ICA: Joanna Hogg ‘Behind the Mask’

‘Behind the Mask’ is a weekly series of introduced screenings from BAFTA and the ICA, wherein creative professionals each choose a film that they believe showcases exceptional skill in their particular craft.

One of the most exciting events of this season was a screening of Bob Fosse’s musical All That Jazz (1979), which was presented by writer and director Joanna Hogg. Fosse’s semi-autobiographical tale was inspired by his efforts to stage the hit Broadway musical Chicago (1975) whilst simultaneously editing his film Lenny (1974). The tawdriness, aggression, and intense physicality of this theatrical world is epitomised by the sickly central figure of an overworked, oversexed, chain-smoking Broadway choreographer with a penchant for Vivaldi.

In her opening speech Hogg immediately acknowledged that All That Jazz may seem an unusual selection when considered in relation to her two feature films. Indeed it does appear antithetical to Hogg’s gently cerebral depictions of quiet, middle-class despair and discomfiting familial tensions in Unrelated (2007) and Archipelago (2011), the latter of which I reviewed last month. Explaining her decision though, Hogg eloquently described her teenage interest in Hollywood musicals and her connection to a film that she had first viewed on its release over 30 years before.

Hogg talked firstly about her admiration for the film’s structure and rhythm, with the repetition of a montage detailing protagonist Joe Gideon’s daily ablutions, and which builds to an inevitably heartbreaking conclusion. She also suggested that All That Jazz, in spite of the fantasy sequences at the end of the film, remains firmly rooted in a recognisable reality.

The song and dance numbers all have a real world logic, they are the product of the dancers’ exhausting training sessions or they are endearingly under rehearsed performances at home by Gideon’s girlfriend and young daughter. When the film moves towards more stylised fantasy sequences the illusion of reality remains unbroken because they are clearly signalled as Gideon’s visions.

Although surprisingly informative about US film history, the most interesting aspect of Hogg’s talk was hearing about how her own personal influences as a film director have developed. At film school her interest in Fosse’s work led her to make a musical short , but Hogg, who was mentored by Derek Jarman, freely admitted that her influences later broadened. There may have been a shift in the type of films she wanted to make, but Hogg also stressed that those early interests have not been forgotten.

In the extended Q & A session after the screening Hogg looked visibly moved, and discussed openly about how her knowledge as a film director and general life experiences have changed and deepened the way she viewed All That Jazz 30 years later.

One of the overriding themes of Archipelago is of individual development and the difficulty in moving forward in life. Hogg showed here that sometimes the best way to progress is to look back and be re-inspired. Although reticent about her next project, Hogg did say that she was considering incorporating dance into her next film. It was therefore clear from this insightful talk by Hogg that her early influences continue to make an impact and shape her personal identity as part of an ongoing process.

Holly Cooper