12 May 2009

Thoughts on watching Cabaret

When I realised that even my dad has seen the classic musical Cabaret, whilst I remained ignorant of its charms, I knew I was guilty of a serious omission. I obtained myself a copy of the 1972 film straight away and sat down to watch. I knew that the film comprised glamour with an uneasy undertone, being set in the Weimar Republic during the rise of Nazism. What I was pleasantly surprised by, however, was how forward-thinking the film was, and how it beat the hell out of many modern films in that arena. I was also quite taken aback at the ripeness of some of the subject matter considering the era. Having an openly gay character in the shape of Brian, who was neither the subject of ridicule/abuse, nor an insultingly camp caricature, seems a brave move only 5 years after homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK, and while it remained a criminal offence in many US states. So does the portrayal of the rather kinky love triangle between Sally, Brian and Maximilian, all of whom sleep with one another at some point in the film. Although the modern penchant for a bit of crowd-pleasing lesbianism for the sole pleasure of watching males seems to translate into film and TV being happy to portray threesomes between two women and one man, I can't remember the last time I saw the reverse being celebrated (although I should point out, the three characters don't actually get together as a group, but you see what I'm getting at).

The storyline which gave me most cause for thumbs-up, however, was where Sally, faced with pregnancy and leaving the Cabaret to be Brian's wife, aborts the baby and decides to remain in Berlin whilst he goes back to Britain. They part amicably, and it's far more satisfying than any fairy-tale romantic ending would have been. I struggle to remember many films that I've seen which don't portray heterosexual relationships as the sole aim and source of fulfilment for women. I'm racking my brains for a scene in a recent film where we see the heroine heading off happy and alone into the sunset. It seems we've become more afraid, not less, to accept that being single or childless can be fulfilling. Why else would it be easier for a film made in 1972 to acknowledge this, whereas today the subject seems taboo?

Speaking of taboos, the most laudable part of the movie was, for me, the portrayal of a woman going through with an abortion, being happy with her decision, and continuing with her life. Again, it struck me as very brave to do this at a time when Roe v. Wade wouldn't happen for another year in the US, and the UK was only 5 years into the era of legalised abortion. And again, the willingness to depict what is a daily fact for many women - they have abortions and are fine - seems to have reduced, not grown, in the intervening time. I've lost count of how many books, films or TV shows I've encountered where women are shown considering abortion and changing their mind at the last minute, the implication being that the 'brutality' of the act is simply too much for them, and they decide they want to surrender their lives to motherhood after all - even if they've never shown the slightest inclination previously. Sex and The City, Juno, and Scrubs to name but a few, all depicted this do-si-do, much to my chagrin. Six Feet Under did earn my respect by showing the character of Claire going through with her abortion, but then completely undid all its good work through a dream sequence where Claire meets dead people and the foetus she aborted is shown as a fully grown baby, pretty much feeding into every tiresome piece of pro-life propaganda imaginable.

Suffice to say, I do think a realistic depiction of abortion that doesn't show a woman being emotionally blackmailed into changing her mind at the last minute, or suffering endless guilt afterwards, is long overdue in popular cinema. It's pretty telling that, in 2009, we have so much to learn from a 37 year-old film. The majority of women get abortions and get on with their lives, and don't regret it. The concept of psychological suffering following abortion such as 'Post Abortion Syndrome' have been exposed and dismiessed as unsubstantiated propaganda flung around by pro-life groups, when in fact it's worry over pregnancy and stress of not being able to obtain a timely termination that causes far more trauma to women. As I watched the film, I wanted to stand up and applaud Cabaret's unsentimentalised portrayal of Sally's decision to be true to herself and remain the flighty, fun-loving entertainer she was meant to be, rather than surrendering her life and body to marriage and motherhood.

Odd how you can sit down expecting a camp, glitzy musical and instead find the kind of storyline that makes you want to jump up and start singing yourself. Just goes to show that meaning can be found in many unexpected locations.

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