I have been pacing the floor for a year, entangled in this theory that Bob Fosse— dancer, choreographer, filmmaker— is at the heart of the American subconscious.
Look, I know it sounds nutty to say the guy who created Cabaret is one of the fundamental American ventricles through which we filter our deepest thoughts, but hear me out first before you give me a good talking-to.
Most people know who Bob Fosse is, or they’ve heard Fosse’s name bartered and bantered in connection with something, somewhere.
You may know that he’s the original book writer (the plot of a musical) of Chicago[i] and its first choreographer/director.
(The recent film choreography for Chicago is derivative. That choreographer tried to get as far as he could from the Fosse influence. It didn’t work. Fosse will seep into your limbs.)
If you’re not aware of Fosse’s omniscient presence in stage and movie musicals, you’ve seen the fey Robin Williams in Birdcage, the remake of La Cage Aux Folles— shouting “Fosse! Fosse! Fosse!” while he waves his hands around angrily giving the gum-smacking ingénue stage directions.
Even the “jazz hands” joke that gets play still— you know the one— really comes from all Fosse choreography, which is distilled down to rolling hand gestures that flourish from the wrist to the palm to the fingertips.[ii]
Maybe you saw one of Fosse’s movies?
All That Jazz— a singular achievement of autobiography, strangeness, and prescience.
Lenny— a black and white biopic of Lenny Bruce starring Dustin Hoffman.
How about Star 80 with the sad death of Dorothy Stratten?
The non-musicals he wrote and directed were frighteningly good and truly original work.
Now that I have reminded you of the man, shall we open up the American subconscious and take a peek?
I’m convinced you’ll find Bob Fosse in there, uncurled like a sun-warm snake, his smoke-carved face staring straight into the depths of America’s id (which wants a lot of things, both venal and spiritual, things Fosse had in spades) and grinning. Oh, that Fosse!
Common wisdom states that writers (and artists) only have a pack of five or six themes that we shuffle around in the big deck, and what we do with our entire creative lives is look at these relatively few themes from a variety of different angles.
If we’re lucky. If we’re good artists. If we’re terrible, we just make the same thing over and over again in a fugue of ego that everyone else can see, but we cannot.
Fosse had his themes, surely, but he was not one of those tone-deaf artists with one interesting trick. Fosse was the original trickster-figure himself, all angles, all the time, all-American.
His art wrap arms around the big stuff that Americans do, and do not, talk about openly— the connection between sexuality and power; the visceral feel of desire— any desire; boredom as a kind of small death; manipulation of the body, of one’s life, of someone else, of an object.
His characters were tricksters, Americans, all of them, but some were more practiced than others.
Fosse liked people with visible character flaws. (And so do we. We never admit this preference, do we?)
Fosse enjoyed putting his characters in dark and gritty situations. (Quick. Check your TV. How many American crime or hospital procedural dramas are on tonight? Mm-hmm. I thought so.)
Everything in the Fosse world feels like it has a lot of soot on it that needs wiping off. Underneath the soot, you’d find a diamond or an angel or a perfect baseball.
The problem with Fosse’s soot isn’t that it’s there. The problem is that he’s so damn casual about it.
The American subconscious is like that too, by the way.
Consciously, we vocally show our appreciation for Precious Moments figurines; low-cal fusion foods; Madonna’s halftime show at the Super Bowl; and straight, white teeth.
Secretly though, the American subconscious[iii] craves vampires; extra cheese in crazy amounts; Janet Jackson’s halftime show at the Super Bowl; and back tattoos.
We cannot reconcile one half with the other, so America tries to shove its subconscious off onto particular areas of the country.[iv]
The real trouble is that we’re not seeing that these are two halves of the same whole. They aren’t even halves. You don’t get the venal without the spiritual.
The same American body that can fold its arms into so many different forms of prayer can also slip into the sinewy walk that crosses our television screen daily.
Fosse knew this fact of the American Heart of Darkness.
You can see it in All That Jazz when he obsessively takes us through his breakneck day at a breakneck pace, cigarette jammed soggily into his wry mouth in every single scene.
We love our obsessive, success-oriented Americaness; we love the workaholic; we even love sexuality, though it makes us flinch instinctively.
He was, and is, one of us. And we can’t embrace his art. It freaks us out.
Here’s the real truth of Fosse, Fosse as America’s sooty guardian of the subconscious—
Fosse saw who we were, and he didn’t judge.
He took our neuroses in long-legged stride with long-fingered urbane humor. He showed them to us, prettier, funnier, darker. Sometimes we didn’t appreciate it. Fosse rolled his eyes and moved on to the next thing. And that’s a truly American trait.
I can stop pacing now. I think I’ve made my peace, to myself anyway, with this recent cycle of my Fosse obsession.
(It never goes away. There are angles within angles of Fosse left for me to consider.)
Here. Come closer. I will whisper a little more truth if you care to hear it—
Fosse is one of my touchstones.
That man is seated at the table of my soul taking the measure of me, and my honesty.
When I blink closer at my own desires, they are not abstract at all.
They have Fosse-esque flourishes.
Should I look deeper still, Fosse’s smoke-carved face stares back at me with a jackal’s welcoming grin.
My soul loves a talent; my soul loves a trickster.
And my soul?
[i] Chicago was originally written in the 1930s by Maurine Dallas Watkins as a play. It was a commentary on a real wave of crimes of passion in Chicago and the media ridiculousness that surrounded these murders.
[ii]Other Fosse dance attributes— touching the hand to the hip and then to the hat and back to the hip; long, long, long leg extensions especially while seated or leaning; slouching; a pelvis thrust done in profile; sinewy rolls of the arms. You’ve seen all of these things, everywhere— it’s easy to forget that they all come from one man.
[iii] Just so we’re square— yes, I am speaking in broad strokes. No I am not an expert on the American Way of Life. (All caps intended.) Thank you for letting me take liberties, and for your graciousness, let me give you a hug. (I am a hugger!)
[iv] I live in a “flyover” state. I am fighting the temptation to say something ugly. I need to sit here for a second until the feeling passes. Okay. I’m good. Let us continue, shall we? Take my arm, my friend.
The Bob Fosse Mash Note is probably my favorite of all of the Mash Notes I’ve written to date. I’m not sure if I love it because I love Fosse, or if I love it because I was surprised at how strongly I felt, and still feel, about Fosse’s legacy. This story originally ran on April 11, 2012, and its original reception wowed me.
Why a repost? Go here for a partial explanation as to why we’re reposting this week.
A NOTE: I mentioned late last week that I was going on a trip, right? Well, I am in BIG BEND U.S. NATIONAL PARK. It has panoramic vistas and one verrrrry crowded WiFi spot. (See the Bluebird Blvd. FB Page for pictures and links.)
Y’all know that I said I would do my darndest to be online each evening for a bit during these three nights in Big Bend to chat here on Bluebird Blvd, but the fact is— it’s too darn cold and dark, and the next time I will have access, the conditions will be… cold and dark.
What that means is that I’m going to have to catch up with everyone on Saturday afternoon. (Sorry for that!)
I took my very first hike today—ever— and I cannot wait to share some of those pictures. As I said yesterday and it still holds true— I feel very, VERY lucky to know all of you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
THE BLUEBIRD BLVD. GENUINE PHOTOGRAPHY/STORY CONTEST CALL FOR ENTRIES: Theis open! See the link for deets and rules.