Archive for June, 2010

One Fellini, Two Fellinis

June 25, 2010

“Several of Fellini’s films are masterpieces by anyone’s standards. Yet in no other director’s body of films does each work identifiably relate a specific image of the creator that he wishes to present to the world and to posterity. Whether any of the films are truly autobiographical in any traditional sense is open to debate.”

–From Film Directors, ed. Andrew Sarris, “Federico Fellini,” by Stephen L. Hanson and Rob Edelman

The Samuels and Sarris Books

“Another reason I don’t like to see my old films: they are like diseases, the germs of my fantasy. One wants to make the film quickly in order to free oneself. The sign that I have to make a film is given by my hatred for it. It’s like having a guest who sleeps in my bed, eats my food, puts on my clothes, and follows me when I make love. It’s always there, and if I didn’t throw it off my shoulders, I couldn’t do what I wanted to. I truly hate the film and make it in a mood of hatred.”

–From Encountering Directors, by Charles Thomas Samuels, interview with Fellini

If Fellini doesn’t want to watch the films he made, should I feel bad for not wanting to rewatch them myself? Or for not wanting to write much about them?

The years since I studied have not been kind to my estimation of the filmmaker. I don’t dislike his work, but I saw it a long time ago at a much earlier age, which may not be the best time to appreciate the nostalgia that infuses so much of his output. La Dolce Vita may have been sexy, but that fountain scene is the only thing I remember. I never watched it a second time, although I’ve seen clips of that fountain scene many times over the years. (Yes, I’m aware of its vaunted status as a classic foreign film. I’ll revisit it some day.)

is more interesting, but still a cold film about a lothario. It may be that my straitlaced 20-or-so self couldn’t relate to the dashing Marcello Mastroianni, or maybe I just needed another 20 years, for it was the movie version of the musical Nine, a reimagining of Fellini’s film, that stimulated my interest in the filmmaker after lo these many years.

I sat in the theater, unaware of the roots of the film’s story, until the drip-drip-drip of allusions to the long ago were suddenly unleashed in a torrent that washed over me and moved me. Yes, after years of keeping Fellini’s work at some remove, I connected with the material.

No, I’m not a filmmaker, not a womanizer, and I don’t have Penelope Cruz and Marion Cotillard fighting for my attention. (Who needs ’em, when you’ve a wife that looks like mine?) The critics all hated the movie, but I liked some of it and refused to pile on. Give me a problematic film with a few good moments—Penelope’s musical number, anyone?—and a lot of ambition, and you won’t get too much blowback from this critic, even if the final verdict is no better than a sideways thumb.

The only Fellini film that stayed lodged in memory into my 30s was Amarcord. Sure, it’s nostalgic, but even at age 19 or 20, whenever it was that I took my “Fellini, Hitchcock and Welles” class, the film stood out. It was in color, and although I have fond memories of Fellini’s black-and-white I Vitelloni, and especially La Strada, it’s the color of Amarcord, more than anything else that I remember about the film. Shot by Giuseppe Rotunno, who had worked on Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard and who would work on Robert Altman’s Popeye, the movie clothes its temptress, Magali Noel, in striking reds, and bathes many of its gorgeous images in soft light.

I bought the Criterion laserdisc in my mid-20s, watched it once, then shelved it again until last week, when I selected Amarcord as my next entry for The Laserdisc Project. The first thing I noticed this time wasn’t the cinematography, but the music, by Nino Rota. If there’s a full soundtrack, is it as lovely as the main theme?

Fellini’s nostalgia (the film’s title translates as “I Remember”) is on full display here in this loosely autobiographical film, and his sexual hang-ups are a big part of the depiction of childhood. I’d say this, too, made the film hard to forget, but the truth is that I’d forgotten all about the group masturbation scene in the parked car, the character of Volpina the prostitute and even Uncle Teo climbing a tree and crying out, over and over again, “I want a woman!” What I remembered was the teenage boy hoisting the massive, huge-breasted tobacconist, who allows the young man to show off his blossoming physical prowess by grabbing her below her midsection and lifting her again and again, as they both become sexually aroused. This leads to … well, you really should see Amarcord, which, if it gets anything right—and it does—gets the virginal young-man fantasy element right, in all its awkward passion and ineptitude. I don’t know when I’ll see Amarcord a third time, but as with the interval between the previous viewing and this most recent look, I’m sure the scene with the tobacconist will remain at the fore of my memories of Fellini’s film.

Amarcord is also, much to my surprise this time around, an intensely political film, poking fun at fascism in ways that surprise and delight me as I near the beginning of my fifth decade on this terrestrial ball. So worn down was I by the political slogans and messages of my college days that I failed to appreciate Fellini’s jabs at Mussolini. Fellini was no fan of authority—not in governments, or in the church—and although I don’t share completely his views on the church as an institution (unlike Fellini, I’m a Protestant, and I submit to my own church’s authority on doctrinal matters), I’m not adverse to the occasional jab at any system unduly concerned with outward behaviors and confessions—even when the confessors are portrayed as nose-blowing buffoons, as Fellini depicts one priest in Amarcord.

Variety Lights

Thinking that the black-and-white I Vitelloni had overtaken Amarcord in my memory as a superior film from the director, I decided to investigate another Fellini’s black-and-white films. Variety Lights was his first directorial effort, and he shared duties and credit with Alberto Lattuada. Fellini had yet to break from the neorealism school that shaped his early work (he worked on Roberto Rossellini’s Open City).

The film is more than a footnote in Fellini’s career, but nothing about it made an impression on me. Looking at my notes while watching the film, they take up just one short page, and peter out halfway through it. After that, I have a note that read, “Maybe Fellini’s not for me.”