Read This: Fosse

When Sam Wasson saw Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz for a film course as an undergrad at Wesleyan in 2001, he “felt something… like depressive exhilaration,” he recalls. “It ate my imagination. I’d had some version of that feeling before, of being consumed by a great work, but it had always registered more like catharsis. It felt good. All That Jazz I loved with an intensity that erased me.”

His reaction isn’t hard to understand. All That Jazz is the type of overwhelming creative vision that can convince even the most hardened materialist to accept the auteur theory—but, more than that, it’s one of a handful of films where the filmmaker’s vision becomes inseparable from his personality to the point that you find yourself on a guided tour of his psyche. In Fosse’s case, despite his superficial attempts to obscure the issue, it was an explicitly autobiographical tour spurred by a series of heart attacks in 1975, when he was simultaneously trying to edit the film Lenny and launch the original Broadway production of Chicago. The film’s climactic number, “Bye Bye Life,” stretches the Everly Brothers classic “Bye Bye Love” so far that it nearly becomes meditative—and would be, if it weren’t for the non-stop choreography and the way Fosse extends the dream-like quality of the Hollywood dance sequence into a provocatively surreal realm… then brutally pulls the rug out from under his fictional stand-in (played by Roy Scheider) and the audience.

That college screening planted a seed in Wasson that has culminated, more than a decade later, in Fosse, a massive biography that builds upon previous accounts of the director-choreographer’s life with extensive original research and interviews. His efforts to explain his subject’s genius are relentlessly psychological, taking its cues from the outline Fosse himself laid out: Scarred by his adolescent experiences working alongside sexually aggressive burlesque dancers, in an environment his parents should have known enough to keep him from, he would grow up to love and hate show business with equal passion, sublimating the moves he learned in those cheap joints for the Broadway stage and the big screen. For Wasson, that process becomes a consistently frustrated attempt to work through his youthful suffering.


13 January 2014 | read this |

Read This: Full Fathom Five

Gordon Chaplin, Full Fathom Five

I recently met Gordon Chaplin to talk about his memoir Full Fathom Five, with an eye towards an episode of the Life Stories podcast. As sometimes (though fortunately not very often) happens, the sound on our recorded conversation wasn’t quite where I’d like it to be for public consumption, so that plan fell through—but I do hope that you’ll have a look at Chaplin’s story of picking up the legacy of his marine zoologist father, who co-authored the definitive Fishes of the Bahamas and Adjacent Tropical Waters. As a young boy, Chaplin actually helped his father with some of the research; fifty years later, he was invited to return to the Bahamas (although there was a period when, having been busted for possession, he was banned from the country) to see how aquatic life in the region had changed.

Full Fathom Five isn’t Chaplin’s first memoir; in Dark Wind (1999), he writes about attempting to sail across the Pacific with his first wife and losing her during a typhoon. They were holding on to each other through the storm, when she slipped out of his grasp and into the water; he’s still haunted by the choice not to keep plunging under the waves to try to find her, even though he knows rationally that he almost certainly would have died as well if he had. “Every time I go in the water, I feel close to Susan,” he told me, and that’s one of the reasons he took the title for this book from a passage in The Tempest that was recited at her funeral. That led us to a discussion of the allure of the dropoff, the point in the underwater topography at which the bottom suddenly plunges, like the face of a cliff. “I think that pull is stronger for me than it is for most divers, because I have these—I won’t call them ghosts,” he said, “but I do have a feeling that if I went down there, I might find the people I’ve lost.”

Chaplin also revealed how writing Full Fathom Five led to discoveries and realizations about his parents’ relationship that he probably wouldn’t have made otherwise. “I read all of my father’s diaries, I read his field notes, I read all of my mother’s diaries,” he recalled. “I read every single account I could find of my family, none of which I’d read before.” The biggest revelation may have been about his father’s transformation from a poor but adventurous young man who married into money and was recast as a rich woman’s consort. But he was sensitive to being branded as a gold digger, and refused to settle for that life. “Instead, he developed himself into a world-class scientist,” Chaplin explained, “and I hadn’t appreciated how that happened. I still don’t quite understand how it happened, but I can see now that it did. Before, I hadn’t respected that change [in his life] nearly as much as I do now.”

22 November 2013 | read this |

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