25 August 2003

“Chicago” and contemporary nihilism

This weekend Nancy and I finally saw the Academy Award-winning film, “Chicago,” which has just come out on video. For those of you who haven’t yet seen it, it’s a cleverly put together musical about two women in the 1920s Windy City who are on trial for murder and have aspirations for stardom on the stage. Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones put on masterful performances as the star-struck killers, while Richard Gere is both amusing and despicable as their unscrupulous, money-grubbing and publicity-hounding lawyer. The songs are true to the frivolous atmosphere of the jazz age. The film is based on a play of the same name that has played theatres for nearly three decades.

Roger Ebert’s review of the film concentrates on the technical aspects, the performances of the actors, the choreography and, of course, the music. There is more than one level on which one could evaluate the film. First, one could see it as a visual and musical extravaganza, similar to the Busby Berkeley films of the 1930s. And if so, then the plot is clearly secondary. One experiences such a film much as one would experience a piece of music or perhaps even a circus performance. Second, one could see it as a satire on the public’s insatiable quest for celebrities, even if the latter have achieved their notoriety through criminal acts.

Third, one could see the plot as evidence of a kind of nihilism that pervades our society at the beginning of a new century. After all, the “heroine” breaks virtually every precept of the decalogue and not only survives, but even prospers. She is utterly shallow and self-centred, willing to use and abuse others to get what she wants out of life. She is loyal to no one, not even to a doting husband willing to take her back after she has betrayed him in numerous ways.

In 1940 Alfred Hitchcock was made to change the ending to his classic “Rebecca” because the Hays Code, in place since 1930, would not allow Hollywood film-makers to leave a murderer unpunished. Apparently audiences would not have stood for a plotline where justice was left undone. Much has obviously changed in the last nearly four decades. Is this progress? I doubt it. If the musical is really on its way back, then I hope there will be some whose plotlines tout the seemingly unfashionable virtues of fidelity and responsibility.

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