Near the beginning of Federico Fellini’s Intervista (1988), a very large camera crane is about to rise, wreathed in smoke and artificial moonlight, high above the soundstages of Cinecitta. One of the camera operators calls down to his director (Fellini being played by Fellini), “Aren’t you coming up?” “No,” Fellini immediately replies, “I can imagine it from here.” The cameraman shrugs, turns to his colleague on the crane, and says, “What did I tell you?”
That brief exchange about sums it up: both the distinctive personal, imaginative, and visionary quality of Fellini’s cinema and, at the same time, the response of his detractors, who for years have claimed that his work is composed of predictable and repetitive fantasies, without experiential, intellectual, or ideological content. But, in fact, the only truly predictable thing about Fellini’s films over the years was the response of the critics, repeating in chorus “What did I tell you?” or perhaps a Reaganesque “There you go again.”
Ideologues and social (as well as socialist) realists have always been uncomfortable with Fellini, so it came as no great surprise when on the day of Fellini’s death National Public Radio’s All Things Considered trotted out an insignificant critic named Stefan Scheiss (or something very like that) to denounce him, to declare that he was without artistic or social importance, to aver that his work had no influence on the history and development of film art, and generally to “dis” him. After all. Shorty Shrift (or whoever) was just joining a long line of attackers from the right and the left who have accused Fellini of not being politically correct. He was subject throughout his career to Church interference and censorship on the one hand and, on the other, to attacks in the press from Marxist intellectuals, which even led on occasion to actual brawls, such as the one that followed Franco Zeffirelli blowing a noisy whistle to disrupt the ceremonies awarding La Strada a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1954.
Fellini, however, discovered the best way of dealing with his pompous critics: he simply wrote them into his films, made them a part of that cinematic world they despised so much. Think of the sterile intellectuals in his films, the infanticidal Steiner in La Dolce Vita (1959) or the French intellectual Daumier in 8-1/2 (1963) who urges the director Guido Anselmi to achieve that purest of artistic expressions—silence. (Both of them, by the way, in look and behavior, are clearly allusions to Hjalmar Poelzig, played by Boris Karloff in Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat , the intellectual architect who lives in a cold, bare, modernist mansion built on the ruins of the fortress he betrayed in the First World War and who murders his beautiful young wives and preserves them in glass cases to be perfect forever.) Or, in a lighter vein, think of the gloating reporter in 8-1/2 who gleefully says of Guido, “He’s lost! He has nothing to say!” Or the woman who says offscreen during the credits of City of Women (1980), “With Marcello, again? Please, Maestro!” Or in The Clowns (1970), Fellini himself, over whose head a glue-filled bucket suddenly drops, just as he is about to tell an inquiring journalist what the “message” of his film is. So it doesn’t really matter what Swinger Shift (or whatever) said on NPR; Fellini had already put him in the right place on the great screen of his imagining.
But what does matter is the great difference between the response of Fellini’s detractors and that of his enormous and enthusiastic audience—perhaps most clearly stated recently by another visionary filmmaker, David Lynch. “He’s just the greatest filmmaker in history in my book,” Lynch said in the January 1994 issue of Interview. “He really understood cinema and all the magical things it can do.”
Fellini has always had a large international audience. His films have won four Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film (more than any other director), and he was given an Oscar for his life’s work just last year. His influence on other filmmakers is large and international, ranging from Akira Kurosawa to Juzo Itami to Lina Wertmüller to Ken Russell to Bill Forsyth to David Lynch. Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968) and Face to Face (1976) were both strongly influenced by Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965). 8-1/2 has essentially been remade (without credit) at least three times: by Paul Mazursky as Alex in Wonderland (1970), by Bob Fosse as All That Jazz (1979), and by Woody Allen as Stardust Memories (1980). And could Robert Altman ever have made The Player (1992) without Fellini’s having shown the way?
What, then, is there about Fellini’s films that causes the Stepin Shiftits among the intellectually and ideologically correct so much trouble? First, Fellini was an artist who depended upon individual and particular vision and expression rather than politically codified generalities and stereotypes. There is nothing by today’s intellectual standards more offensive (to use a favorite word of the politically correct) than a belief in and commitment to the individual. We are informed by post-structuralists that the individual does not even exist, that it is the culture as a whole that speaks through the individual who is merely a conduit for the culture’s expression. (Substitute the word “state” for the word “culture” in their writings, and you’ll quickly discover why they seem so hauntingly familiar.) We are also informed by deconstructionists that expression itself does not exist, that every decoding is a new encoding, and that the very idea of artistic expression is just another illusion. And so on and so on, each intellectual or ideological coterie imposing its position upon the others and, alas, upon us all.
As Fellini’s films progressed from the relatively realistic forms of Variety Lights (1950) and his other early films to the radical forms of the films following 8-1/2—especially those imaginary documentaries like The Clowns, Roma (1972), and Intervista—his commitment to an exploration of his own way of seeing remained constant. Not since the later Dietrich films of Josef von Sternberg—The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935)—has a director transformed the interior of a soundstage into such a completely personal reality. Fellini was an artist determined to reveal his full vision as vividly and completely as possible, to discover the universal in the particular. “I don’t want to demonstrate anything,” he said, “I want to show it.” He would agree with William James that the individual consciousness is “the workshop of being where we catch fact in the making,” and certainly James’s description of Wordsworth is applicable to Fellini: “that inner life of his carried the burden of a significance that has fed souls of others, and fills them to this day with inner joy.”
Second, Fellini was a Christian—an unorthodox one, granted, in trouble with Catholic dogmatists off and on throughout his career, but a genuine Christian believer. He did not believe in the perfectibility of humankind by social, psychological, medical, political, or any other strictly human means. Rather, he believed that all humans are sinners, that all are capable of redemption, and that Providence moves in the world to provide the means of that redemption. His films are filled with angels in unlikely human forms: clowns and tightrope walkers, whores on the beach and lovely blonde young actresses who can play the saxophone, smiling young women who have come to the city to be typists and sexy, smiling feminist terrorists who shoot holes in the ballooning sexist fantasies of bumbling Don Juans. Even a life-size mechanical doll brings a glimmer of salvation to a thoroughly despicable Giacomo Casanova in Casanova (1976). “Good luck to Guido,” the neurotic young intellectual played by Barbara Steele says in 8-1/2, and even the Mafioso in Ginger and Fred (1985) has his moment of grace when he wishes good luck to Pippo and Amelia in the darkened television studio. Ginger and Fred and Intervista both take place at Christmas with Christmas greetings managing to transcend the ugliness and loss of values in the world in which they are uttered.
His films are, therefore, comic, even at their darkest. “Remember that this is a comic film,” read the note attached to the camera during the filming of 8-1/2, and Dante, the divine comedian, is a presence in so many of the films from La Dolce Vita on. Even those among his characters who seem to reject redemption—Marcello Rubini in La Dolce Vita and the title characters in Toby Dammit (1968) and Casanova—are treated by Fellini with a gentleness that can only be a product of his genuinely forgiving and loving nature. His attitude toward his characters and their sinful natures is not, then, available or congenial to those who self-righteously proclaim their own virtue while eagerly condemning the failings of others.
Third, Fellini’s films are politically and socially honest, rather than correct. His films have always been anti-fascist while at the same time admitting the deep Italian involvement in (or indifference to) fascism. Unlike Bernardo Bertolucci’s films in which the fascists are psychotics, like Marcello in The Conformist (1971), or seem almost to have come from another planet, like Attila in 1900 (1977), Fellini’s fascists are the people next door or even yourself. Titta, the semi-autobiographical central character in Amarcord (1973), wears his fascist youth uniform proudly if not very seriously, and Rubini, the actor hired to play the young Fellini in Intervista, snaps into the fascist salute as easily as everyone around him. Orchestra Rehearsal (1979) and And the Ship Sails On (1983) don’t so much condemn any one side as they reveal the tragic absurdity of having to take sides. No wonder that politically committed critics disapprove so strongly of his films. Being without sin, they are always willing to cast the first stone, apparently not knowing, as Fellini does, that stones can hurt.
Socially, his films are just as honest. “Why do you always have prostitutes in your films?” a reporter asks Guido in 8-1/2. Fellini, perhaps in imitation of Christ and certainly to the consternation of ideologues of both the left and the right, did concern himself with the lives of prostitutes and others who live the low (as opposed to the sweet) life, and almost all of his films concern the near impossibility of honest and equal relationships between men and women. No director has (with the possible exception of Ingmar Bergman) shown more consistently the intensity of the anger and fear that men and women are capable of generating in each other. Juliet of the Spirits is perhaps the finest film concerned with a woman who is abandoned by her husband, only to find that the experience is actually a liberation. And City of Women is, to my knowledge, the only film to explore the confusion of lust and fear that defines contemporary male responses to liberated women. What separates these films from their ideological counterparts (in which women discover that they have no need for or interest in the company of men or men discover their primitive masculine identity by pounding drums around a fire far from women, like comic versions of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ apes performing the Dum-Dum) is that Fellini really loved women. Dreaming of a time “when men and women feel so naturally emancipated that they can meet each other in a naturally relaxed state,” he nevertheless knew that such a time is a long way off and that love, betrayal, and forgiveness must remain natural allies in all caring relationships between the sexes.
Fourth, Fellini the artist sprang from popular culture and used it in the creation of his art, while recognizing its essential barbarism and its real dangers. When asked to name films that he admired or that influenced him, he was more likely to mention the American films of his childhood—Frankenstein (1931) or King Kong (1933) or the comedies of Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx Brothers—than the highly regarded films of his European contemporaries. His films were regularly peopled by circus performers and vaudevillians, street performers and bit players. When the stars did show up, the poets and actors in Fellini Satyricon (1969), the celebrities and beautiful people in La Dolce Vita and Toby Dammit, the opera singers in And the Ship Sails On, they were shown to be clowns, too—only sadder and more pathetic than the real clowns because they were blinded by self-regard and fame.
But he also recognized the pernicious leveling of values in the modern world caused by advertising and television. From La Dolce Vita on, he showed the omnipresence of tabloid journalism and television to be the first sign of the return of the barbarians to the gates of Rome. Giulietta’s husband in Juliet of the Spirits bids good evening to the face on the television with far more feeling and warmth than he shows to any living person in the film—especially to Giulietta. At the end of Intervista, the film crew is attacked by Indians (more European barbarian than American), whose spears are television antennae. In Amarcord, Gradisca wastes the actual possibilities of her youth while looking for a perfect and unattainable Gary Cooper, and, during the funeral procession for Titta’s mother, the cortege passes large posters featuring Norma Shearer and Laurel and Hardy. Fellini knew that already in the 1930’s the reality of the tangible moment was being infected by the intangible imagery of modern technology and that Mussolini and Hitler were very real and dangerous products of that infection. Even Dante was not immune; his head, with the top sheared off and filled with soup, appears on a large advertising poster in the tobacco shop where Titta’s sexual dreams are fulfilled in overwhelming ways he is unable to deal with.
In Ginger and Fred, Fellini makes the point most fully. Not only does a puppet Dante in a television commercial find his way out of the dark wood using a compass (and thereby miss his trip to revelation as well), but the modern cult of celebrity with its absurd blurring of values and meaning is at the center of the comedy. “Why is a convicted Mafioso appearing on a television show with artists?” Amelia asks, to be answered by a Queen Elizabeth look-alike who is also scheduled to appear on the show. “He’s a star, too.” The Bobbitts would be on that show, also, if it were being broadcast today. Fellini, a child of popular culture, knew its limitations in a way that his intellectually snobbish detractors like Signor Squazzi Scitti on NPR do not, for they are sure that they, too, are stars!
Federico Fellini, for all those reasons, then, despite the astonishing beauty of his images and the depth of his feeling for humankind, must remain forever beyond the comprehension or appreciation of those who, bound by ideological or intellectual abstractions, have neither ears to hear nor eyes to see. And what they are missing is what all those people who claim that he never made a love story miss: the simple truth that all of Fellini’s films were and are love stories, are acts of love. They must be understood with a lover’s comprehension, and, if they are, they will feed your soul and fill you with inner joy.
By the way, for those of you who take offense at my vulgar and insensitive jokes at the expense of the noted critic Steven Shiftless, I advise you to read Fellini’s brilliant essay “Why Clowns?” in Fellini on Fellini (1974), in which he explains that when a slovenly Auguste clown (the fool) is confronted with the purity and idealism and authoritarianism of an elegant White Clown, he has no choice but “to dirty his pants, get drunk, roll about on the floor, and put up endless resistance.” I confess to being such a fool, and I assure you that Mr. Shaft is an archetypal White Clown. With all the wisdom of the fools, Stephen, here’s a big honker for you from Federico!