Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Getting acquainted with ... Federico Fellini

This is the third monthly installment of the Getting Acquainted series, in which I watch three films by a cinematic personality whose work is not as familiar to me as it should be. I freely discuss the films, so please consider this your spoiler warning.

(Let's see if the photo of Fellini I've chosen brings one of my readers out of hiding and back into my comments section. He'll know what I'm talking about.)

After familiarizing myself with Ingmar Bergman in March, I decided it was Federico Fellini's turn in April. Both directors are at about the same level of prominence in the history of world cinema ... and both directors had directed only one film I'd seen (or two in the case of Bergman, but I didn't realize that when I started).

Yeah, I'd seen what's considered to be Fellini's masterpiece, 8 1/2. And it immediately became the shining example of a type of film many film fans are familiar with: the classic that you don't quite get. Few of us my age (I'm 37) were lucky enough to see some of history's great films when they were first in the theater, so when we finally do see them, we carry with us the burden of knowing that they are universally beloved and praised. This creates the conditions for a possible letdown.

And I guess I was kind of let down by 8 1/2. I had that kind of dispassionate experience we frequently feel in a situation like this, where we recognize it as well made, as "great" in most senses of that word. But by not feeling a specific passion for it, we wonder if we've missed something, and if missing that thing makes us inferior film fans. If you're at all unconfident about your own ability to judge films -- and I shouldn't be, but as a generally modest person I probably am to some degree -- then it's films like 8 1/2 that make you wonder if you've got the sophisticated cinematic palate you think you have. However, I'd rather be honest and unconfident than a fraud. There's nothing I like less than praising the brilliance of a film just to go with the flow, because you're worried you'll be exposed as a lightweight if you didn't immediately see why it was brilliant.

Let's just say I had this same feeling with each of Fellini's films I watched in April. Which means either I really am an unsophisticated film fan ... or I just don't like Fellini all that much. If I love Kurosawa and I love Bergman, isn't it okay if Fellini isn't my favorite director in the world?

As I've still got a bunch of post-Osama death stuff to read about today, I'll try to keep my comments about each film relatively short.

La Strada (1954, Federico Fellini). Watched: Wednesday, April 6th

There's no doubt I got off on the wrong foot with Mr. Fellini. Those of you with Netflix streaming will know that the quality of streamed videos is somewhat inconsistent. Sometimes they're recorded off of Starz, and have this overly-pixelated appearance; and sometimes they're missing frames, giving the action a jerky, jumpy quality.

Actually, La Strada was the first time I had experienced that latter phenomenon. But yeah, there was something about it that made it look like there were fewer than the requisite number of frames per second being displayed. It was not distracting enough for me to shut it off and add the movie to my DVD queue, though I have to admit that could just be because I have a schedule to keep, and I'm trying to watch the films in this series in chronological order. If I had to wait to return another movie to get La Strada on DVD, I might not get started on Fellini until the second half of April, considering that we were on vacation for almost a week in the middle of the month. And I knew each of the next two films I had planned was over two hours long, meaning they'd be difficult enough to fit in among all my other responsibilities, as it was.

So I don't know if it made me like the movie less, but it was definitely a bad omen. What may have made me like La Strada less was its unforgiving characterizations. Anthony Quinn has almost no redeeming qualities as the brutish strong man, who makes his living as a street performer. He's loud and mean and almost never does a generous thing. I was a bit confused about the strange sort of human slavery that leads Giulietta Masina's Gelsomina (Masina was Fellini's real-life wife) to be sold to Quinn's Zampano, but after awhile just had to accept it as fact. Her performance is much more sympathetic, but I think what really sticks in the mind about her is her Chaplin-esque mannerisms. The parts that really work in La Strada have to do with her wide-eyed discovery of a world beyond her small town, and her reaction shots are priceless -- she has the eyes of a silent film star (I already mentioned Chaplin) and she uses them to great effect.

I was also a bit puzzled by the central conflict driving the plot, which is Zampano's relationship with a rival performer (a tightrope walker) named The Fool (Richard Basehart). I think you're supposed to like The Fool, especially since he has a nice scene with Gelsomina (who may or may not love him) in which he counsels her to stay with Zampano, because someone needs to be kind to him. This is rather ironic because The Fool is consistently unkind to Zampano. It's almost as though his entire reason for existing is to provoke the touchy, alcoholic strongman. Although The Fool definitely "started it," Zampano finishes it upon randomly encountering The Fool on the road late in the story. He punches The Fool a number of times, but apparently, he doesn't know his own strength; The Fool dies. It's this incident that causes Gelsomina to enter into a sort of dream-like fugue, at which point, Zampano abandons her. At the end, he discovers that she died (not immediately, but after a couple years), and the film closes with him crying on the beach in utter despair.

Given the footage I'd seen of La Strada, I thought it was supposed to be kind of a whimsical film throughout. It has its joyous, carnivalesque moments, and there's something so iconic about Zampano's motorcycle pulling around his entire world with him, with Gelsomina forever watching the world from the back of the cart attached to the motorcycle. But where the movie goes is depressing and dour, and I just didn't understand what we were supposed to take from it. There's no doubt La Strada is a "good" movie, probably even a "great" movie ... it's just not my great movie.

La Dolce Vita (1960, Federico Fellini). Watched: Saturday, April 23rd

La Dolce Vita was the Fellini movie I was looking forward to most. It was this film I had heard the most good about, and I truly thought I was in for a special treat -- a "sweet" treat if you will. Instead, I just got a reminder of what frustrated me about 8 1/2, which Fellini would make three years later.

I was told that La Dolce Vita marked the beginning of Fellini's transition from neorealism (such as La Strada) to arthouse. What I wasn't told is that it marked his transition from having a plot to not having a plot.

When I told my wife I didn't love La Dolce Vita, she told me I had to look at it as a movie like Robert Altman's Short Cuts, with a bunch of unrelated stories intercut together. No offense to her, but I didn't find that a particularly useful way to examine La Dolce Vita. I guess it's more of a character piece, since Marcello Mastroianni's Marcello, a handsome journalist with numerous celebrity connections, appears in every segment. The generally unrelated segments, when strung together, more or less make up a week in his life, even though very few of the things that happen relate to each other, with the exception of the fact that a rocky relationship with his fiancee is a narrative throughline.

And I guess this is partly what confused me. I had a hard time distinguishing between Marcello's fiancee Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) and Maddalena, the women he falls for in the first segment (Anouk Aimee), so when each reappeared, I sometimes didn't realize who was who. I feel kind of foolish about this because they serve a very different plot function -- Emma is unconfident and paranoid and Maddalena is powerful and flirtatious -- but they were both generally beautiful Italian brunettes. I may not have been paying good enough attention, and I have to admit, I watched the movie in several segments. What do you want from me, the movie is 2 hours and 45 minutes, and I have a child. Besides, if Fellini is giving me episodes, why shouldn't I watch them that way?

As with any episodic film, there are certain episodes that really stand out, and others that don't do much for you. For shamefully obvious reasons, I was really involved in the second (or is it third?) segment involving Swedish bombshell Anita Ekberg. Va-va-va-voom. This also contains the film's most iconic image, of her wading in the Trevi Fountain. However, the next segment switched to Marcello covering a possible Virgin Mary sighting. I think this is when I lost interest somewhat and started to wonder what Fellini's overall thrust was supposed to be.

I won't go through segment by segment, but I will say that this is a visually gorgeous film with a lot of really interesting set pieces and a lot of really interesting insights into humanity. It is definitely a "great" film, but again, it is not my great film. I sensed myself being frustrated that I had to "reset" my expectations at the beginning of each new segment, had to meet a new set of characters and figure out how they contributed to Marcello's overall journey.

I guess I also felt a bit resentful toward Marcello. I got the sense you're supposed to really feel endeared toward him, but in a strange way, he's not that far removed from La Strada's Zampano in his treatment of women. In each new segment he's trying to woo a new woman, seeming to care little about the feelings of the previous one (even while, in some cases, they don't care about his feelings either). His treatment of Emma is particularly harsh -- even after she has tried to kill herself, he still ejects her from his car later on. This is clearly an emotionally unstable person, and he is essentially stringing her along even though it's apparent he doesn't love her. Yet Fellini also invites us to feel wistful for him with each new time he falls temporarily in love, such as with the naive young waitress he compares to an angel, who appears in the middle and then again in the end. It's as though we're supposed to believe he's a tragic figure deserving of some kind of intoxicating romance, yet his behavior suggests he really does not deserve it.

Still, there are some really gonzo bits about celebrity, about partying, about everything that is supposed to make up the elusive "sweet life." I appreciated them very much in parts, not so much on the whole. Or at least, not as much as I thought I was supposed to appreciate them.

Oh, and purely in a visual sense, I loved the opening with the helicopter carrying the statue of Christ.

Amarcord (1973, Federico Fellini). Watched: Saturday, April 30th

I didn't know anything about Amarcord except its title. In fact, I think it may have been one of the movies my mom recorded off cable when I was a kid. She had boxes and boxes of them with titles I half-memorized, even though I didn't know anything about the actual movie. I think Amarcord was one of those movies.

I understand that Amarcord is the phonetic spelling of the phrase "I Remember" ("Mi Recordi") in a particular Italian dialect. This is appropriate as the film is basically a nostalgic, magical realistic account of the life of a small Italian town during the rule of Benito Mussolini, and it's supposedly autobiographical to at least some degree. Like La Dolce Vita, it is heavily episodic. There are a handful of characters you're introduced to, who regularly reappear, as well as a central family, with a teenage boy named Titta who is supposedly based on Fellini's childhood friend. However, also like La Dolce Vita, the episodes don't have a huge amount to do with one another, and Fellini transitions between them somewhat abruptly.

I found the segments that dealt directly with Mussolini to be the most fascinating. In one, Fascists grab the boy's father in the middle of the night and interrogate him, making him drink Castor oil. In another, two young Fascists are married in front of a giant face of Mussolini erected in the town square. The giant Mussolini head is just one of the ways Fellini keeps up his flare for bold visions. Another example is what's considered the film's signature image, when a peacock appears in the middle of a snowfall at the end. Some of the other segments seemed a bit random. There's a part where one character is telling a tall tale about his sexual experiences with 28 women in a harem, and another part where the townspeople wait in boats to watch an oceanliner pass. Interestingly, one character, who is not the narrator, also speaks directly to the camera on several occasions.

I just now read through the plot of Amarcord on wikipedia, and written all together in one place, it's not as random as it was when I was watching it. I think it can be hard to overcome not only the cultural differences in a film like this, but also the passage of 38 years since it was released. There's a lot of big Italian emotion expressed in this film, and it's the snippets of memory -- almost intentionally disassociated from one another, as memory snippets always are -- that are supposed to be what we take away from it. I guess I did take that away from it, without really feeling connected to the characters or the scenarios. You could argue that the material was so personal to Fellini that he didn't do enough to make it universal for his viewers. However, I guess most people would not argue that, as Amarcord is considered another of Fellini's unqualified masterpieces.

For a movie I only sort of liked, I will say that I was reminded quite a lot of one of my favorite Italian films of all time, Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso. That movie is also very nostalgic, also takes place in a small town, also has several scenes set in a movie theater and also frankly explores sexuality. (In Amarcord, masturbation is discussed, a buxom woman offers her giant breasts to the protagonist, a town prostitute is one of the main characters, and the Fellini-esque main female character is named Gradisca, which translates as "what you desire.") I guess you could actually surmise that Cinema Paradiso is indebted to Amarcord.

The big difference for me -- and I think this is why I don't love Fellini like many people do -- is that Cinema Paradiso has more of a conventional plot you can follow, and, like it or not, that's something I seek out in most movies I love. This is not to say I haven't loved the occasional free-form movie in my day, but when I do, all the other elements have to come together perfectly to emotionally or intellectually transport me. Both of the second two Fellini movies I chose were more about isolated moments, and what those moments were supposed to say about the human condition. If all of those moments had spoken to me in the way Fellini intended, I'm sure I would have loved his films. But they didn't, and there was not enough of a plot to fall back on.

But look, the last thing I want to do -- even though I think I've been doing it -- is apologize for not getting more out of my Fellini month. What I wanted more than anything was to get better acquainted with him, and in that regard I succeeded. That doesn't mean I have to love him. And not loving him doesn't make me a bad film fan.

Okay, I'm going to be switching things up for the month of May -- choosing a far more obscure director than either Fellini or Bergman. I may actually have to bend the rules a little bit for this guy, but I won't explain how I'm bending them until later. And in June I hope to go back to getting better acquainted with an actor or actress, since this project was not envisioned solely as a way to catch up on my directors.

So I bid you arrivederci for now, Senor Fellini, but I'm not done with you yet.

At the very least I should probably watch 8 1/2 again, now that I know you a little better.


Don Handsome said...

I agree with your take that sometimes classics are burdened by their reputations and I think that its often too difficult to separate the knowledge that I’m supposed to like a film from actually liking a film. I tend “like” some classics more for being windows to a passed era rather than being actually appealing to me. Fellini’s films are no different – If I’m being honest, I’ll tell you that his films don’t have a context for me and that they are from another time and mindset that I don’t empathize with. But I can also honestly say that all of the Fellini films I’ve seen work for me on a core level (some more than others…though La Strada works, I definitely see and agree with your criticisms). I may not bond with their total package, but I find that the window that Fellini offers exemplifies a beautiful-but-dated style that is thorough and immersive (while its often only glimpsed in other filmmakers’ work). For me, watching a Fellini film is like going to a museum and looking at fine art. The style and subject of that art may not be relevant any longer, but there are some paintings that just strike you no matter how old or decontextualized they are. My lack of ability to bond with Fellini’s characters and stories DOES keeps me from feeling engrossed by the films, but I’m not sure I think this is a negative. I think there is a tremendous joy in being an interloper in his world. Maybe I’m being too passive with him, and maybe I’m accepting Fellini as a great director because I think I should. But art strikes you in different ways and I’ve found that if I let go of some of my narrative and character hang ups, the faces, shadows, iconic women, cigarettes, and angles that Fellini throws at me all blend together very well and I don’t want to look away.

But I do definitely agree with you about La Strada - I too was expecting something more joyous and was kind of confused by its tone. I think La Strada suffers a bit from being a transitional piece for Fellini. I believe it was the first film that he made outside of that Italian Neo-Realism aesthetic so it’s probable that he was trying out new stylistic choices and that hadn’t been perfected yet. I think he hadn’t quite hit his transcendent artistic heights either. Also, if you buy wikipedia’s explanation, he was dealing with significant depression at the time too which could certainly confuse the film’s tone.

But definitel revist 8 1/2. The new(ish) criterion blu-ray does it a tremendous amount of justice.

Vancetastic said...

What a nice way you have of putting things, Don. That's a very good description of how to take Fellini. I must assume, however, that not everyone views him that way. Do you think that his characters are universally alienating, or that some people relate to them quite well? And if you do relate to them quite well, do you have to be a playboy journalist to do so? (I'm a journalist, at least a former journalist, but I'm not a playboy.)

He is indeed a master of conjuring iconic imagery, and for that I appreciate him greatly. However, if comparing him to his fellow countrymen is perhaps more useful than comparing him to the likes of Bergman or Kurosawa, I think I might be a bigger Vittorio di Sica fan than Fellini fan, even though I've only seen one di Sica film (that of course being Bicycle Thief). I'm also interested in revisiting Antonioni's Blow-Up.

Don Handsome said...

I’m a much bigger Antonioni fan than I am a Fellini fan, actually. You can’t go wrong with Blow Up, but L’Avventura is hands down my favorite – Highly Recommended! I have only seen The Bicycle Thief from di Sica as well, but we’re in agreement about its merit. Both of these directors had more of a feel for the other cinematic elements that Fellini seemed to shirk and thus their films (at least the ones I’ve seen) feel more contemporary and accessible. Antonioni showed some of the visual flare that Fellini has in spades so perhaps, in terms of country and era, he is the superior director.

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Adam Smasher said...

When I watch a movie I ask myself is it primarily about story, character or theme (or a mix of each)? Fellini's primary focus is on the thematic elements.

With due respect. My problem I have with this overview isn't whether you liked or dislike the movies. That's your choice. Its that you get hung up on whether or not you like a character. While saying little to it's thematic presence. I'm not trying to be mean here, but doing that misses the point and isn't really addressing what Fellini presented on screen.

It's like someone blogging a complaint that the apple they just ate didn't taste like an orange?

Vancetastic said...


Thanks for the comment!

I think you're picking up on the extent to which I wrestled with these films. I had a hard time finding the entry point to discuss them meaningfully, which might have meant more focus on things like character. However, I do think that any entry point to discussing a film or series of films can be valid as long as you are addressing what was there. If I had said "Why didn't this take place in outer space? That's stupid," then that would have been one thing. But I do think it can be useful to look at what the characters contribute. If you are not struck by the thematic elements (as I clearly was not, as much as I want to be), it seems reasonable to me to assess how I felt about the characters. Maybe that seems superficial, and I certainly understand that. But to me it's just an indication that Fellini, while a great filmmaker, may not speak to me in particular. And I have to let myself off the hook for that. I wanted to taste that apple, Adam, but the orange was all I could taste.