gracefully on film, in order to tell his unique tales. In direct contrast to, the near incessant chattering and dialogue’ that seems to consume not only the amateur, but many professionals as well!
    I commend you for concentrating on Fosse, and conveying his brilliance at film making. It’s not often (if ever) I hear this case being made; aside from myself of course. So, thanks for recognizing the true talent and genius of this oft neglected film maker.

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