Fellini, Fosse, Woody, Sondheim, and Stew

I've got a great idea for a film festival. Five nights, five films.

8 1/2 (1963)
All That Jazz (1979)
Stardust Memories (1980)
Sunday in the Park with George (1984)
Passing Strange (2008)

And lucky for us, all five are on video.

All five works are surrealistic, existential, deeply personal, richly symbolic, autobiographical fiction, created by great artists at the peak of their powers about great artists at the peak of their powers. All five are about the difficulty of juggling life and art. And consequently, all five are about men who treat the women in their lives terribly and then blame it on their art.

Like the central character in Bukowsical (which New Line will produce this summer) all the protagonists in these works are misfits. They can't find their place in the world because they aren't like everybody else. They are the tribe shamans. They can observe our world and make sense of it because they stand outside of it, but the price of that clear-eyed objectivity is an inability to connect one-on-one. It's maybe the most ironic thing about each of these artists/characters -- they connect powerfully to their audiences yet cannot connect at all to the people in their lives. Or as All That Jazz puts it, "He allowed himself to be adored, but not loved." Yikes.

All five of these works are also self-referring, pieces of art about making pieces of art, and in the case of Passing Strange, a piece of art about the artist/narrator/hero making the piece of art we're watching. Passing Strange itself is its own hero's acquired "wisdom" through his hero quest, the answer to his existential questions, and it's also the show we're watching. Throughout his journey, the Youth seeks the expression that is the show itself; but he and we don't know that till the end.

All five of these works have twists and quirks like that, doubling back on themselves like a Brechtian Mobius strip, refracting reality like a funhouse mirror, making the autobiography both hidden and explicit. All five central characters are searching for what Passing Strange calls The Real, whether that's purity and meaning in art, or personal enlightenment, or both tangled together. But all five endings are ambiguous: do they find The Real? The underlying point in all five cases is that finding The Real is not the point; the search is what matters. As in all the great hero myths, it's not the destination; it's what you've learned along the way. And the ultimate lesson in Passing Strange -- that everyone has his own road to The Real, and that someone else's road will never lead to your Real -- also resonates within the other four as well. Just as each has his own artistic voice, he also has his own path, both to enlightenment and to art making.
Anything you do,
Let it come from you;
Then it will be new.

The critic in 8 1/2 says to Guido, "Such a monstrous presumption to think that others could benefit from the squalid catalog of your mistakes. And how do you benefit from stringing together the tattered pieces of your life?" Of course what the critic doesn't understand is that's the whole point of storytelling, to reveal the universal in the specific, to make order out of the chaos of the world. It's Fellini's dry sense of humor that places these clueless words in the mouth of a critic.

The side lesson in all this is that the way we move forward down our individual roads is by making choices, good ones and bad ones, and those choices become our story. As Sunday in the Park's "Zen" Dot sings to George in Act II:
I chose and my world was shaken,
So what?
The choice may have been mistaken;
The choosing was not.
You have to move on.

The secret to life, they all ultimately discover, is simply to stay on the road and embrace the journey. All just variations on the Zen philosophy, really. By the end of each piece, they -- and we -- realize that the classic hero story is just a human life in miniature. Art is life. Life in the form of a circus, a film, a painting, a musical, whatever the form. For each of these artists, his life is his art, and quite literally, his art is his life. And at the climax of each of these five works, the central character has a crisis of faith and has to confront his art -- in other words, himself.

Of course, there's another film that matches all the same criteria and maybe ought to be on the list -- John Waters' brilliant freak show Cecil B. Demented, autobiographical fiction about Waters' own "cultural terrorism." But Waters was born with his tongue in his cheek and it's sometimes hard to tell when he's saying something profound to us and when he's just fucking with us. Does Cecil B. Demented come from the same place as these other works? Or is it mocking them? Or both? Maybe the fact that we can't tell -- or that it might be both -- is a hint that the joke's on us. But it's always a good bet that there's a lot more going on in a John Waters movie than you first think or that he'll admit.

Maybe this all sounds like pretentious artsy bullshit. I might have even thought so when I was younger. But I learned a long time ago, when you're working with great works of art, any time you're sure you've seen everything there is to see, there's always more there. That's what makes them great works of art. They're simple and clear in some ways and infinitely complex and beautiful in others.

I remember the first time I saw 8 1/2. Blew my fucking mind. When it was over, I thought to myself, Movies can be THAT? It was like someone had just opened a giant door and light came streaming in. Suddenly all those mainstream studio movies I've seen over my lifetime seemed like the equivalent of finger painting. I felt the same way the first time I saw Hair, Company, and Bat Boy. It was while watching Fellini's masterpiece that I first understood how to just "go for the ride," and not insist on understanding every single micro-moment along the way. And that realization allowed me to fall in love with shows like A New Brain, Jacques Brel, and The Blue Flower, and at long last, David Lynch movies.

When you see my five (six?) film festival picks in chronological order, you can see deliberate echoes of 8 1/2 in every other piece, not just themes but visual moments, camera shots, dialogue. I wonder if an artist decides he's going to make his own version of 8 1/2? Or is there just some similar impulse in all these great -- and yes, fucked up -- artists that led them all down the same road? What's great for us as audience is that even though they're all going down a similar road, those roads like nothing alike.

All That Jazz has always been one of my favorite movies, such a powerful, complicated, beautiful piece of movie-making. It's like a Chinese puzzle box of self-reference -- Fosse referring (really specifically) to his own life and work, and also this autobiographical film showing us the making of this autobiographical film, with Fosse's stand-in Joe Gideon as both director and star. (In both Passing Strange and Stardust Memories, there's no stand-in; the artist plays himself.) I think All That Jazz easily measures up to 8 1/2, and if you watch them in order, you can clearly see lots of Fellini in Fosse. In the finale of All That Jazz, the mind-blowing "Bye Bye Life," Fosse did to movie musicals what Fellini did to filmmaking in general -- upended everything and changed all the rules. So complex, so visceral, so emotional, so expressionistic, so Brechtian, and all at once.

Sunday in the Park with George is unique among these pieces in that the hero is not just a fictionalized version of the creator, but here in the guise of another real-life artist working in another medium in another time and place. What's most interesting here, as in the other works, is to see how Sondheim thinks the world perceives him. I don't know if Stew and Fellini are/were fucked up, but we sure know that Fosse, Woody, and Uncle Steve were/are pretty fucked up. Look at how Sondheim thinks Dot thinks about George:
George's stroke is tender,
George's touch is pure.
Your eyes, George,
I love your eyes, George.
I love your beard, George.
I love your size, George.
But most, George, of all,
But most of all,
I love your painting.

She doesn't fully love him for himself, only for his art. Is this how Sondheim sees his personal relationships? By the end of this section, we realize Dot isn't talking about George's physical touch here, but the artistry of his brushstroke. We see this psychic damage most graphically -- but also most subtextually -- in the song "Finishing the Hat," in which George/Sondheim tries to justify the emotional abuse of others. Sondheim knows exactly what George is revealing here, even if George clearly does not: I'm allowed to be an asshole because I'm a tortured artist and you knew that's who I was when you met me.

As I wrote in my book Deconstructing Harold Hill and also in a blog post last year, this isn't a song about art; it's a song about blame. It isn't a celebration of the nobility of art making, as many people think; it's the justification of emotional terrorism by an emotionally crippled man. Sondheim is not stopping his story for a feel-good Think Piece on the Nature of Art. After all, this is Sunday in the Park with George, not Sunday in the Park with Art. My post about this song examines the lyric very closely, and there's enough there to suggest that Sondheim is far more clear-eyed and self-aware than George is and knows full well the complexity of the morality and emotion in this song. As it is with the other artists in my little film festival, this kind of naked self-examination seems to be easier in the form of surrealistic fiction, but truth is truth. All these artists admit their selfishness, their neediness, their tunnel vision, their inability to connect on a human level.

And after all, what's the point of art that does not reveal truth?

Connection is a theme running through most of the works of all these artists. After all, what more primal human need is there than connection? And what is the point of making art if not the powerful connection between artist and audience?

So watch all five of these videos (and throw in Demented too if you dare), and see if you don't see more than you did before. Dot asks George to "Give us more to see." These artists all do. Let me know if you have your own film festival and if it was as cool for you as it's been for me. I think it will be.

Long Live the Musical!