The thing about great art is that it can mean different things to you at different times in your life. And that point was driven home to me this weekend, when on a whim, I put in the 1979 Bob Fosse film All That Jazz.
I’ve always enjoyed this film for its sly self-parody, depicting choreographer/director “Joe Gideon” (aka Bob Fosse, but played in the film by Roy Scheider) simultaneously trying to launch a Broadway show and finish editing a completely unrelated movie. The parallels to Fosse’s life are obvious, but what makes the film work is that they’re also irrelevant; they add a dimension, but they’re not crucial to enjoying the movie. Taken on its own, it’s a funny, sexy, ultimately tragic story of a man who just…doesn’t…care to stop.
Like the real Fosse, Joe Gideon succumbs to a heart attack brought on by a lifestyle of drinking, drugs, sex and relentless work. The last twenty minutes are Joe’s hallucinations as he slides toward Death, here personified by a young, beautiful Jessica Lange. And it’s this element that really hit me in a new, unexpected way.
For those of you who may not know, I recently had a heart attack myself. It was minor, as these things go–like having your chest crushed by a one-ton boulder instead of, say, a ten-ton one–but it certainly got my attention. And seeing Gideon/Fosse’s completely different reaction to the same experience put my own in a new perspective.
Because Gideon, faced with the need to change, won’t do it. Not can’t–he knows what he needs to fix, has at least a minimal support system (daughter, girlfriend, ex-wife), and is certainly still a vital and creative artist. But he’s always been in love with death, which is why he hallucinates her as a beautiful woman, and even though he has some second thoughts (visualized as grand, hallucinogenic and funny production numbers interspersed with footage of an actual heart bypass operation), he doesn’t seriously try to avoid it.
Well, that’s not me.
And that certainty has me thinking about all the other famous suicides, whether short term (Ian Curtis, Ernest Hemingway) or long haul (Raymond Chandler, Jim Morrison), whose work I admire. And it brings up one of the classic artist conundrums: is artistic greatness inevitably tied to fatal flaws of personality? Did these people create lasting art because of their death wish, or in spite of it? If they’d lived longer, or lived sober, would their art have been better or worse?
There’s no way to know.
But as I recover from my own brush with death (which, trust me, did not feel like the caress of a beautiful woman), I find myself pondering it a great deal.