February 14, 1972 [Cabaret]

It’s been a difficult week at the movies:

Despite Michael York’s buttery voice and Great Profile, Cabaret was not the best Valentine I could’ve given my wife. Joel Grey as the Master of Ceremonies haunts that picture like Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs--except in Cabaret he really means it, his compact painted skull-grin ever-growing, having a devilishly good time spreading out the end of the world like a glutton’s banquet, shiny with grease, and ripe.

York’s boyish Englishman stammers around Berlin just long enough to realize they’ll one day come knocking, and he goes home before the jackboot’s heel finds his neck--not yet, at least--but it’s too late for most of them, even the American, Sally, played by Liza Minnelli with a look somewhere between Louise Brooks and Lil Dagover, and with so much forced decadence (it’s expected of her) and desperate optimism (she expects it of herself) that she, too, knows too little, too late.

The movie is of course an impression of the first whiff of World War II--but its politics are so personal, to misquote the feminists, that to nose it out we need Sally and her hesitant beau--and the Jewish Duchess and gigolo, and the rich German who wants to charm every gender--and peering around the corner is the outsider, the homosexual, the Jew, the transvestite, the sensitive ones, in this picture all the same--or at least all in equal danger. Bob Fosse accepts the material: fascism as "simple" prejudice, the xenophobe's fist curling on the blade, and he carves the picture like a cow on the killing floor, sudden slices and splashes of color, a metallic look and clattering echo--laughter, maybe, but too hysterical for mirth.

The musical has been re-invented--even the photo-realism squalor of Oliver! can’t match Cabaret’s expressionist knife-edges--and bursting into song in the movies will never be the same; it's as though Alex in A Clockwork Orange, singin’ in the rain, has turned moralist and scolds as thoroughly as he once brutalized both the innocent and guilty.


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