Recommended Reading: Bob Fosse, Joe Biden, and ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’

The sharpest, funniest, and most thoughtful writing of the week.

Modern online media is all about the signal boost, so every Friday here at Flavorwire, we take a moment to spotlight some of the best stuff we’ve read online this week. Today, we check in with the site at the front of the “birther” movement, hear the case against Joe Biden, mark the 50th anniversary of a Vonnegut classic, and dig into the inspirations for “Fosse/Verdon.”

Alexandra Molotkow on reckoning with Bob Fosse.

With the debut of FX’s limited series Fosse/Verdon next week, interest is high in the life and work of its title characters, director/choreographer Bob Fosse and his wife and collaborator Gwen Verdon. At Hazlitt, Molotkow peers at Fosse through the lens of two of his most important works: the stunning roman à clef All That Jazz (in which Roy Scheider basically plays Fosse, though under the name Joe Gideon) and its follow-up, the unsettling true crime story Star 80.

All That Jazz and Star 80 are outcomes of the same creative process; they represent Fosse at his best and his worst. Looked at now, All That Jazz might seem like an egregious example of an obsolete genre: a nasty protagonist reflecting with self-deprecation on the harm he has done. But what sets it apart is the fact that it tries not to exclude any portion of its audience. A film like Woody Allen’s Manhattan adopts its protagonist’s worldview; to sympathize with Isaac, you have to suspend your empathy for Tracy. Joe Gideon’s humanity is arbitrated by the women around him, and you don’t have to like him to enjoy his death. The film works relentlessly to earn your attention, and it demonstrates Fosse’s grudging commitment to never entirely forgiving himself.

Gideon’s original sin, in Fosse’s conception, is allowing show business to completely consume his personal responsibilities, such that even death is a show. This is also his redemption: he turns his mistakes into a brilliant spectacle. And the film works, against the odds, because it is. Part of Fosse’s genius was the seeming paradoxicality of his talents: both a showman and a neurotic, he married Broadway imperatives—attentiveness to an audience that must be entertained—to art-house themes, and the basic pains of living. Neurosis is stasis, a knowing that makes no difference; through some miracle of vision and technique, Fosse was able to give it motion. This required him to subjugate his worst impulses: to give pleasure without denying the worst, he needed to understand himself in relation to other people.

Star 80’s creative failures were moral ones: the film represents the only instance in which Fosse served himself ahead of his audience. It was the vanity project All That Jazz never was, and the last film he would ever make.

James Parker on Slaughterhouse-Five.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five was published on March 31, 1969 – the same year James Parker was born. So in marking the anniversary of both births, Parker digs deep into Vonnegut’s iconic work, in an attempt to understand the depths from which the book came, and why it lingers so long in the memory:

There are novels so potent, and so perfected in their singularity, that they have the unexpected side effect of permanently knocking out the novelist: Nothing produced afterward comes close. Had Russell Hoban written no books before Riddley Walker, and no books after it, his reputation today would be exactly the same. Should William S. Burroughs, post–Naked Lunch, or Joseph Heller, with the last line of Catch-22 on the page (“The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off.”), have tossed their typewriters out of the window? Probably. And Kurt Vonnegut, at the age of 46, with Mother Night and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (those twin magnificences) under his belt, was projected into a state of creative culmination/exhaustion by Slaughterhouse-Five.

“I suppose that flowers, when they’re through blooming, have some sort of awareness of some purpose having been served,” he mused horticulturally to a Playboy interviewer in 1973. “Flowers didn’t ask to be flowers and I didn’t ask to be me. At the end of Slaughterhouse-Five, I had the feeling that I had produced this blossom. So I had a shutting-off feeling, you know, that I had done what I was supposed to do and everything was OK. And that was the end of it.”

Fifty years have passed since the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s the same age as me. And the older I get, and the more lumps fall off my brain, the more I find that rereading is the thing. Build your own little cockeyed canon and then bear down on it; get to know it, forward and backward; get to know it well. So I don’t know how many times I’ve read Slaughterhouse-Five. Three? Four? It never gets old, is the point. It never wanes in energy. This book is in no way the blossom of a flower. Slaughterhouse-Five is more in the nature of a superpower that the mutant author had to teach himself to master—and then could use, at full strength, only once.

Manuel Roig-Franzia on the fall of WorldNetDaily.

If we’ve learned one thing over the past three or so years, it’s that the right wing is suffering no shortage of grifters. At the Washington Post, Roig-Franzia has the story of one: Joseph Farah, the founder of WorldNetDaily, a far-right conspiracy theory site best known for relentlessly boosting the  notion that Barack Obama wasn’t born in America. Appealing to that, um, faction of the populace proved lucrative for Farah, who used the site’s revenues and donations from its God-fearing audience to expand into filmmaking and book publishing. But bills have gone unpaid, employees have lost wages, insurance, and eventually jobs, and authors using their pay-to-publish service, which charges $10,000 to publish and promote memoirs and screeds, have been ghosted altogether:

Each of the women would have their expectations shattered. Calls and emails went unreturned. Anthony and Feijo said they hadn’t gotten audiobooks they’d been promised. Dunaway felt she was getting excuses about the months-long delay in publishing her book.

By January 2018, they got a clearer picture of what was happening. Joseph Farah wrote a column outlining WND’s financial woes and saying his company faced an “existential threat.”

“It pains me to tell you that many loyal WND staffers are working without salary to pull us through a crisis,” he wrote. “I’m asking for the help of those who recognize the unique role WND plays in reaching the God-fearing audience that, like us, supports limited government, national sovereignty and the traditional Judeo-Christian values that made America truly great.”

Rebecca Traister on Joe Biden. 

And it’s been a rough week for Joe Biden, who has finally had to answer for years of what many have deemed unwanted sexual contact, and others have dismissed as just old-style nice-guy glad-handing. The Cut’s Rebecca Traister is firmly in the former camp, and makes a compelling case as to why – and why the former Vice-President is not the right nominee for 2020:

As vice-president, Biden surged in popularity. Obama’s fondness for him radiated a kind of nonabrasive reassurance that no one was mad at That Guy! Biden became the man who profited from the very biases he expressed.

Which is why it was particularly galling last week to hear rustlings about how Biden might enter the 2020 race with a commitment from former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to be his running mate. Biden’s camp had apparently tried a similar gambit back in 2016, when he was debating entering the race against Hillary Clinton, and was briefly buoyed by a floated rumor that he might run alongside his longtime critic, Elizabeth Warren, a woman who was then still being pressured (as Abrams is now) to mount her own presidential campaign.

Neither of these rumors seems to have originated with the women in question; this week, Abrams shot down the pre-primary double-ticket fantasy, noting “I think you don’t run for second place.” That Warren would have been remotely interested in a similar stunt was equally implausible. But the willingness of someone near the Biden camp to suggest these prospects was emblematic of exactly the way not only Joe Biden, but the Democratic Party as a whole — and in fact, the nation, through its history — has behaved in its eagerness to build fundamentally white, male power on the labor and creativity of nonwhite, non-male populations. It also shows an eagerness to use the participation of women and people of color to paper over the sins of the dominant power structure’s past, of Joe Biden’s past.