F for Fake

Orson Welles in F for Fake

In 1971, Pauline Kael did her best to kill Orson Welles. In “Raising Kane,” an essay originally published in The New Yorker and later used as a lengthy introduction to the published screenplay, she argued that Welles had unfairly taken authorial credit for a film whose real creative force was Welles’ credited co-screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz. Kael’s piece was persuasive but hardly comprehensive, cherry-picking evidence in an effort to make a liar of Welles. (In his definitive 1978 book on the film, The Making of Citizen Kane, Robert Carringer described Kael’s charge that Welles did not contribute to the script as “a flagrant misrepresentation,” though he did allow that Welles may have hoped not to credit Mankiewicz.) Making the case against Kane was an opportunity for Kael to escalate her ongoing crusade against the auteur theory; it doesn’t seem that she held any personal grudge against Welles, especially given her loving notice for his Chimes at Midnight, made just a few years earlier. But for the aging Welles, by that time a subject of mockery in Hollywood who struggled to finance even the most bargain-basement film projects, the apparently unprovoked attack must have stung. F for Fake is his elegant response—a good-natured but deeply felt riposte, executed with his considerable showmanship and meant to humble artist and critic alike.

F for Fake begins with Welles’ mysterioso intonation: “For my next experiment, ladies and gentlemen …” Here, on a railway platform, Welles is in one of his favorite roles—the magician—and as he proceeds to turn a key proffered by a child into a coin and back again in front of the camera, he warns his audience to “watch out for the slightest hint of hanky panky.” Gauntlet thrown, his film gets up to all kinds of shenanigans. Welles’ magic schtick was perhaps his most accessible public persona, and you can read his decision to narrate F for Fake in illusionist mode as an attempt to ingratiate himself with an audience. However, his use of the term “experiment” in the very first line suggests the unusual nature of his endeavor, as does the aggressive editing style — there are 17 separate shots in the film’s first 60 seconds alone, and it gets faster still from there. Sure, the early 1970s were a go-go era for film editors, but this was unusual even by those standards. This editorial style is the cinematic equivalent of sleight of hand; it allows Welles to get away with all kinds of tomfoolery, despite presenting documentary evidence right before your unblinking eyes. F for Fake is a documentary, yes. But it is also an essay film, a candid-camera lark, an autobiography, and a straight-up master class in narrative filmmaking on a shoestring.

The bulk of F for Fake is footage originated by documentarian Francois Reichenbach, who was making a film about notorious painter and art forger Elmyr de Hory. Welles was working nearby at the time and Reichenbach screened the material for him. One thing led to another, and Welles — intrigued, apparently, by the opportunity Elmyr’s story offered for him to expound on the notion of authorship and authenticity — ended up taking over the whole production. What happened next was extraordinary: Elmyr’s biographer, Clifford Irving, whom Reichenbach had interviewed, was exposed as a fraud. Irving had written a biography of Howard Hughes that he said was based on exclusive access to the man himself. It was to be published by McGraw-Hill, which paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in advances. And it was a complete hoax. Irving had never spoken to Hughes, had in fact forged Hughes’ signature on key documents attesting to the book’s authenticity. If anything, Irving’s challenge to Hughes — I dare you to come out of hiding and denounce this book deal, went the unspoken message to the notorious recluse — was more brazen than Elmyr’s forgeries. The irony of a journalist turned fabulist was delicious. And thus Welles found the territory being mapped in his documentary to be shifting, seismically, under his feet.

The other major player in F for Fake is Oja Kodar, who had been Welles’ companion since the early 1960s. (“That’s her real name, you know,” he assures us.) She is featured early on, in what Welles describes as “a sequence on the fine outdoor sport of girl-watching.” The camera focuses on her swishing hips as she walks the streets of Rome, intercutting purported reaction shots of men gaping in her wake. The sequence is a digression at best — Kodar says it was her idea, but just part of a longer, feminist work she envisioned — but Welles justifies its inclusion here by positioning it as an act of “larceny,” stealing performances from the civilians whose desire it immortalizes. And Kodar reappears near the end of the film, where she is a crucial player in a long anecdote having to do with her Hungarian grandfather, Pablo Picasso, and a cache of unseen Picasso nudes. You could argue that Kodar’s presence on screen is the height of gratuity. That is, in a film that’s ostensibly about art, forgery and authorship, isn’t it remarkable that Welles came up with an excuse to have his girlfriend run down the street, nude under a diaphanous blue veil? And yet somehow he makes it fit.

The sequences with Kodar bookend a long segment of the film that deals directly with Elmyr and Irving. “This is a film about trickery and fraud—about lies,” he says, addressing the camera. Using complex editorial techniques and almost nonstop narration to turn cinema vérité footage of Elmyr and Irving on its head, Welles expresses not disapproval of their chicanery but rather admiration of their chutzpah. Welles playfully positions himself on the side of the devils, describing himself as a “charlatan.” He refers explicitly to his own work on the Mercury Theatre’s War of the Worlds radio broadcast and Citizen Kane, and draws attention to the deviousness shared by artists and con men, declaring, “a magician is just an actor playing the part of a magician.” He saves his opprobrium for experts. “Experts are the new oracles,” he declares. “They speak to us with the absolute authority of the computer, and we bow down before them.” Those experts, Irving tells us, have been helpless to distinguish authentic Modiglianis from Elmyr’s fakes, and it’s the same experts, Welles reminds us, who determine the value of a piece of art by vouching for its authenticity. “A faker like Elmyr makes fools of the experts, so who’s the expert?,” he asks us. “Who’s the faker?”

Welles’ voiceover sets the pace and holds the narrative together even as the images we see on screen jitter constantly forward and backward in time and from location to location. Many shots are pictures of the film itself, as seen in workprint form on the viewing screen of one of the production’s flatbed editing tables, sometimes with the director hunched over the machine. Welles even apologizes for the fast, nonlinear trajectory of the film at one point: “Sorry—I’ve been jumping around like this because that’s the way it was.” And those Moviolas do get a workout. F for Fake is full of freeze frames that function as visual punctuation or witticisms. The technique comes to a head when Welles uses cross-cutting to invent a kind of conversation between Irving and Elmyr that has Elmyr repeatedly insisting that he ever affixed another artist’s signature to one of his own forgeries — a key legal point. Welles intercuts snippets of interviews that were clearly conducted at different times and locations to give the impression of a slightly smug Elmyr denying the charge as a disapproving Irving rolls his eyes a bit and fidgets uncomfortably. After this goes on for nearly a minute, Irving is allowed to make the allegation: “Of course they were signed.”

By now, these techniques have been freely adopted by all kinds of filmmakers. You can see some roots of Chris Marker’s celebrated essay film Sans Soleil here, as well as a blueprint for Michael Moore’s personality-driven, I-can’t-believe-my-eyes approach to documentary, not to mention the tricks used by the editors of movie trailers to short-circuit film narrative and pack as much exposition as possible into a two-minute teaser. Of course, Welles drew on the formal innovations of the French New Wave before him, and Godard was probably the greater influence on the MTV era. The notion of influence isn’t one of the subjects tackled in detail by F for Fake, though it defines one of the tasks facing Welles’ maligned experts — figuring out which authors deserve credit for the innovations that drive development of the arts. All that points, in an oblique way, to the most celebrated segment of the film, an encomium to the Chartres Cathedral. Welles pays tribute to its anonymous architects by delivering a monologue elevating its place in the artistic corpus of humankind. You know the kind of speech I’m talking about: Welles speaks, basso profundo, each shaped breath a pensive sigh at odds with the enormity of what’s erected before him. Time stands still; the air leaves the screening room. “The premiere work of man, perhaps, in the whole western world,” Welles says, his voice shrinking to a murmur, “and it’s without a signature.” It’s a dead serious moment interrupting an otherwise playful inquiry into artistic crimes and misdemeanors. Like a great card trick or disappearing act, it’s perfectly timed and flawlessly executed, and it smoothly shifts the topic from ordinary con artistry by opening a window to the infinite. Calling it magic would be selling it short. In an art world spun by hoaxes, lies, and illusions, it’s nothing less than testimony.

Criterion packages F for Fake for Blu-ray with an exceptionally filmlike HD image that has been pillarboxed to 1.62:1. (Oddly, the picture is not centered in the frame; the left-hand pillar is about 20 pixels thicker than the one on the right.) This transfer won’t win any awards for consistency or reference quality; the source material varies widely in provenance; much of it has been blown up from 16mm to 35mm, amplifying the already apparent grain structure, and some of the shots seem to have been blown up even further during the original editing process. Film damage is plentiful, though Criterion has included the requisite liner note indicating that “thousands of instances of dirt, debris and scratches” have been removed from the digital scans, so you can only imagine what it must have looked like before Criterion scrubbed it down. There is some flicker throughout, along with other variations in picture density, but it wouldn’t occur to me to complain. It’s a sure bet that F for Fake has never looked any better than it does here. The audio, presented as a monaural PCM track, is quite clean, although the noise floor can be heard rising underneath lines of dialogue; the quality of the recordings varies wildly, sometimes within the same scene, but is generally adequate, and Criterion’s reproduction of the original monaural soundtrack seems to have been pretty scrupulous.

In his audio commentary here, which he shares with Oja Kodar, cinematographer Gary Graver can be heard marveling at the quality of Criterion’s print. Graver discusses a working relationship with Welles that began when he called the director up, on a whim, when Welles was staying in a bungalow at The Beverly Hills Hotel. Welles hired him the same day, explaining that the only other cinematographer who had approached him for a job was named Gregg Toland. Inducted into that heady company. He talks about what it was like to watch the film take shape, with the scope of the project seemingly growing by the day. “Orson loved to shoot, and he loved to edit, and he worked seven days a week—which I didn’t realize when I signed on,” he says. He also points out the moment in the film when a scene of Don Ameche playing Howard  Hughes was accidentally inserted in place of authentic Hughes footage. Graver alternates anecdotes with Kodar, who discusses her own contributions to the film—including her suggested title of F for Fake, which never actually appears on screen. “Because it was all magic, and it was all a lie … he felt he was going to pinpoint it down if he gives it a title,” she explains. “His film is kind of a visual essay and it is fluid. He was afraid he was going to put it into a frame.” I enjoyed this a lot, but I felt a more scholarly or critical contribution was warranted — an, ahem, expert commentary that might offer more perspective on Welles’ techniques and the film’s place in history. That task falls largely to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s booklet essay; a six-minute video introduction by Peter Bogdanovich is meant to orient viewers who aren’t aware of the film’s historical context, but as introductory viewing it includes what may well qualify as spoilers for anyone approaching the film for this first time; if you want to experience the film on its own terms, save it for later.

The most substantial of the video extras is the 88-minute 2005 documentary Orson Welles: The One-Man Band, which comprises largely English-language footage along with English-subtitled German voiceover. In collaboration with Kodar, filmmakers Vassili Silovic and Roland Zag mimic the style of F for Fake to create an impressionistic documentary about the unfinished projects that occupied the final portion of Welles’ professional life after his return to Hollywood, from his unfinished magic-show TV special to The Deep, his adaptation of the 1963 novel Dead Calm. It’s full of juicy footage for Welles scholars, including many clips from the projects being discussed (the film climaxes with a segment of film showing Oja Kodar performing in a curiously exhibitionistic sex scene from the legendary The Other Side of the Wind) and tapes of some of Welles’ television appearances from the period, as well as glimpses of some of Welles’ paintings, many of which Kodar kept as souvenirs of their life together. The film footage is fascinating, but it does tend to reveal the ultimate limitations of the one-man band approach.

A more purely entertaining tribute to late-period Orson Welles is the 44-minute episode of Tomorrow in which he sits down opposite Tom Snyder for a loose, revealing interview that covers the entirety of Welles’ career, from his days in radio to his life in exile in Hollywood. (He made more money as an anonymous radio announcer, he says.) He talks briefly about his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, his early friendship with Harry Houdini, his feelings about religion, and his pessimism on the future of humanity. He seems most pained when asked about his childhood. “I must have been intolerable as a child, I would think,” Welles says, wincing. “Yes, totally insufferable.”

In a classic good news/bad news situation, the original nine-minute trailer cut by Welles to promote the film’s release in the U.S is included here. That’s the good news. The bad news is that for some reason, this trailer is included in a version that looks like it was sourced from a black-and-white workprint. (It’s actually interlaced, if you can believe it.) A color version is definitely available—it made an appearance on the Masters of Cinema DVD release in the U.K. and is actually excerpted in Orson Welles: The One-Man Band—so it’s anyone’s guess why Criterion couldn’t lay hands on it.

For history buffs, Criterion has included the audio feed from the original teleconference between a roomful of reporters and Howard Hughes, when the tycoon finally agreed to take questions from journalists who wanted to know if Clifford Irving’s book was authorized. It’s fascinating as a historical document, though it doesn’t have much to do with F for Fake. Along the same lines is Almost True: The Noble Art of Forgery, a po-faced, everything-you-need-to-know-about-Elmyr television documentary from 1997 with bland voiceover narration that employs some of the Reichenbach footage used in F for Fake. It’s more detailed and informative about Elmyr’s scams than F for Fake; at 52 long minutes, it’s also forbiddingly dull. What would have been really interesting is the original Reichenbach documentary Elmyr: The True Picture that originated much of the footage seen in F for Fake; this one is superfluous unless you believe that film buffs are picking up this disc out of a burning desire to know more about Elmyr. In the same category is a nine-minute segment from 60 Minutes in which interviewer Mike Wallace confronts Irving, who had lied to his face 27 years earlier. It’s undeniably intriguing if you want to know more about Irving as a fraudster, but, again, it sheds little light on the film itself. This is the rare Criterion special edition that feels, honestly, a little bloated.

All That Jazz

Ben Vereen and Roy Scheider in All That Jazz

Celebrated as an incisive, self-lacerating backstage spectacle and razzed as an indulgent and pretentious passion project, genius director-choreographer Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz is one of the most ambitious American films of the 1970s. At this point in his career, Fosse had nothing to prove to the show-business establishment — in 1973, he won the Oscar, the Tony, and the Emmy, all for directing — but a 1974 brush with death (exhaustion, heart attack, life-saving surgery) put him in an introspective mood, and the results were spectacular. Not content with reaching a dazzling apotheosis in the on-screen presentation of song and dance, Fosse wove singing and dancing into a semi-autobiographical narrative chronicling the final days in the life of Joe Gideon, a genius director-choreographer whose nonstop work regimen is making him physically ill. Underscoring the threat, the film opens with a line attributed to the high-wire artist  Karl Wallenda, who fell to his death during a performance in 1978: “To be on the wire is life; the rest is waiting,” Joe’s work is his life, and the irony is that his work — along with the pills and the smokes that keep him going — is what kills him.

All That Jazz is a master class in narcissism. As Joe Gideon, Roy Scheider is decked out in devilish facial hair and tight black clothes that deliberately mimic Fosse’s own look. As the film begins, Gideon is auditioning dancers for a new stage musical with his assistant (Kathryn Doby, essentially playing herself), then dashing across Broadway to cut his film The Standup, about an acerbic comic, with his editor, Eddie (Alan Heim, essentially playing himself). Fosse had gone through the same process in real life, finishing his Lenny Bruce biopic Lenny even as rehearsals began on his musical Chicago. Gideon, like Fosse, suffered multiple show-stopping heart attacks from the strain. (In the film, one of them is triggered by a scathing review.) But while Gideon is self-destructive, he has a magnetic personality that inspires loyalty from his collaborators—including his girlfriend Kate (Anne Reinking, essentially playing herself), who sticks with him even after finding him in bed with a chorus girl. As he’s wheeled into surgery on his cheatin’ heart, Gideon hallucinates that Kate and his ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer) are with him. “If I die, I’m sorry for all the bad things I did to you,” he tells Audrey, before turning to Kate and delivering the punchline with a tiny chuckle. “And if I live, I‘m sorry for all the bad things I’m gonna do to you.” Yes, parts of the film take on the tone of an apology—he’s so hard on himself!, Fosse’s defenders say—but memorializing your infidelities in 35mm seems like a funny way to express regret.

So is he boasting? Very well, he’s boasting. As swagger goes Fellini has nothing on this guy. (Fosse even snagged Fellini’s old cameraman, Giuseppe Rotunno, to shoot All That Jazz, no doubt anticipating the inevitable comparisons to Fellini’s .) Based on the evidence here assembled, Fosse was the biggest swinging dick on Broadway throughout the 1970s. But be fair—if he was bragging, he had earned it through development of his extraordinary, hard-won talent. It’s rare enough that a dance choreographer should succeed as a filmmaker, let alone a director who so successfully manipulates time and space on screen. Heim’s fearless, impressionistic editing presents All That Jazz as a mere moment in time, a story told by a man on the brink of the afterlife. The film opens with a fragment of conversation between Gideon and Angelique (Jessica Lange), a mysterious woman clad in white, sitting between twin spotlights on an apparently disused theater stage cluttered with costumes, debris, and neon. The ensuing, and much-celebrated, opening sequence depicting a cattle-call audition for dancers is shot and edited in a documentary style, running for six largely dialogue-free minutes and underscored by George Benson’s jazzy, scat-riddled 1978 cover of “On Broadway.” From that tour de force, we return briefly to Joe’s heart-to-heart with Angelique, who comments on his addiction to smoking, speed, and sex, and then back to the audition, where Gideon is hiring a pretty young thing who can neither sing nor dance, annoying the producers watching from the orchestra seats.

At this point, All That Jazz is already a story within a story, but Fosse and Heim build in more narrative layers. There’s the film-within-the-film that Gideon frets over relentlessly, editing and re-editing. There are the gestating musical numbers for the show Gideon’s working on, most notably the corny “Take Off with Us,” which he reworks into the kind of self-consciously erotic spectacle that would give Zalman King a boner. And finally there are the “hospital hallucinations,” depicted on screen as elaborately produced set pieces in which the women in Gideon’s life — Kate, Audrey, daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi)—dance in quintessential Fosse style amid hospital-inspired set decorations. They belt out the lyrics to jazz and pop standards that become morbid double-entendres as he faces open-heart surgery. (And, in an insert that’s both chilling and soothing, Angelique caresses his face.) All That Jazz takes place at the very frontier of death, the film’s consciousness moving freely between real life and illusion, capping Gideon’s remembrance of hard-won experience with riotous, imaginary climaxes to his life. Fosse never forgot the lessons he learned as a kid performing in burlesque clubs, and at his best his creative vision is a startling mix of the sublime and the vulgar. It all comes to a head when Ben Vereen performs a lurid and nearly interminable version of “Bye Bye Love,” shockingly and hilariously twisted by Fosse into “Bye Bye Life.” It’s in exceptionally poor taste — Gideon and Vereen are flanked on stage by two dancers (Ann Reinking and Kathryn Doby) in sexy white tights covered in red and blue veins as Gideon and Vereen sing out, backed by a rock band decked out in silver and white, for an audience of Gideon’s friends, lovers, and rivals. Beginning with Vereen’s spoken introduction, this number goes on for 10 unbelievable minutes. Some reviewers complain about this, but length is part of the intended effect. It’s riotously, jaw-droppingly over-the-top. (“This must have cost a fortune!” someone exclaims, approvingly.)

“Bye Bye Life” also includes one of my favorite images from the entire film. As Gideon and Fosse sing, they raise their left hands, palms spread wide, in a common Fosse gesture. Fosse cuts to a shot looking down at Scheider, past his open hand, as he sings with a little smile on his face. A few edits later, Fosse cuts to a similar but lower angle on Vereen, whose hand is held out so that his wide eyes can just be seen peering past his splayed fingers as he advances toward the camera. Vereen’s unctuous master of ceremonies routine is already a little unsettling in its smarmy enthusiasm and in this moment it becomes downright menacing. His character’s phony obsequiousness is a hallmark of show-business insincerity and his stage show a gateway to the underworld. I’ll always read Vereen in this scene as an avatar of death, if not the devil himself, collecting the prize offered up to him by Angelique, the phenomenally beautiful vision who finally seduces Joe into going gentle into the good night.

All That Jazz is at least as impressive formally as it is thematically. The editing, in particular, is sophisticated and expressive, trusting the audience to keep up as it short-circuits unnecessary exposition, or slips effortlessly, when needed, into flashback mode. Alan Heim’s Oscar was well deserved, but Fosse, too, had by this time learned a lot about what happens when you cut two pieces of film together. A look at the screenplay he wrote with Robert Alan Aurthur reveals that the film’s tricky structure had been worked out pretty carefully before it landed in the cutting room. The script was written in a way that gave Fosse room to improvise his shots on set — storyboards were not part of the equation — but the film was structurally sound before shooting began. Repetition, for instance, is a storytelling strategy that shows Gideon’s attitude changing over time. We see his morning routine of Alka-Seltzer, Dexedrine, Visine and Vivaldi repeatedly, followed by the peppy declaration, “It’s showtime, folks.” He looks more ragged each time he revisits the schtick, and the declaration eventually becomes sarcastic. Occasionally the trick gets heavy-handed; we hear The Standup’s riff on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s On Death and Dying looping through hospital halls, obviously freighted with added meaning the second time around. It makes some sense — after working so long cutting those scenes, the sound waveforms of every gag in that film must be tattooed on Gideon’s ear canals — but the lines start to land like cudgels. Still, the approach is consistent. The first half of the film is cut in a way that showcases the winning confidence that puts Joe at the top of his game; later, the style emphasizes Joe’s anxiety at his worsening physical predicament and his despair at the flawed legacy he leaves behind.

Here’s another example, from the film’s first reel: “You finished, or you want to run it again?” comes the voice from the projection booth overlooking the little theater where The Standup is being screened. “No, I do not want to run it again, thank you very much,” answers Gideon from his seat in row two. “We are finished.” Much later, on the cusp of the film’s final reel, we hear the projectionist’s innocent question again as a non-diegetic audio insertion — another one of Gideon’s hallucinations. This time, his response is different, and much weaker: “Yes, I’d like to run it again. I’d like to run the whole thing again.” By now Gideon, who has fled his sickbed and is staggering through random hospital corridors, has had some time to think it over. His arms are raised to a ceiling light fixture; his hands are seen in silhouette as though pressed against an out-of-focus movie screen. (Fosse, who would hire cinematographer Sven Nykvist to shoot his next film, Star 80, was almost certainly paying homage in this moment to Ingmar Bergman and the famous opening images of Persona.) That figurative blank slate represents another movie inside this movie: the biopic Gideon longs to make, the one with the likable protagonist. He’d prefer that to the one he’s already made for himself — the one that he’s stuck inside. In this way, death has become attractive. It is, at least, an escape.

An even more singular achievement is his cinematic approach to the musical numbers, which are never cut to the beat, but are instead cut to highlight performance and story. That is, they showcase the dance — with moves, not edits, placed in sensitive counterpoint to the music — and with dancing and dancers like these, that’s of primary importance. Fosse went a crucial step further, first staging his routines for the proscenium and then reworking them with the idea that the camera is not just recording, but is participating in the action — it’s choreography for camera, and it makes a huge difference. Fosse understood that film editing would allow him to achieve a degree of precision in choreography on screen that was impossible on the stage. “Dancers’ bones broke, but celluloid did not protest,” writes biographer Sam Wasson in his book Fosse.

For the “Take Off with Us” centerpiece that occupies a full eight minutes near the middle of the film, Fosse used two approaches. For the first section of the number, which is an engaging but fairly standard example of Broadway choreography, the camera hops freely from position to position and Heim’s cutting often mickey-mouses against the audio, with edits falling in rhythmic time with the music. As the lights go down and the by-now-sweaty dancers strip for the second, more scandalous “Airotica” section of the number — the one that Gideon springs on his uncomfortable producers without warning — the takes get longer and Heim once again begins cutting based on the performance on screen rather than matching beats and bars. Where the camera previously tracked sideways across the front of the rehearsal studio, taking in the chorus line, now it sits mainly on tripods, the stationary frame highlighting the ways the dancers have partnered up in erotic pantomime. (“Now Sinatra will never record it,” the songwriter mutters, head in hands.) Quick inserts of the band juice up the kinetic action, as do lead dancer Sandahl Bergman’s frenzied gyrations. The primary effect — the depiction of an artistic provocation and its immediate aftermath — is so satisfying that David Fincher and Paula Abdul stole it wholesale for a music video released two years after Fosse’s death in 1987. But their recreation sidesteps the real point of the number, which is about the emptiness of casual sex—of Joe Gideon’s favorite kind of sex. Gideon reads aloud from the script to spell it out, but his voice is nearly drowned in the mix: “Not once during any of our flights have we had the crash of any real human contact or the bumpiness of any real human communication. Our motto is, ‘We take you everywhere but get you nowhere.’”

And it’s moments like that that undercut Fosse’s outward boastfulness with punishing autocritique. All That Jazz is a complex film, not least with regard to Fosse’s intentions in making it. For one thing, he knew that he was getting older. I don’t know how much he worried about the possibility that he could be dead within 10 years but, given his heart problems, that idea had to have crossed his mind. He knew for certain, based on his experience with the failure of Sweet Charity, that if he didn’t have a hit it could become very hard for him to make another movie. As he embarked on All That Jazz, he must have had his own legacy in mind. And there’s the thing about boastfulness. It’s considered bad form, sure, but it’s not necessarily rooted in egotism. It can also grow from insecurity, as a defense against vulnerability, real or imagined. It can be a form of play-acting that keeps the shadows at bay.

You could accurately describe All That Jazz as a musical comedy about death, which is completely accurate, but that shortchanges the visceral sense of fear at the film’s raw and bloody heart — fear of failure, fear of humiliation, fear of oblivion. I first saw it at the age of 12, and already it held me rapt, dazzled and frightened by the adult world it seemed to reveal. I’ve always experienced it as a horror movie where the monster is mortality. It’s exhilarating but  terrifying. It pushes the bounds of film narrative to create an unsentimental tableau that incorporates grotesque and even cruel fantasy elements. All That Jazz is a remarkable, genuinely epochal achievement, and sometimes I despair that there may never be another one like it. Thirty-five years on, it retains its status as the last great American movie musical.

The Criterion Blu-ray release of All That Jazz does not disappoint. The transfer was created from a new 4K master created under the auspices of Twentieth Century Fox’s film library guru Schawn Belston, and it’s one of those discs that almost perfectly evokes the time and place of the movie’s creation. The image has been dust-busted to near perfection without damage to the grain structure, while the colours have been timed to be rich but not gaudy. (There’s an earthiness to the palette–lots of green, yellow and brown–that somehow conjures New York City in the late 1970s.) If I were to question any aspect of this fairly high-contrast presentation, I’d wonder if there shouldn’t be a bit more shadow detail in those shots where the blacks look a little crushed. (A relatively recent print struck under the supervision of cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno was used as reference for this version of the film, and the DP reportedly insisted that the picture be made “much darker,” at least in shots from the “On Broadway” opening number.)

Audio quality is likewise excellent; like the video, it shows its age in the best ways. Bass is tight and only aggressive during the musical numbers, where it adds welcome presence. The mix, presented in 3.0 DTS-HD MA, is three discrete channels up front–left, centre, right–with no surround info and ultimately little in the way of directional effects or stereo separation. It sounds fairly conservative by contemporary standards until you turn it up. Blaring at full tilt, “Bye Bye Love” is glorious–crisp and detailed and distortion-free.

Let’s go deep on the soundmix, shall we? I was unclear on the provenance of this three-channel mix. Some sources claim that All That Jazz was blown up to 70mm with magnetic stereo soundtracks, but it doesn’t appear on the generally comprehensive lists posted at in70mm.com. I thought it was possible that All That Jazz was an early Dolby Stereo title, but wouldn’t that be a four-track mix by definition? By incredible coincidence, I found myself just two degrees of Facebook separation away from a fellow named Glenn Berger, who recorded and mixed the film’s music. I contacted him. He told me that Fosse was suspicious of Dolby Stereo, especially after Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz had used the technology and flopped. Instead, the plan was to play 70mm prints with Berger’s stereo mix on mag audio tracks at premiere engagements in New York and L.A., then send 35mm prints with dynamic range and frequency range severely compressed for the then-standard mono optical audio format. For reasons Berger didn’t want to get into on our phone call, Fosse nixed the stereo version at the last minute. According to Berger, it was never released anywhere. “That was incredibly crushing for me, and I was convinced that nobody would ever get to hear the movie the way it was meant to be heard,” he told me.

It turns out that “On Broadway” and “Take Off With Us” weren’t mixed in mono, though both numbers were limited in their scope. The George Benson tune was delivered to the production as a finished master that didn’t support any fiddling with the mix. On “Take Off With Us” and “Airotica,” Fosse was adamant that no music sources could be added that didn’t appear on screen, limiting the instrumentation to two keyboards and a drum kit. “He wouldn’t even let us sweeten the track with a bass or anything else to give it some propulsion or oomph,” Berger remembers. “The reason those tracks sound kind of mono-ish is that it was just those three instruments.” In the film’s fantasy sequences, composer Ralph Burns was allowed to use more elaborate orchestrations that lend themselves to a bigger soundstage. Berger noted, too, that moviemaking technology of the era meant he was limited to six tracks on the mixing stage, rather than the unlimited number available with today’s digital mixing consoles.

At any rate, if you’re a fetishist for authorial intent, don’t fret about the legitimacy of this previously-unreleased mix. A few years after the theatrical run of All That Jazz, when it was being considered for a reissue, Fosse screened a 70mm stereo print at the Ziegfeld Theater in Manhattan. Berger says it was then that he received a letter from Fosse, who said he realized it was a mistake not to release the film in stereo.

The BD is loaded up with well over three hours of extras, some of them produced or curated for Criterion and others ported from Fox’s 2003 and 2007 DVDs. If you’re looking for the biggest return on your time investment, Criterion’s offerings will get you the farthest, fastest. A HiDef-upconverted episode of Tomorrow (32 mins.) from January of 1980 features Fosse in conversation with host Tom Snyder and legendary choreographer Agnes De Mille. It covers a lot of ground–Fosse talks about how he auditions dancers and what he looks for, Snyder prods both guests about eroticism in dance, and Fosse remembers how creating a TV commercial for Pippin saved that show from obscurity. At one point, Snyder noted that dancers might resent seeing a choreographer’s name above the title since they’re the ones busting ass on stage every night, plus matinees. De Mille’s magisterial response: “So what?” I gasped out loud in my living room.

Criterion once again goes to the well of The South Bank Show, unearthing a Fosse interview (27 mins., another HD upconversion) that first aired in March 1981. Fosse turns on the charm as Melvyn Bragg gets him to open up about his earliest experiences in the world of “very low-class vaudeville” and how it influenced his adult work. Fosse then moves forward through his entire career, discussing his feelings about choreographing dance while taking the movie camera into account and revealing that Hollywood accountants have determined it takes him a full shooting day to get each minute of a musical number in the can. During the section that covers All That Jazz, Bragg confronts him with a quote from De Mille, who apparently snarked about Fosse’s work that it has “taken the eroticism out of sex.” Fosse pauses before landing a return blow I won’t spoil here. But, I swear, I gasped out loud again.

An interview with Fosse biographer Sam Wasson (21 mins., HD) might not sound enticing, but Wasson ably shoulders the burden of describing the greatness of All That Jazz. It’s a solid piece of criticism. Among other observations, he muses on “the conflict between sexy and scary at the same time” in Fosse’s work, connecting it to his early experiences working “really bad places really late at night” in the Midwest. Wasson ultimately posits as Fosse’s major theme “razzle-dazzle, which is the smile that the snake wears… Putting a happy face on something that’s not so happy.” The New Yorker critic Hilton Als makes a more high-flown case for the film’s masterwork status in a booklet essay that offers a detailed reading of Fosse’s filmmaking style, but Wasson’s analysis really connects on the human level.

A 1986 interview with a verbally hyperactive Gene Shalit (26 mins.) covers a bit of new ground. Fosse here laments the aging process as he muses on death and looks back on his love life. “We all know,” Shalit jokes, “the only reason you became a choreographer is: how else can you meet 1500 girls in five days under union auspices?” Near the end, Shalit asks Fosse (who was known for fixating on his bad reviews) if he’d prefer a world without critics. “That’s really a tough question,” Fosse says, considering it for half a beat before deciding, “I wouldn’t mind it.”

Editor Alan Heim is featured on the film’s full-length audio commentary from 2007, which is worth listening to in its entirety despite some stretches of dead air. It contains an anecdote describing how, once All That Jazz ballooned past its original $10 million budget at Columbia Pictures, Heim had to scramble to put together a rough assembly and messenger it to California in the hope of convincing another studio to pony up another $10 million so Fosse could shoot the rest of the picture, including the “Bye Bye Love” number and all of the scenes with Jessica Lange. (Alan Ladd Jr. loved the footage and Fox stepped in to put up the extra funds.) Criterion rounded Heim up again for a new HD video interview (15 mins., HD). There’s some overlap with his yakker, but Heim does branch out to discuss his previous work with Fosse on Lenny, touching on how the editing of that film informed the script for All That Jazz. He also addresses the follow-up Dorothy Stratten biopic Star 80, remembering an unsuccessful group effort to convince Fosse to soften that film’s violent ending. Heim calls it a masterpiece but acknowledges that audiences “really hated it.” Most interesting might be Heim’s recollection of how Fosse insisted, well into post-production, that Joe Gideon was not his alter-ego, despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary. “It was Fosse’s life,” Heim says. “And he just kept denying it.”

The last of the new-for-Blu features is a loose, far-reaching conversation (34 mins., HD) between dancers Ann Reinking and Erszebet Foldi. It starts with Foldi’s memories of naively auditioning for Fosse as a ballet student (he liked her “innocence,” she says). They discuss their work together on the movie at length and also compare notes on Fosse’s “crooked look” and how it influences his choreography, with Reinking specifying that it’s Fosse’s background that gives those moves meaning. Subtext, she says, is what takes dance “out of the gymnasium.”

Held over from the 2003 Fox platter is a partial audio commentary (35 mins.) recorded by Roy Scheider in 2001. Scheider speaks in helpful, straightforward terms about his and Fosse’s working methods. For example, he says that during the “On Broadway” number he had an earpiece through which Fosse, watching from the balcony, directed him on his interactions with the dancers. After asking Fosse what it feels like to have a heart attack following bypass surgery, he had an assistant director kneel on his chest to get the right feeling for one of his close-ups. For what it’s worth, Scheider goes on record about Richard Dreyfuss’s production-delaying departure from the film and his own campaign to get Fosse to take him seriously as an actor. (I’m not clear on whether any footage of Dreyfuss as Joe Gideon was actually shot, much less whether any of it might survive, but that would sure be interesting to see.) We also get some vintage documentary footage of Fosse on set (8 mins.) that demonstrates his interest in finding exactly the right camera angles as he peers up through a handheld viewfinder, scoping out his trademark low-angle shots from various corners of the soundstage. Another clip from the set has a TV reporter trying to extract appropriate sound bites from Scheider for 4 minutes.

Does anybody read this far down in these reviews? The remainder of the Fox supplements amount to little more than barrel scrapings. We get to spend an engaging 4 minutes with George Benson, who provides anecdotes about recording his version of “On Broadway” at The Roxy in Los Angeles, although his stories have tenuous relevance to the film itself. “Portrait of a Choreographer” (23 mins.) is your typical studio puff piece where an array of screen and stage luminaries (singers, dancers, choreographers) pay tribute to the Great Man. More of the same is on tap in “The Soundtrack: Perverting the Standards” (8 mins.), which gathers Fosse’s Cabaret singer Liza Minnelli, “You Oughta Know” co-writer Glen Ballard, Devo co-founders Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” perpetrator Diane Warren, and more to gush over the song score. These are accomplished people, yeah, but their assembly feels very random, like someone held the Capitol Records building upside down, shook it hard, and asked everyone who fell out to talk about All That Jazz.

Pale Flower

Mariko Kaga and Ryo Ikebe in Pale Flower

Wow — here’s misery, violence, and cruel fate seen through a prism of yakuza assassinations, gambling addiction, and a sublimated tough-guy love affair. Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) is a hit man fresh out of prison who falls for Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a mysterious, big-eyed beauty who hangs around in gambling parlors and asks Muraki to find her a game with bigger stakes.

Director Masahiro Shinoda lets the story’s yakuza intrigue play out around the margins — Muraki returns to a new world where the gang bosses he knew as arch-rivals have joined forces to close ranks against a threatening newcomer — but is more interested in Muraki’s frame of mind, which tends to nihilism. Muraki has never felt more alive than he did as an assassin; he and Saeko grow close but stop short of declaring their love either verbally or physically. A midnight race through the streets of Tokyo leaves Muraki in awe of Saeko’s thrill-seeking spirit, but a make-believe hand of cards played between the sheets in a borrowed hotel room is the closest they come to an erotic consummation. Muraki is preoccupied with Saeko, but he’s worried about Yo, a glassy-eyed killer from the younger generation of yakuza who he notices in the game rooms. As it turns out, Yo represents more than one kind of threat.

Pale Flower is the only Shinoda film I’ve seen (yes, I know, Double Suicide; I’ll get to it), but I was surprised to see it so skillfully working Seijun Suzuki territory in a somewhat less outré, more naturalistic way. That’s not to say it’s a naturalistic film. It’s at least more restrained than Suzuki’s pistol operas, but all the elements are potent, from avant-garde composer Toru Takemitsu’s modernist score and the odd clack-clack of the hanafuda cards (they were replaced with tap-dancing sound FX, per Donald Richie’s A Hundred Years of Japanese Film) to the minimal set design, lithe montage, and expressionistic cinematography. And Mariko Kaga, of course, portraying a woman of leisure infiltrating a man’s world — she is tough, self-assured, but still very vulnerable.

Ryo Ikebe in Pale Flower

In its shadowy depictions of the city after dark it out-noirs some of the best films noirs ever made, and some of Shinoda’s shot compositions are just dynamite — like the one that has Muraki sitting in a chair in a small, sparsely furnished room in front of a wall that’s blank but for a jagged mark that curves up and around his body on the right, as though gouged by a samurai sword. There’s a great use of negative space throughout (which may be crucial to making good use of the widescreen frame) and repeated employment of camera angles that peer through windows and doorways and down hallways and alleyways, as though taking in the action voyeuristically.

Pale Flower

And there’s a moment at the film’s climax, as Muraki is commiting a swift but brutal murder, where Shinoda cuts to Saeko watching helplessly while the camera is still whip-panning to get her in frame — the camera jerks to a stop on her face, a now-common trick that gives the image an urgent, almost documentary edge. In fact, in an essay on the film included with the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray release, critic Chuck Stephens says this scene is deliberately modeled on the 1960 assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, a socialist politician, on-stage during a political debate by a 17-year-old nationalist. After looking up the footage on YouTube, I certainly believe him, and the reference gives the film a political resonance that I’m not ready to attempt unpacking. (According to Wikipedia, the kid hung himself less than three weeks later, after writing, “Long live his Imperial Majesty, the Emperor!” in toothpaste on the wall of his prison cell. ) Anyway, it does not surprise me at all that writer Masaru Baba was appalled by what Shinoda did to his script — but the script isn’t what makes this great. Pale Flower grows in my estimation the more I look at it.


Breaking the Waves

Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves can make you queasy from its opening moments, when director Lars von Trier’s name appears with the title superimposed over it, the title card swaying gently on screen as if it were photographed at sea. The effect is less subtle on home video than it is on a big screen, where you’re not as aware of the edges of the frame, but the message is the same: suddenly, you’re adrift, unmoored, alone. Continue reading



In early 1965, under the influence of the French New Wave, half dead from pneumonia and subsequent antibiotic poisoning, and depressed by more than just the view from his Stockholm hospital bed, Ingmar Bergman cobbled together some ideas for a small movie about two women. Addled by the administrative headaches of his position as the head of Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theatre—and probably discouraged by the frosty reception that greeted his recent comedy and first color film, All These Women—he felt a small movie was the only kind he would be able to make. And so he started putting together, in his head, a modest drama. He imagined two women comparing hands. One of them, he decided, would be talking, and the other would be silent. It went from there.

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In the annals of feel-bad literature, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a corker, pitting natural beauty and goodness against a battery of opposing forces–the church, the aristocracy, modern technology, human avarice–and finding beauty debased. It was a loaded area of study for Roman Polanski, who adapted it as a Hollywood artist in exile, working in France rather than nearer the book’s setting of Wessex, England, for fear of his deportation to the U.S. on rape charges. Just as Polanski’s bloody Macbeth has been interpreted as a howl of pain following the murder of his beloved wife, Sharon Tate, his Tess can be read as an act of penance, if not a bid for rehabilitation.

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Autumn Sonata


By 1978, Ingmar Bergman was in trouble. The director had fled his native Sweden two years earlier after an arrest on charges of tax evasion. (He would be completely exonerated in 1979, but his mood was no doubt grim until then.) He visited Paris and Los Angeles, then settled in Munich, where he would shoot his first English-language film, the 1920s Berlin-set The Serpent’s Egg, a Dino de Laurentiis co-production co-starring David Carradine and Bergman stalwart Liv Ullmann. The Serpent’s Egg was a box-office flop in Sweden, a critical and commercial failure internationally, and most of all a big artistic disappointment for Bergman himself–a decided stumble for a director riding high on the success of 1970s titles like the harrowing Cries and Whispers, which enjoyed huge success in the U.S. in the unlikely care of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, and the audience-friendly The Magic Flute. At the same time, Bergman was embarking on what would prove to be an unhappy tenure at Munich’s Residenztheater, where he managed to mount eleven productions before being fired in 1981. In this turbulent context, the very Bergmanesque Autumn Sonata can be seen as a kind of comfort film–a deliberate return to roots. Someone once described it as “Bergman does Bergman,” and the gag stuck. Bergman himself eventually quoted the remark, calling it “witty but unfortunate. For me, that is.”

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Band of Outsiders


For the casual observer, Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders may as well be titled The Eyes of Anna Karina. The famously radical director’s follow-up to the hit film Contempt isn’t a favourite of American movie buffs for its politics or its thematic rigour. Instead, it’s a veritable spoof of film noir–at times a near-farce–involving a couple of small-time schemers who take their cues from Hollywood. Though Band of Outsiders is thought of as one of Godard’s most accessible works, it’s also one of his most dissonant. It’s a gritty crime drama wrapped around a light romance; a breezy comedy shot through with intimations of the geopolitical landscape of the 1960s; an homage to U.S. culture that incidentally imagines the decline of the American empire. In Godard’s body of work, Band of Outsiders–its story based on a novel by American mystery writer Dolores Hitchens–can be read as the connective tissue between the bones of Breathless, which is full of loving references to American cinema and pulp fiction, and the later Weekend and Tout va bien, which are explicitly critical of western culture in general and capitalism in particular.

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