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Cabaret, 1972

Cambridge scholar Brian (Michael York) arrives in 1931 Berlin and quickly strikes up a friendship with quirky cabaret star Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli). The two of them attempt to navigate love, sex, and friendship, as the city around them transforms under the rise of the Nazi party.

This is one of those films that I've been meaning to get around to for ages, and I'm not tremendously familiar with Minnelli (outside of her work on Arrested Development and, um, this sketch that I watch way too much).

In any event, I really enjoyed it and in particular the way that the musical numbers were filmed. The camera alternates between an audience point of view, an over-the-shoulder view from the performers, and a sense of being inside one of the dance numbers. I also enjoyed the song and dance numbers themselves, with their mix of highbrow and lowbrow elements and the sense of confidence and community among the performers. The dynamic of having the MC (Joel Grey) serve as this interesting mix of performer ("one of the girls") and as the lone male audience surrogate was neat.

And the anchor of the performances serves as an intriguing background to what is happening in the city at large. The performers strut and dance and sing, even as fascism is creeping up on the country. We get a musical interlude outside of the cabaret, and it is a performance of a chilling patriotic song ("Tomorrow belongs to us") that rouses the adults and even the children. Sometimes it is strange to look at entertainment--especially comedies or other "light" stuff--that was produced during intense global upheaval. In this film, the performers go on doing their thing despite the growing tide of change. And the fact that the cabaret itself is home to many people who would be harmed under fascist rule (the gay MC, a transgender performer) creates a neat tension. How long will this cabaret and its performers hold out? The chilling final shot of the film--in which the distorted reflections of Nazi officers are seen in an on-stage mirror--adds an ominous note.

Surprisingly, the least interesting or compelling part of the film for me was the central story between Brian and Sally. And don't get me wrong, Sally's bold-as-brass personality and the curious relationship that develops between her and Brian is a lot of fun. There is something really appealing about the intersection between her larger than life antics pushing up against his more reserved personality. It's also really nice to see Brian's matter of fact bisexuality just be a normal part of the plot. Sally herself is in this weird carpe diem downward spiral as she waits to break into something bigger. There is certainly something magnetic about Minnelli's Sally, especially when she is performing. I just found that the various romantic plots and squabbles lost my interest as the film went on.

Glad I finally checked this one out!