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GOTT-February 20, 2008

How Do You Like Your Blue-Eyed Boy, Ms. Death?

Mom: Where did you guys go last night?
Me: A movie. Then for coffee.
Mom: What did you see?
Me: All That Jazz.
Mom: Isn’t that rated R? How did you get in?
Me: Um, I’m 17 now, Mom.
Mom: Not that you let that stop you before you turned 17.  I think.
[No reply]
Mom: So what’s All That Jazz about, anyway?
Me: Death, mostly.
Mom: Oh, really!  What’s it got to say about death?
Me: Turns out, death isn’t all that bad.  You get to do a song and dance number with Ben Vereen.  And hang out with Jessica Lange.
Mom: I guess that wouldn’t seem so bad.
Me: Life should be so cool.
(Dialogue dredged up from memory: accuracy questionable at best)

Roy Scheider (1932-2008) – whose actual eye color I never did take any note of – was in some enormously popular movies in the 70s, so, as I suppose is the case with just about everyone I know who’s about my age or older, I’ve seen several of his performances. But when I heard of his death last week, all I found myself thinking about was All That Jazz.

As with any movie I saw while I was in high school (even if I’ve seen it since), I can’t now vouch for its overall quality. In fact, I suspect that All That Jazz was quite a mixed bag. But it had a couple of scenes that have stuck with me. These are probably scenes that are memorable to anyone who saw the movie, but for me, it’s Scheider’s roles in them that I fasten on.

Within just a couple of minutes from the start of the movie, we’re into the great scene in which we’re shown Scheider’s character, director Joe Gideon, trying out dancers for a musical, while we hear the song “On Broadway.” Yes, the editing (by Bob Fosse, the writer/director/editor of the film, on whom the character of Joe Gideon is based) is amazing in how the various shots of the dancers are put to the music we are hearing. But what most struck me was what Scheider and Fosse were able to convey about Gideon without our hearing anything he is saying, by means of some quick shots of him watching and interacting with those trying out for the musical. I won’t try to describe what exactly was conveyed (at least to me) – mostly because I can’t – except to say that much of it is very positive and that the shots in which we see him telling auditioners that they are being rejected are especially telling. This is in some important ways a good guy.

And a guy who, despite his obvious problems in handling meaningful (and not-so-meaningful) relationships, is able to find great joy in being with those he loves, as we can see by watching him watching his ex-wife and his daughter in the scene in which they put on a little dance number just for him.  This is one of the scenes that definitively give the lie to Gideon’s “very theatrical” little philosophy (borrowed, apparently, from Karl Wallenda, who died in a fall (during one of his “death-defying” feats) the year before All That Jazz was made): “To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.”

I don’t know whether we’re supposed to so strongly dislike Gideon and his theatre friends as they’re clowning around in the hospital – or whether there’s any “supposed to” here –, but I do. Where does the vehemence of my antipathy for the particular variety of phoniness I associate with “theatre people” come from? Beyond liking (as well as strongly disliking) Gideon, I wonder whether I came to identify with him?:

: Because I really do love you, Katie
: You mean that?
: Ah, hell, no.  I was pissed off at her.  I don’t know.
Yeah, I did mean it.  Sort of.   Sometimes I don’t
know where the bullshit ends and the truth begins.
I just wanted to say something nice to her.
: Why?
: In case…
: In case…?
: In case.

“Who found forgiveness hard because my(as it happened)self he was”?, to continue my cummings theme.

I guess what Gideon did for me was better prepare me to much better embrace (or at least: come much closer to embracing. do we ever really…) people who like Gideon are very much mixed bags. Of course, we’re all very much mixed bags, at best. That makes the skill of appreciating mixed bags all the more important, I suppose. At any rate, there are certain types of mixed bags, whose mixededness may be particularly salient to me, but whose goodness has been especially nice to encounter, that encountering Gideon better prepared me for.  So, thanks Roy, Bob.

Posted by Keith DeRose


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Very nice post! “To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.” It is a lie, isn’t it. To be on the wire is momentary and epidsodic, at least for most of us. The rest is life. It’s the rest that matters most and is determinative of how one handles those moments “on the wire”. Anyway, I really like what you say at the end about better embracing (or attempting to better embrace)the mixed bags all of us are. God knows it’s not easy. And some mixed bags are more mixed than others and, so, they are extremely difficult to embrace. Do you suppose it’s ever permissible, even if lamentable, not to embrace some? Not to embrace not because you don’t want to or haven’t attempted to, but because some of the mix in some of our mixes is toxic and in virtue of that some actually refuse embrace?

Posted by: kcorcora | February 24, 2008 at 01:50 PM

Good performance “on the wire,” I think, can be a good part of an excellent life, but it seems dangerously easy for those who spend significant amounts of time on the wire to get addicted to it & focused far too much to it. At least as important are the “little moments you remember when you stop and think back over your life,” as Charles Schulz put it; on this see Richard Beck’s recent post (part of his series on the theology of the Peanuts), on Happiness is a Warm Puppy: “Like Peanuts Qoheleth gives us no final answer. Happiness is not a grand, enduring thing. It is the joy in the moment and is found wherever you can find it. Will all these moments add up to something more substantial? Qoheleth and Peanuts do not, cannot, answer. And neither can I.” It’s such a moment that’s caught well in the scene I say gives the lie to Gideon’s professed philosophy, and his obvious joy in the scene shows that this philosophy isn’t just wrong in general or wrong about how things should be, but is obviously wrong about Gideon’s own life and actual values.

Sometimes we can’t, and even shouldn’t, embrace, I guess — at least if this is an aspect in which we’re supposed to follow the example of Christ, who had occasion to proclaim such non-embracing things as “You brood of vipers!” On the other hand, I think we’re often called to embrace on occasions where that doesn’t seem to us (or at least to me) the thing to do. I wish I had a formula for this. But I do have a potentially helpful reading suggestion: Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace.

(Incidentally, since I’ve had occasion to mention Beck’s “Theology of the Peanuts” series, I especially recommend his post in that series on depression that takes its title from a line in poem by Byron: “A Fearful Gift.”)

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