Organ of Alliance Marxist-Leninist (North
Volume 1, Issue 4; April-May 2003 $1.00
L L I A N C E ! A Revolutionary Communist
"A Modern Brechtian View of
Alliance ML does not usually review Hollywood Oscar
winners, but we will make an exception. For Rob Marshall and Bob Fosse’s
“Chicago” wittily, and entertainingly exposes the cynicism of a capitalist
hey-day, set in the Jazzed and hyped middle 30’s of rampant USA. This film
brilliantly depicts the illegitimacy of bourgeois law, press power
and the utter corruption of capitalism, which dangles a false glamour to
susceptible poor, offering a mythical ‘easy out'. At the core of the film
is a spectacular dancing that that pays homage to Brecht.
You are intended to be reminded of a Berlin cabaret of the 30’s. The story
is a stalwart, encapsulating stories of the Depression and early capitalism
described by writers as various as Maxim Gorki
(see the City of Gold), Theodore Dreiser
(Stella), and Upton Sinclair
(The Jungle). The story is old as capital, and will only with it.
by Hari Kumar.
The story and the dazzling dances.
Roxie (Renne Zellwegger), born on a chicken farm
in the mid-West, goes to the big city yearning to be “somebody”. She marries
for security but wants to become a dancer. So what does a young pretty
naïf need? An “introduction”. Comes along a furniture salesman who
“wants a piece of her ass”, and pretends to know cabaret owners. Having
had his way with her for a month, he roughs her up in her own home, and
she finds her husband’s gun and shots him. The wannabe finds herself in
jail with other murderesses. Ensues the “Jail-Women
Dance”. Some half-a-dozen women behind bars tell stories
of revenge upon the men who preyed upon them and sucked their life-juice
while abusing them, two-timing them etc. That this is done by uniformly
beautiful women who wear skimpy clothes while dancing is a problem. Nonetheless,
the killing of the men is mimed with a stunning visual ferocity. Each woman
comes out from behind bars and dances her story - only one lady of whom
is truly innocent. The dance cuts back and forth from the horrific cell
to the outside cabaret stage. The resonating theme is what is the motive
force of crime in society?
The answer here, is the intense male chauvinism
of capitalist society, and the commodification of women as objects
purely of sex. One key murderess-protagonist (Catherine Zeta Jones)
is a successful dancer, who murdered her own sister-dance partner, and
her own husband. The wannabe wants out of jail. For a fee, a corrupt prison
boss (“Moma” – played by Lady Latifah) puts her in touch with a
corrupt lawyer (Richard Gere) who gets her off with spectacular
flummery. The dance (“The Razzmatazz”),
in the court room, is a tour-de-force of lie versus counter-lie,
showing the futility of “justice” in this system. The lawyer tells his
“How can they see with sequins in their eyes?“
In the meantime the one innocent on Death Row, loses
her appeal and is executed. Another dance cuts back and forth between a
cabaret of the “Amazing Disappearing Act of the
Hungarian“ and the real-life actual execution. Both victims
ascend stairs to a scaffold. While the real innocent dies, and her corpse
is trundled away, the cabaret actress is applauded by a dinner-jacketed
and “It’s all a circus, this trial the whole world”;
“What if in fact if you’re so disgusting? - Give them the old flim-flam,
Just razzle-dazzle them!”
Throughout all this another theme plays out – the
fickleness of the press and its manipulation by
the law and the city powers, and the manner in which it acts as a transmission
belt to the masses. When the murderess Roxie meets the press
for the first time under the tutelage of her rich sleaze-bag lawyer, she
is a marionette on his lap while he operates her body and soul, and this
“Doll” dance also shows the entire
process controlled by wires to a puppet master – the lawyer.
Of course she gets off the charges. But finding a job isn’t so easy.
She had hoped to establish a career on the wave of publicity from her trial
But,to her chagrin, even as she is freed, the press rush off to a murder
committed on the steps of the court-house and neglect to interview her.
Until she links up with the surviving twin - who together with her forms
the smash double act “the Killing Sisters - The
Double Killers – The Scintillating Killers”. In the dinner-jacketed
audience are the admiring lawyer and the crooked jail-warden.
Who Are the Real Stars?
While the film obtained several Oscars, including
as ‘best picture’, the real star is capitalism,
and its’ transmission belts - the law and the
press. The scene where the lawyer ‘conducts’ the marionettes
of his client, and the press and its ‘moral crusader’ journalists savages
the stark reality of yellow journalism. The film seems to draw back from
the precipice, and apparently declares a happy ending. Perhaps it partially
fails here. The film tries to be a savage expose and caricature while being
entertaining. But as soon as it veers more towards the entertainment end
of the end of the spectrum, it becomes less true, and less ‘real’ – and
less satisfying. In this vein, all the murderesses are depicted as beautiful
– not a single one is ‘ordinary’-looking. But is it only the ‘beautiful
women who are the ones abused in this society? Of course not. However,
despite this flawed depiction of capital society, the real star of the
show shines out – naked rapacious capitalist relations that distorts both
peoples lives’, and often their own perceptions of what is desirable. Roxie
wants ”fame” and stage glory. Even the film’s ending can be read as showing
that liars and cheats succeed in this society, and they do not even
need to disguise very hard their true violent selves. Even their stage
act celebrates the source of their success – their billing “The Scintillating
Killers” – and their final dance act, where they fire toy rifles at the
Brechtian Influences on this film
There is no doubt that the film is explicitly modeled
on Bertolt Brecht's influences. Elsewhere,
we examine in more detail, Brecht’s artistic legacy. Brecht’s influence
is undoubtedly double-edged. While some of his plays were progressive,
some were definitely not and espoused a petit-bourgeois viewpoint. He was
certainly anti-Stalinist and moreover he capitulated to the McCarthy
Commission in the most craven manner.
But what about the Brechtian
This was set against traditional – Aristotelian theories. According to
Aristotle, all good writing about tragedy
involves mimesis, it employs:
“ . . . the mode of enactment, not narrative; and through pity and
fear accomplishing the catharsis of such emotions".
(Aristotle: 'Poetics', Chapter 6, in: Aristotle: 'Poetics': Longinus:
'On the Sublime': Demetrius: 'On Style'; Cambridge (USA); 1995; p. 47-49).
“ . . . the purification of the emotions by vicarious experience, especially
through the drama". ('Oxford English Dictionary', Volume 2; Oxford; 1989;
'Mimesis', is a
fundamental attribute of Aristotelian dramatic theory, that marks humans
out from other animal species:
"It is an instinct of human beings from childhood to engage in mimesis
(indeed, this distinguishes them from other animals".
Brecht began to formulate his theory of aesthetics in
the late 1920s, objecting to what he called the “theatre
of illusion'. Prior to Brecht, the foremost German dramatists
- Goethe and Schiller had based their
works and theory on Aristotle's 'Poetics', the drama of catharsis
by terror and pity. But Brecht objected to identification with characters.
(Aristotle" 'Poetics', Chapter 4;, in: ibid.; p. 37).
"The audience, in his view, should not be made to feel emotions -
It should be made to think".
Brecht evolved an aesthetic theory which he called the
'Verfremdungs Effekt'. Literally, this
means 'a distancing effect', or 'alienation'. This theory was set against
the Aristotelian principles noted above. In opposition to both Aristotelian
dramatic principles, and to the Marxist-Leninist aesthetics of 'socialist
realism', Brecht postulates in his dramatic theory of alienation
that the aim of the dramatist should be:
(Martin Esslin: 'Brecht: A Choice of Evils: A Critical Study of the
Man, His Work and his Opinions'; London; 1980; p. 114).
“ . . . to make the audience realise that what it sees on the stage
is merely an account of past events that it should watch with critical
detachment. Hence, the 'epic' (narrative, non?dramatic) theatre is based
on . . . devices that remind the spectator that he is being presented with
a demonstration of human behaviour in scientific spirit rather than with
an illusion of reality, in short, that the theatre is only a theatre and
not the world itself".
The aim of alienation was to instal, beyond surprise
('New Encyclopaedia Britannica'. p. 493).
“ . . . an attitude of inquiry and criticism". (Brecht, Ibid, p.136).
Brecht’s anti-realist philosophy of the theatre developed
the thesis that ‘Naturalism is a superficial realism’. He tried to present
this as being necessary since “Life must be observed through a missing
“fourth wall”. The meaning of this is made clear as follows:
"It is of course necessary to drop the assumption that there is a fourth
wall cutting the audience off from the stage and the consequent illusion
that the stage action is taking place in reality and without an audience".
The goal of all this was to destroy any "illusion of
(Bertolt Brecht: 'Short Description of a New Technique of Acting which
produces an Alienation Effect' (1940), p. 136).
"The theatre must do its best to destroy in the bud any illusion of
reality… The producer must strive to produce by all the means at his disposal
effects which will keep the audience separate, estranged, alienated from
the action…………At first, it . . . the Brechtian stage approximates to the
By 1948, he had changed his views and rather than seeing
the stage as a ‘lecture hall’ he now asked artists to:
(Martin Esslin: p. 115-116).
“Let us treat the theatre as a place of entertainment".
Although normal expectations in theatre had been to
develop an empathy between the actors and the audience, Brecht repudiated
this. Brecht’s theatre is suited to parody, and to caricature, and is therefore
essentially a negative theatre.
(Brecht: 'Klieines Organum fuer das Theater', in 'Versuche 12;', p.
This is the precise manner in which the film ‘Chicago’
is framed. It is a parody of the pretensions of bourgeois law. But it offers
nothing in its place. Not even human decency – since there apparently is
none! This film finally then, is an entertaiing and brilliantly nihilistic
savaging of society. Nothing worthwhile is offered in its place. Naturally
this is consistent with its Oscar winning.
But, it is the best of bourgeois critical satire.
It is worth seeing.