Earlier this month, the Authors & Auteurs book club convened to screen the 1972 musical Cabaret and discussed its source material, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. For those not in the know of the subject matter of the works at hand, both center on lonely characters living abroad in Berlin during the rise of the Third Reich. After discussing the relevancy of the subject matter, the focus of the character of Sally Bowles, and the depiction of gay characters in 1970s cinema, the meeting had to unfortunately adjourn. Long past the meeting Chris and Gregory continued to discuss the movie musical, Weimar-era cinema, and LGBTQ representation all of which intersect to make Cabaret a classic.
GREGORY: What attracts you the most about the musical as a movie genre?
CHRIS: Musicals arrive in film right as the most lavish and full capabilities of the medium are all coming into their own. There’s a feeling of combustible movement and freedom right into the present and like so much of genre, they are mutable to a story’s or storyteller’s needs. The best make you feel like you’re departing a scrumptious feast.
G: I completely agree. Musicals are truly the maximization of cinema. When I think of musicals I’m instantly reminded of Technicolor or Color by Deluxe and how much of a treat those color pictures are from the classic Hollywood era. What was the movie that brought you to the genre?
C: The Lion King. I grew up through the Disney Renaissance, and granted I had seen more than a few of the animated musical format the studio is famous for, but both seeing this in a theater and at an impressionable age cemented my love of animation and this cinema mode.
G: I also grew up during the Disney Renaissance, but for some reason or other, it never stuck with me the way it has for a lot of other people of my generation. Just a number of years ago, I finally saw The Red Shoes, and even though it isn’t a straight-forward musical that uninterrupted ballet segment is what opened my eyes to musical as a genre.
Next question: if someone who had never seen a movie musical asked you to recommend one movie, what would it be?
C: Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. It’s a musical fatally tied to the cost and terrible power of song and dance, a great historical record of New York in the late seventies, and perhaps more than any other musical a great dissolution of space and time into memory and heightened awareness. One of my favorites and a good gateway to push anyone eventually to the height of the film musical period of the 40s through the 60s.
G: Fosse’s really one of a kind. I have to confess, I’ve never seen any of the pictures that he just did choreography for. But the two big ‘70s musicals he directed are monumental. Going back to Cabaret again, he not only had a handle on choreography of performers, but he also instinctively knew how to move the camera around those performers. And his editing is just as good.
C: Alright, my turn. What movie brought you to Weimar Era Cinema? (The German films made following WWI up until the Nazi Party’s ascendancy.)
G: M. It wasn’t the first picture I’d seen from the era, but it was the first one that really hit me. The fashion – the leather gloves and heavy coats, the streets and architecture, the moral complexity, and the smoking – my god the smoking in the picture. Smoking is so palpable the screen here and in any Lang picture. But it is the first picture of its kind: part serial killer thriller, police procedural, heist film, and one of the great screen performances of the era from Peter Lorre. And you?
C: I guess we’re gonna have a Fritz Lang consensus. Metropolis came in right as I was actively diving into film head first, around fifteen or sixteen, and it revealed itself as such a proto-text to so many films and science fiction literature and art. Still its power is its own; there has never been anything the yields in quite the same way. Talking now, I realize I must watch it again immediately. What makes you fond of the Weimar Era?
G: The innovations, the other-worldly aspect of how the German’s saw what cinema could be. They really looked forward but figuratively they were addressing what was going on in their country at the time. Metropolis, The Last Laugh, Pandora’s Box, The Blue Angel all are technically innovative, but very much about the era they came from. German expressionism too, which is seen in every film noir and Tim Burton picture. And the era gave us Marlene Dietrich, a movie star and personality for the ages.
C: Once you start pulling into world cinema, you can really only avoid the German silent classics if you’re adamant against watching them. Like so much of the early film days, experimentation is rampant and the sense of freedom and daring unlike anything else. Silent’s always felt among the closest to dreamscape.
Okay, say someone asks you to recommend a Weimar movie, someone who has never seen anything at all? What’s the go to?
G: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. It’s a comic book movie without a comic book hero about the rise of a Hitler-type supervillain. Its Fritz Lang’s last movie in the country before fleeing to England and then of course the war followed. But this picture has all of the things I mentioned earlier that I love about pictures from the era as well as being The Dark Knight of 85 years ago. Is there one for you?
C: I’ll copy your first answer and go with M. Everyone’s going to think Lang made all these movies, but he’s so damn good. You can see the transition into sound and the stark contrasts of silence and foley that they ultimately design. M’s filled with the aches and pains of every street dweller, family, and criminal element of its day and still one of the best thrillers ever.
G: One thing we discussed heavily during our book club meeting was the depiction of the queer characters in Cabaret. Some of our fellow book club attendees, who are a few decades older than us, said they remember watching the picture as children and don’t remember there being an uproar or conflict about having queer characters in the movie. But in today’s political climate, it felt like this movie still had potency and danger to cause controversy among certain demographics.
Cabaret broke barriers in mainstream American cinema as far as LGBTQ characters were represented, to comes right at the cusp of the fall of the Hayes Code where these types of characters had to be handled in a coded manner. Any movies in particular stand out to you as bucking that old system in this regard?
C: A few come to mind, all with special places in my heart – I should say that in art and life, subversion of the arbitrary always does well for my soul. Claude Rains’ Captain Renault in Casablanca is a fascinating study in curvy bisexual innuendoes from start to finish and although it was originally cut and then reinserted, Laurence Olivier’s conference with Tony Curtis in Spartacus, “My taste includes both snails and oysters,” was about as open an assault against the censors as could be imagined in the early sixties.
My favorite though is Johnny Guitar. It’s an open subversion of fifties norms right away, because the most powerful figures in the story are the women (Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge). Ostensibly it’s a story about how Crawford’s Vienna reunites with an old flame to fight the machinations and ill fortune of an openly hostile posse lead by McCambridge’s Emma, but watch it now and you can’t deny that Emma’s obsessive rage towards Vienna digs so psychically deep, the true jilted lovers are the ladies only.
G: Oh God, Johnny Guitar is such a great picture. And you’re right, the subversion of norms in that picture is so wonderful. What a statement to have Joan Crawford literally wearing pants. That same subversion, which was buried by all the teenage angst, is in Rebel Without a Cause. The character of Plato is clearly in love with Jim Stark.
For me though, I have to go with Samuel Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James. In the end after Robert Ford has shot Jesse James, he laments “I want to tell you something I ain’t never told anyone. I’m sorry for what I done to Jess. I loved him.” I have to also throw in, even though it pre-dates the Hollywood censors, Marlene Dietrich kissing another woman in Morocco which is in the ‘30s for Pete’s sake.
Well, we could go on and on about these movies, really we could just ask our fellow booksellers, but we’ll call it curtains here. Come join us on the first Sunday of every month as we screen big-screen adaptations and talk about not only the source material but the culture of movies and circumstances around the works.