Organ of Alliance Marxist-Leninist (North America)
                                Volume 1, Issue 4; April-May 2003 $1.00

A L L I A N C E !  A Revolutionary Communist Monthly

    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.     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 client:     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 standing ovation.

    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 audience.

    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 artistic theory? This was set against traditional – Aristotelian theories. According to Aristotle, all good writing about tragedy involves mimesis, it employs:

    Catharsis is  defined as:     'Mimesis', is a fundamental attribute of Aristotelian dramatic theory, that marks humans out from other animal species:     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.     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:      The aim of alienation was to instal, beyond surprise and astonishment:     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:     The goal of all this was to destroy any "illusion of reality’:     By 1948, he had changed his views and rather than seeing the stage as a ‘lecture hall’ he now asked artists to:     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.

    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.