Friday, May 2, 2014

All That Jazz (1979)

A scene from Bob Fosse's ALL THAT JAZZ, playing at the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 24- May 8, 2014. 
WHO: Bob Fosse wrote and directed this.

WHAT: A 1979 film by a director who'd already proved himself one of the great auteurs of the 1970s with films released in 1972 and 1974 (one of which earned him the Best Director Academy Award), but who found his film, probably his most ambitious to date, defeated by Robert Benton and Kramer Vs. Kramer at the Oscars that year. At least he had the consolation of a shared Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for this magnificent work.

That last paragraph could describe Francis Ford Coppola and Apocalypse Now but it just as easily describes Fosse and All That Jazz, which for me is easily his cinematic masterpiece. Too-often ignored in accountings of the great films of the 1970s, this highly-personal work, something of a dance-film extension of the themes of Fellini's 8 1/2, is one of the great films about artistic creation in the face of physical and creative roadblocks. It makes a particularly good comparison piece for those of us who saw Abuse of Weakness last night, but it's absolutely worth seeing on the big screen regardless. As Melissa Anderson wrote earlier this year in Artforum:
This phenomenal 1979 film, a work of “depressive exhilaration,” in the astute words of Sam Wasson, author of the excellent, recently published biography Fosse, was the director’s third (and final) Hollywood musical, following Sweet Charity (1969), an adaptation of Fosse’s 1966 stage production of the same name, and Cabaret (1972). All three movies are obsidian prisms reflecting the darker, seamier aspects of show business, informed by the desperate ambience that Fosse observed first-hand as a teenage dancer in the burlesque halls of his native Chicago. Those formative, often scarring years as an entertainer are re-presented in All That Jazz, in which Fosse’s self-regard is no match for his self-excoriation.
WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Pacific Film Archive, at 8:30 PM, presented by the San Francisco International Film Festival.

WHY: Although the San Francisco International Film Festival has made many changes in the 10 years I've been attending as press, the most talked-about changes (the five executive directors the festival has had during that time, most notably) don't appear (to me) to provide as much substantial transformation of the festival's character, in terms of the amount of quality works that an above-averagely-interested attendee could see every year. The more notable transformation, in my outlook, is the shift in dominant projection format over the years, to the point where I was earlier this week able to round-up all of this year's expected 35mm, 16mm and super-8 work in a single paragraph. Seeing Paul Clipson's incredible Bright Mirror shown from a Super-8 projector set up in the middle of the Kabuki's House 3, reminded me of how the festival a decade ago would set up a special projector in the middle of the room to show video works, as film was the Kabuki's standard format and the widespread dominance of DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages) was only a futuristic imagining.

I have no problem watching DCPs of new films at SFIFF, especially those shot on video cameras in the first place (increasingly more of them), and my Senses of Cinema article on the 2005 festival used the role of digital production and distribution in fulfilling a film festival's mandate as a frame. If I were to write an update today, I'd stress how we're now at the point in the evolution of digital filming and presentation technology where a filmmaker insisting on shooting or projecting on film is now making a deliberate choice to greatly limit his or her options for processing, exhibition, and so on throughout the chain of getting images in front of audience eyes. Even films created in the age of celluloid, by makers who expected the subtleties of their manipulation of chemistry to impress their vision onto screens, are steadily being transformed (though the industry buzzwords are the paradoxical "digitally restored") into collections of electronic signals. Generally, the more high-profile the revival, the more likely it is to be digital-only and to replace all legitimate film-on-film distribution of a given title. The 2014 Cannes Classics line-up, for instance, will be the first-ever in that sidebar to present only DCPs and no 35mm prints.

Though I'm increasingly finding myself able to appreciate a DCP screening of classic films, I'm far less apt to go out of my way to see one than a 35mm print. Knowing that the latter is becoming scarcer and scarcer only ups the ante on the sense of "unique event" that running a physical print through a projector really was all along, no matter how ubiquitous it seemed. Scarcity of digital screenings of any given title feels far more artificial; there's far less of a physical barrier to a cinema projecting a digital copy of a classic than there is to screening one of a finite number of prints. Still, sometimes I want to see a movie on a cinema screen no matter how it's presented. It never really bothered me that prior SFIFFs included video-projected showings of Latin American rarities like Los Inundados and We Are The Music; how else was I going to see these great works otherwise? Short of going back in time to 2009 (the last time All That Jazz showed in 35mm in the Bay Area, as far as I can recall), tonight's showing is as good as we're likely to get.

HOW: All the usual sources have said that All That Jazz screens from a DCP. But the Film Foundation's own website lists it as a 35mm print. This discrepancy raises an eyebrow only because last year the Film Foundation shipped both a DCP and a 35mm print of The Mattei Affair to the festival, which was lucky because the DCP proved to be technically troublesome at the PFA. Assuming the festival is similarly prepared this year, might it be worth crossing fingers for a snafu?

OTHER SFIFF OPTIONS: SFIFF's Day 9 features another revived title: Lino Brocka's Manila In The Claws of Light. The final screening of the gripping marital-conflict drama If You Don't, I Will starring Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos and the sole festival screening of Boyhood with director Richard Linklater in person also happen today, although if you don't have a ticket already you'll need to wait in the Rush Line for these latter two showings.

NON-SFIFF OPTION: A double-bill of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Sorry, Wrong Number defies the trend of DCPs superceding 35mm prints forever, as the latter fairly recently screened at the PFA as a DCP, but will show in 35mm, like the rest of the Stanford's current Barbara Stanwyck series. It runs through Sunday.

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