20 March 2009

Movielog, Cabaret

Cabaret, 1972
Written by Jay Allen
Based on the book of the musical play "Cabaret" by Joe Masteroff
Based on the play "I am a Camera" by John Van Druten
Based on the stories of Christopher Isherwood
Directed by Bob Fosse
124 minutes

(Would you look at that list of writing credits? Looking at the history of this property is like looking at the history of Hitchhiker's Guide -- it's been adapted and re-adapted so many times that no single version is really "definitive" and all seems really plastic. Just an aside.)

I can't claim to be a huge fan of musicals. Part of it is that I'm just not usually a fan of music in general. Oh, sure, everybody likes to listen to music, but the kinds of music I like are not the kinds of music that tend to make it into movie musicals. Show me a version of Across the Universe based on Nirvana songs and maybe we'll talk. (Oh, and of course I love South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut and other musical parodies -- the biting satire helps a lot there.) But I try to at least understand all genres, and I know that Cabaret stands high up on the scale of the great movie musicals. Plus it has Nazis, so you know it has to be good, right?

And actually, it is. Liza Minnelli is the headlining star of Cabaret, and this marks her first film appearance after a highly profitable term on Broadway. She won Best Actress for the role, and it's a performance that deserves notice: Minnelli is a full-fledged superstar in this film, coming fully-formed in her first film appearance. She's the flighty and narcissistic Sally Bowles, a character that may be the first recorded instance of the Magic Pixie Dream Girl. If the MPDG is a cliche now, it was still fresh in 1972, just as the now-aged and publicly-crazy Minnelli was at the time a bright young star burning up the stage and screen. If Cabaret is nothing else, it's worth seeing for this performance.

Fortunately for the audience, it is more than just a performance. The film was originally based on a series of short stories, which gives the whole thing a kind of fractured feel -- Cabaret is constantly shifting tones as three or four subplots grind against one another, and some of them are more effective than others. The narrative of the film is shot and directed normally, and counterpointed by stage renditions of cabaret theater by Minnelli and others, most notably veteran Broadway performer Joel Grey (who also won an Oscar for his work here). Some of the songs are better than others, and some of them are more directly related to the plot than others, but the impression I get is that the old cabaret shows were the kind of lowbrow entertainment that was meant more to keep the troubles away than to be quote-unquote high art. The humor is salacious and the songs (generally) catchy, and even this old grump about musicals found himself smiling through most of the numbers. It's a good time.

The narratives range a bit more in quality and in overall tone. While living in Germany Minnelli meets a young English PhD student named Brian (Michael York) and the two quickly become good friends despite the differences in temperament and background, and eventually become more than that. Minnelli and York have an easy unforced chemistry, and one of the great pleasures of the film is just watching them interact together and trade quips. In another sequence, though, they meet a rich German aristocrat who seduces them both, mostly against Brian's better judgment. This sequence takes up a good quarter of Cabaret, and it's unclear exactly what we're supposed to get from it. My guess is that it's a kind of facile symbolism, in which Brian and Sally represent English and American libertines who turned a blind eye to the Nazis because of the gifts of the German aristocracy. Or something. This subplot ends as abruptly as it begins, and although the aftermath is one of the film's best lines, ultimately it seems that during this section the characters are behaving more like cardboard chess pieces than actual people.

Oh, wait, did I mention Nazis? Because the film takes place in 1931, just as the Nazi Party was beginning to take hold, and one of the themes of the film is the way that the decadence of the cabaret club and Brian and Sally's private lives contrast with the brutality of the Nazis. Of course, it's not exactly daring to have a message film that says "Nazis are evil," but I give director Fosse a lot of credit for giving his film a kind of mordant undertone that underlines the growth of the Nazi Party. An amazing sequence at a biergarden during the aforementioned sequence involving the German aristocrat shows a Nazi youth singing an ode to the Fatherland and the persons in the garden gradually becoming more and more united behind the Party.

Let's see, what else? There's a running subplot involving a rich Jewish woman and a would-be suitor that is charming but perfunctory, and probably deserves either a greater running-time or to simply be dropped from the film. As it is the subplot seems shoehorned into Cabaret, which again just makes me wonder if there's a symbolic meaning I'm supposed to be getting. No, more likely it's just included because it was a good short story in the original collection, and for sure it helps to open up the film a bit. I shrug -- your mileage may vary.

I saw this with Shana, who loves musical theater but didn't seem that much more enthused about it than I was. For sure it's a decent flick with a great performance or two, but I can't really recommend the movie as a whole. I found myself watching the clock a lot more than I'd like during the two-plus-hour running time. Maybe it's me, maybe it just hasn't aged well. Worth it for the songs and some of the plot, but probably better on stage than on celluloid. I'd be interested in glancing through the original book of short stories, though.

Rating: B

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