Monday, May 15, 2017

Fellini In Order

I'm like you and I haven't been able to find anything worth watching on Netflix lately. All old shows and flashy fake sitcoms.

Amazon Prime's selection, beyond the darts at a more meaningful new internet TV, is a disaster. They even took off Take This Job And Shove It last year.

So for the last month or so I've been watching old stuff again, like I've been promising myself for years. My own personal film festival.

Something I always told myself I should really revisit was Fellini's oeuvre; I'd seen maybe half of them over the years, out of order of course and mostly the classic middle period. Some of the early neo-realist ones eluded me and most of the tired later films never made it to my attention.

He directed a couple dozen films along with a handful of shorts; not insurmountable to get through the entire list. Most all are easily available at the local video store if you have one. The local video store without a Fellini section isn't in business anymore anyway. And if you have to, there are streaming options.

To follow an artist with such a signature personality and outlook as Federico is to newly understand his development as if it were preordained. His work breaks down into 3 distinct phases. The neo-realist/rural vs. urban cautionary tales, going from Variety Lights (1951) to La Dolce Vita (1960), is the first, where his characters are invariably diminished in social stature while aiming at something much larger and likely impossible to attain, whether it be fame, understanding of a spouse, to simple grace. La Strada (1954) is the closest to a parable outlining his concept, highlighting what people do what they do, even if they don't know they're doing it.

The second phase begins under what must have been the crushing fame and existential crisis first hinted at in La Dolce Vita. In his first entry post that glorious signature bummer, "The Temptation of Dr. Antonio" in the portmanteau film Boccaccio '70 (1962) he's magically developed (perhaps helped by access to more money) the baroque camera moves and surreal design sense that not only defies narrative but, somehow, will soon become it. Nothing can be taken literally anymore.

The fragmented and fanciful episodes of 8 1/2 (1963) and Juliet of the Spirits (1965) are better served embodied in his larger historical epics. Both the hippie Fellini Satyricon (1969) and Fellini's Casanova (1976) (note both using the possessive in the title, not an accident) are parables as well and have little to do with history as much as Fellini's own personal artistic crises. The title "Fellini Satyricon" places the creator on equal footing as the source work, while "Fellini's Casanova" reasserts the fact that both these works, actually age-old classics, were more known by their authors ("Have your read your Petronius homework today?") until being appropriated and reshaped by the maestro.

A film near the end of this cycle, Fellini's Roma (1972) (that possessive again), highlights the friction he's exploring with the documentary form. Starting with the film-maker as character in 8 1/2 through A Director's Notebook (1969), a behind-the-scenes filmed for Italian television that purports to show how he prepares projects, Fellini has moved off graceless savages and is increasingly interested in how film itself constructs his stories. Even "true" films. Of interest since La Dolce Vita with a journalist at its heart, to 8 1/2 which treats film-making as an existential burden, to his short in 1968's Spirits of the Dead, about a decadent actor who gleefully sells his soul to get out of the business of living. In Satyricon, Fellini recreates the original's ellipses with arbitrary fade-outs, a literal attempt to create what's on the page in images writ large. Roma is Satyricon's good twin, not really a documentary, and not really about anyone's Rome but Fellini's. It's self-consciously staged, and includes a character called Federico Fellini who's the director of the film you're watching, played by Fellini himself.

How meta can you get? The process doesn't seem to mean anything anymore. Casanova is arguably the most lush, decadent, personal depressed treatment to assert that the "artiste" is no longer happy when he does it too long. Whatever "it" is.

This middle period is soaked with self-disdain, a surprising lack of fun (in spite of the antics of 8 1/2's half-hearted circle-of-life celebratory finish, which in retrospect seems forced and ends with, I'm now reminded, on a minor key with that small rag-tag band out of tune as the light fades).

Was it the money? The girls? The drink? Film-making used to be so much more fun when people (and the producers) weren't paying so much attention.

The last period goes from Orchestra Rehearsal (1978) to the final The Voice of the Moon (1990). The budgets are shrinking, the triumph of Amarcord (1973) had been deeply waterlogged by the failure of Casanova, and his themes seem less relevant, playing in minor keys with limited aspirations. Had Fellini taken the criticism of extravagance and arrogance to heart? Amarcord certainly seems like a more mature and measured melt of what we liked before, the perfect marriage of La Dolce Vita and Roma without the crazy bits, his Limelight.

Chaplin didn't stop making movies either. City of Women (1980) reads as a weak-wristed swipe at feminism by an old Italian misogynist who isn't sure he wants to change his ways, and his takes on television, both Orchestra and Ginger and Fred (1986), are grumpy and begrudging, considering it was TV money that got them funded.

The familiar playfulness with the documentary format reaches its naked apogee with Intervista (1987) which adds Fellini's nostalgia about being "Fellini" (trademark) with awkward cameos of Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, wishing they were younger, in a film that makes you wish they were, too.

I found it astounding how many of FF's themes persist through his entire 40-year career, and present from the beginning. The mode of attack and resources at his disposal changed dramatically after the success of La Dolce Vita and 10 years later with Casanova's failure. Yet you can watch a film from the mid '50s and see its echo in the '80s. He continually shows a curiosity about people, a gentle hand against questionable behavior, a willingness to explore how art can reveal the heart of the most diverse and ugly characters.

In all of them, Fellini "hates the sin but loves the sinner." And not one of these felt a chore to sit through (okay, maybe The Clowns (1970)). I don't get the clown thing. And I'm not sure he got it either.

His films aren't overrun by clowns; this is a misconception. This isn't his statement on something on his mind his whole career. There's a thin layer of grotesquerie, really a showman's distraction, and side characters with too much make-up and wigs inserted for effect, and an underlying threat of artistic anarchy.

Maybe that was his point the whole time. I took it too literally. I should watch it again.