Monday, May 15, 2017

Fellini In Order

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.

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.

This is the meat and the heart of Fellini's stature, the awards and the international recognition. 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) (both using the possessive in the title, not an accident) are parables 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 today?") until being appropriated and re-authored by the new maestro.

A film near the end of this cycle, Fellini's Roma (1972) (that possessive again), highlights the friction he's exploring with narrative from the other side of history. He's taking on the documentary form full-face, and, starting with the film-maker as character in 8 1/2 through A Director's Notebook (1969), a behind-the-scenes film for television, Fellini has moved off graceless savages and is increasingly interested in how film itself constructs story. Even a story presumably "autobiographical" and true.

Since La Dolce Vita with a journalist at its heart, to 8 1/2 which treats film-making as existential burden, to his short in 1968's Spirits of the Dead, about a decadent actor who sells his soul to get out of the business (and of life), Fellini investigates how a film tells lies about itself. "I'm a born liar." Roma is Satyricon's good twin, not really about Rome, and not really a documentary. 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 matter anymore. Casanova is arguably the most lush, decadent, personally depressed treatment to assert that the "artiste" is no longer happy when he does it too long. Whatever "it" may be.

This middle period is soaked with self-disdain, a surprising lack of fun (in spite of the antics of 8 1/2's circle-of-life finish, which in retrospect seems forced and half-hearted, I'm now reminded, by ending on a minor key with that out-of-tune rag-tag band 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 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 mature and measured melting of what we liked before, the perfect marriage of La Dolce Vita and Roma without the crazy bits, his nostalgic Limelight.

But -- Chaplin didn't stop making movies either. City of Women (1980) reads as a weak-wristed swipe at feminism by a provincial misogynist who's not 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 in the first place.

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

I found it astounding how many of Fellini's themes persist through his 40-year career, many present from the beginning. The mode of attack and resources at his disposal changed dramatically after La Dolce Vita's success, and then 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 ugly character.

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). That one was a little tough. I don't get the clown thing he's trying for. I'm not sure he got it, either.

It's a misconception Fellini was obsessed with clowns. This isn't something we've seen his entire career. There's a thin layer of grotesquerie, really a showman's distraction, and side characters with too much make-up and funny hair inserted for effect, but all with an underlying threat of artistic anarchy.

Maybe that was his point. I took it too literally. I guess I should watch again.