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A Pretty Song About Dry Rot
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I just came from seeing the film Chicago. Why? I lost a bet. I wagered with a friend who loves the film that if it won Best Picture over The Piano, The Two Towers, Gangs of New York, and The Hours that I'd go see it. It would have to be good, right?

Um, no.

Granted, I've never really liked musicals. Actually, that's not fair. I hate them. But I tried to keep an open mind.

When it was done, my friend was suprised to find that I hated it. Why? The story was marginal, and what there was of it was stocked with characters split evenly into two camps: Manipulators and Suckers. Of the only two halfway decent characters that one might possibly empathize with, one gets hung (some literally throwaway character, the only innocent woman on death row) and the other is too dumb and pathetic for us to care about (the husband...one gets the feeling his wife could put out a cigarette in his left eye and he'd apologize for not having an ashtray available).

The movie, I think, was trying to be cynical, incisive, satirical, and witty. And on each count it failed.

Of course, I could be completely full of crap. It won Best Picture and was widely popular among audiences and critics alike.

But at least I found these two critics who felt the same way I did:

Rob Vaux:

This is an unconscionably smug movie. Smug characters. Smug tone. Smug subject matter, and smug condescension towards its audience. It's infatuated with its own cleverness, staring adoringly at the rampant cynicism that propels it. Certainly, there's nothing wrong with cynicism, but Chicago treats it like a pedestal, lifting the film above the na´ve dupes in the audience that it presumes to lecture. As Roxie's trial proceeds and her fame grows, it eagerly unveils a cornucopia of bad behavior. It revels in its amoral heroines, its remorseless hero, its circus-like portrayal of justice and the media. And yet at the same time, it has the audacity to chide us for craving such material -- to deliver a lesson against the very shortcomings it exemplifies so hungrily. The hypocrisy inherent in its sermonizing reflects a shocking egotism, of which Chicago seems snidely unaware. With the technical elements as overblown as they are, its philosophy becomes absolutely unpalatable. Don't shine a spotlight on the bloodstains and then condemn us for looking. Don't you dare.


And even closer to what I was thinking, Jeffrey Overstreet:


A good satirist exposes and exaggerates a problem to make a point. He explores the subject, so we come away wiser, stinging from the sharpness of his observations. The Player is great satire -- you can tell Altman cares about the conflict between commercial entertainment and art. In Bob Roberts, Tim Robbins is clearly trying to show us how politicians steal our hearts with sleight of hand.

Without a shred of satire, Robert Redford's film Quiz Show treated the subject of media madness better than any film I've seen. At its heart were characters with confused moral compasses, but at least they had moral compasses. We could feel their consciences pricking at them. It was a sobering spectacle.

...

Chicago is not sobering. It does not explore an issue, stinging us with poignant jabs. It just shows us the problem. It's a pretty song about dry rot. It's a can-can about cancer. And having shown us the disease, it then sends us off with all the hoopla of a ticker-tape parade. Showbiz is saying, "Yes, aren't we just awful? Aren't we so naughty? Eight dollars, please."


Yeah, that's pretty much how I felt as I walked out of the theatre.

The film was widely loved and critically acclaimed, but at least I wasn't the only one who hated it, and for the very same reasons.


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