In Blood of a Poet [Le Sang d'un poète], Cocteau films the ordeal the poet must undertake so that his art will be realized, and accepted by others. He had originally planned to make an animated cartoon entitled La Vie d'un poète or La Naissance de poésie, but changed to the present title since the central image is blood, which the poet must expend to create the work of art and have it reach a public. In the course of the 1930 episodic film, the poet-sculptor-painter brings a statue to life, attains brief notoriety, but eventually loses control over his creation, a statue turned into a woman, in a card game, and as a result shoots himself, much to the enjoyment and applause of the audience, who thus make his death his crowning achievement. The woman returns to her statue form and the film ends with a smokestack, which began to collapse at the start of the film, now crumbling completely to the ground. Thus, the entire film takes place in the short objective time that it takes a chimney to fall, but in an infinite subjective time of the poet's life. Likewise, Bob Fosse's 1979 film All That Jazz is the life story of writer-director-filmmaker-choreographer Joe Gideon, which takes place in between conversations with Angélique, his Angel of Death-poetic inspiration-subconscience, and culminates with a smashing performance, accompanied by a black male dancer and two female dancers disguised as arteries and veins, in front of all the acquaintances of his life, past and present. In essence, he has orchestrated his whole life to this death number. During his career, his critics accused him of using razzle-dazzle to hide the lack of serious drama or talent, much as Cocteau has been snubbed for being a "petit maïtre." At first it was Fosse's use of the beautiful woman as the personification of death which reminded me of Cocteau's text of the angel of death in the 1950 film Orpheus [Orphée], but upon repeated viewing, I see more intertextuality in Blood of a Poet, especially the death scene episode, which gives light on Fosse's concern with performance, blood, death, and the role of the audience. This article will study the use of audience in Cocteau's film, Fosse's film, and in Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, with concluding remarks to help us experience these works more intensely.
1. Blood of a Poet
The image of blood represents the inside or subconscious level of the poet and it should not make us uneasy, nor deter us from seeing the whole work. In Difficulty of Being [La Difficulté de l'être], Cocteau advises that, "you cannot enjoy the ports of call, if you don't know the river"(53). In the poem in Opéra, "The Bad Students" ["Les mauvais élèves"], the poet believes that dreams are rooted in the veins and arteries and one has to bleed to bring them out in the open:
C'est une encre légère le sang des dormeurs
Qui par la bouche sort des racines du cou.
2. All That Jazz
Fosse's All That Jazz has a similar death finale "Bye Bye Life" loosely adapted from the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love," and while the film has a linear story, Joe Gideon's trials as he writes and choreographs a play entitled N.Y. to L.A., edits a film called The Stand-Up, mismanages his relationship[s with his wife, daughter, and girlfriend, has a heart attack, undergoes an operation, and eventually dies, the film, with Fosse's use of cross-fades, where voices of one scene are faded to images of another, bombards us with flashbacks, interweaving plots, and an on-going conversation-interview with his angel of death Angélique who questions him on life, love, art, and women, who flirts with him, and eventually plays the role of nurse as she prepares him for his death number. Cocteau's mouth-wound calling for air, which is the work's desire to leave the artist, is heard in Joe Gideon's chronic cough during his morning ritual, and necessary artistic preparation period, where he soothes his bloodshot eyes, showers, takes dexedrin, and then turns to us and announces, "It's Showtime folks." The blood image manifests itself in the "heart operation-insurance discussion" scene, a cross-cut sequence where alternately we see doctors cut Joe to repair his heart, and the producers at the conference table who carve Joe up discussing possibilities to kill his show and therefore profit 1/2 million dollars from the insurance company. In the finale, as the operating room amphitheatre becomes the showroom for his death number, he is dressed in black, makes his entrance on top of an elevating column, accompanied by O'Connor Flood, a famous black song and dance man of the diegetic film (played by Ben Vareen), and two women, dressed as arteries and veins, they sing and dance to the tune "Bye Bye Life" in a more upbeat heartbeat sounding score, in front of an audience of all the acquaintances of his life: his wife Audry, his girlfriend Kate, daughter Michelle, producers, rival choreographers, mother, groupies, strippers of the past, etc., who give him a burst of applause and approval that he never received from his other work. In Blood of a Poet, the poet's death is followed by a fade-out of the white statue on a black background, floating [on a conveyor really] off the scene into space. In All That Jazz, Joe Gideon finishes his number and then advances in a dark tunnel, on a conveyor, towards Angélique, who is dressed in a white bridal gown. Like Cocteau's use of the isolated white image on a dark backgound, we have the illusion of floating in space. As their eyes meet in the supernatural zone, hospital attendants zip up his real life body in a cellophane bag, accompanied by Ethel Merman's "There's No Business Like Show Business." He is ready to become famous.
3. The Audiences
The necessity of death performances to be recognized shows the concern for audience approval that these two artists shared. Cocteau places importance on the alienation, preparations, sufferings, and risks of the artist for the audience. In the play Orpheus, there is the image of the tightrope walker who practices all day so as not to break his neck during the evening performances. In the first episode of Blood of a Poet, the poet is alone, without a public. He even horrifies his friend with the mouth-wound in his hand. In the second episode, the poet becomes a spectator himself playing the role of voyeur. In the third part, the director gives us an active role as he has Dargelos throw the snowball directly at the camera. In the fourth episode, Cocteau, in the post-face scenario of the film, reminds us that it is not the death of the child that the audience applauds, but the poet who kills himself. The poet must give all his blood, red of the heart, and white of the soul, to obtain the least approval.
In order to live, poets must often have to die, and, to spend, not only red blood of the heart, but this white blood of the soul that they pour out and which permits us to follow their trace. Applause is only obtained at this price. Poets must give everything to obtain the least suffrage. (115)
In the opening audition sequence to the song "On Broadway," Joe is a spectator who auditions and evaluates the dancers, with his back to the seating area. There are cuts to the producers and writers in the audience looking at the audition from a financial point, cuts to Audry Paris, ther star of the show and Joe's former wife, and their daughter Michelle who view the dancers from a professional stance, and finally to the auditioners themselves as they change to audience status and wait for Joe's decision. The next sequence is the screening room where he and his associates are editing his film, The Stand-up. Through the use of cross-fades we see a variety of audiences: the editors who moan and groan about their never-ending work on one little scene serve as audience to the comedian's monologue on death in the film; contrasted with the comedian's diegetic audience in the film itself who scream with laughter; and voice fades to Joe Gideon with his mind half on his work and half on answering Angélique's questions on life and death. as Joe leaves, opening the screening room door, there is a match to him opening the door to his apartment to Victoria, a substandard dancer by Broadway standards, who auditions privately for him in his bed. a cross-fade of Joe ogling her breasts to burlesque music transforms us in time to a burlesque hall whose audience of old men ogle strippers and ridicule a between acts dancer, teenage Joe Gideon, with semen on his pants from the strippers provocation. At least this is one of the few audiences in the film with no ulterior motives, who know exactly what they want to see. Back on the set of Joe's play, the producers react positively to the songwriters piece, "N.Y. to L.A.," thinking it will be a commercial success, but remain silent and dumbfounded later on when they hear Joe's hot choreographed version of the song. His former wife, a connoisseur spectator,, however, must praise it saying, "I don't know about the audiences, but it's your best work, you son of a bitch." After the first complete screening of the film, Joe plays spectator to Kate Dagger, his girlfriend, and Michelle as they do a song and dance routine in his apartment in honor of his "flop." In the first read-through of the plat script N.Y. to L.A., the crew, even as they read, becomes Joe's audience as we see images of uproarious laughter with no sound. Audry, however, remains professionally insensitive and shows no approval, to which Joe cannot bear to look, much like the poet in Blood of a Poet to his playing partner, before he does himself in. A close-up of Joe's hand breaking a pencil, grabbing his wrists, and stomping out a cigarette punctuate the tension. Audry's audience reaction dissolves to Angélique who removes her veil, a sign of physical danger to Joe, who next appears in the hospital. There, in the amphitheatre, Dr. Balinger, the cardiologist, plays actor to his subordinates. In Joe's room, on the TV, we see Leslie Perry, in her role as movie critic-spectator, panning Joe's film. She induces Joe's heart attack when she comments only one scene in the film, where, she says, Gideon had the good sense to let comedian Davis Neuman on his own. We, unlike the diegetic audience of the film, see the irony in her remarks, knowing it is the most edited scene of the film. During the operation, Joe has become his own audience-director-actor at the same time during the "Hospital Illusion" sequence of four musical numbers by Audry, Kate, and Michelle. The spectator theme shifts to us near the endwhen we hear, not see, the comic's routine in The Stand-up of death's stages of anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance along with his audience laughter, coupled with the images of Joe who realistically undergoes the same stages as he wanders through the hospital. Then, in the finale, we have all the audiences in his life witnessing his farewell.
4. The Dionysian Audience
The audience, then, has both positive and negative influences on the artists, producing both their joy and their ruin. Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, theorizes on the development of art and the role of spectators. The development of the art world, and each work of art, is bound in the duplexity of Apollo and Dionysus: Apollo who is the shaper of the dream and the imagination, the wisdom of appearance, the artist; Dionysus who represents the non-plastic art of music, drunkeness, the extasy of song and dance, the work of art (25-26). Nietzsche claims that music's spirit gave birth to tragedy, that the Greeks feel their primordial joy of existence due to the tragic fact that they must die. They take delight in the tragic mystery because it perpetuates a desire to understand, and to go beyond understanding. The mystery in the delight of tragedy is first felt in the delight in music, especially dissonance in music (183), which plays on our feelings and not intelligence. Music makes us want to hear and go beyond the hearing. Music then gives birth to tragedy which keeps us from destroying eternity (127-130). The Greek chorus celebrates the Dionysian tragedy at the festivals, being an active participant in the tragedies and an extension, a mirror image of Dionysus, as well as the entire audience (67-69).
The chorus is really the ideal spectator. Thus, the play, actors and spectators are active and not only observe the tragedy, but perform it and are transformed by Apollo's force, which gives them the power to construct the play, and Dionysus's energy, which gives them the passion to experience and perform it (183-185). Nietzsche acccuses Socratic optimism, with its emphasis on reason and knowledge as virtue, of driving this meaning of chorus and music out of tragedy (111) and creating an audience of non-performing socrato-critics (172-173). He prefers the critical barbarians and aesthetic hearers of Dionysus who give birth to new myths and preserve the powers of imagination and creation.
Cocteau also speaks of art bound up in the interaction of opposing forces. In Opium, a journal he kept while undergoing a cure from addiction in 1928, he claims that art springs from the marriage of masculine and feminine elements that exist in all of us.
[L'art naït du coït entre l'élément mâle et l'élément femelle qui nous composent tous, plus équilibré chez l'artiste que chez les autres hommes. Il résulte d'une sorte d'inceste, d'amour de soi, avec soi, de parthéogénèse. C'est ce qui rend le mariagesi dangéreux chez les artistes, pour lesquels il représente un pléonasme, un effort de monstre vers le norme.]
[J'en ai assez des actrices et des acteurs...
O mon Dieu je ne suis pas fait pour le délire;
Apollon me tient mal, appelez-moi... j'accours...]
Cocteau and Fosse search for an audience who want to become an extension of the Greek chorus in the performance of the dithyramb, a frenzied and impassioned choric hymn and dance in honor of Dionysus. Nietzsche notes that:
To conclude, Cocteau and Fosse are in quest of an ideal audience, not the self-interested commercial, critical and pleasure seeking spectators who profit financially, or who are vicious consumers viewing death as spectacle, egging it on, so to say, but perhaps an Apollo-Dionysian chorus of critical barbarians and aethetic hearers who become transformed and actually celebrate the poet's rituals of death and life. Michael Riffaterre compares Cocteau's smoke stack crumbling at the beginning and end of the film to the time it takes to open and close a book. The movie in between takes place in a few seconds of objective time, with the viewers or dreamers' subjective imaginary experience giving it its duration (636). Joe Gideon ascends to his last audience with Angélique in the finale by means of a mechanical lifting column. Cocteau and Fosse's columns are literary works that crumble, then, unless there is an audience to open the books and transform them into texts. Gideon's "Showtime" and Cocteau's "Chimney Time" are not superficial meaningless, objective performances, but a more subjective complex time and experience of life. Cocteau's film is not just the birth and death of the poet, but a view of what is in his living texts before 1930, including Les Enfants terribles, Orpheus, "The Angel Heurtebise, and Opium, etc., and Fosse's Jazz takes in his breathing works of Cabaret, Chicago, Lenny, Star 80, etc. As Cocteau is the clown who lives in Port Royal (a phrase he used to describe Picasso serious work with a non-serious air), All That Jazz is not exaggerated showmanship, but that kind of jazz which is animated, lively, and an art form which celebrates life. Without Cocteau's text, I thought that All That Jazz were our feeble attempts to combat death. With the French intertext, we see and hear Fosse's desire of death as a means of rebirth and eternity. The Dionysian spirit transforms death into an object of desire and rebirth, and as a newer poet Sting, who straddles Cocteau and Fosse in a current music video, chants hopefully, "We'll be together tonight."
(for Dennis whose death and life helped me with this conclusion)
Cocteau, Jean. La Difficulté de l'être. Monaco:
---. Opéra: suivi de Plain-Chant. Paris: Stock, 1959.
---, dir. Le Sang d'un poète 1930.
---. Le Sang d'un poète. Monaco: Rocher, 1957.
---. Past Tense
Dance, Tish. "Fosse's Cross-Fade: Big Deal's Cinematic Style." Theatre Crafts. Aug.-Sept. (1984): 25.
Fosse, Bob, dir. All That Jazz. 1979.
Nietzsche, Frederick. The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music.
Riffaterre, Michael. "Syllepsis."