This post is my contribution to the Contrary to Popular Opinion blogathon, hosted by the amazing-and-no-that’s-not-the-debate Sister Celluloid. It’s all about ‘expressing opinions that are liable to get your Classic Movie Fan card revoked’ – s0 join in my Federico Fellini ‘discussion’, then read all the entries here.
Criticising Federico Fellini feels like sacrilege. The heavyweight director has rave reviews, box-office figures and a long-lasting career that spanned more than forty years in his corner. On his office shelf (if indeed he had one, and it’s not difficult to imagine he would have) resides – amongst others – four Academy Awards (one honorary), a Palme d’Or and a BAFTA. His name is generally pre-fixed with lofty adjectives: ‘great’, ‘influential’, ‘visionary’, ‘flamboyant’… Well here’s one you hear less often: OVERRATED. And another: NARCISSTIC.
At this point, it would pertinent to note that I am not wholly unappreciative of Fellini’s legacy. He’s a true auteur and his voice, rooted in European art cinema, always stood apart from Hollywood. His ideas are embedded in popular culture (remember, that ‘paparazzi’ originated as the name of a pushy celebrity photographer character in La Dolce Vita). I approve of his criticism of ‘empty society’. I love that so often his films are like a direct pipeline into his imagination, and were drawn from his life and his dreams… Despite this, I’m not a fan, and the only Fellini films I actually like are the aforementioned La Dolce Vita, Variety Lights (co-directed with Alberto Lattuada) and I Vitelloni, a very early comedy-drama, released in 1953 (Disclaimer: I haven’t seen every Fellini film, but I have seen all the ‘big guns’). So if I accept the accolades, why the aversion, I hear you ask?
Firstly, much of the director’s later work (notably that released after La Dolce Vita) is over-inflated and is let down by its idea of itself. Attributing this decline in standard to burnout simply overlooks the obvious: Fellini fell in love with his own filmmaking and his own idea of himself, as viewed through the lens of his own camera. Consider his comment in a 1969 interview with Roger Ebert: ‘Do you know… this is like a scene from a Fellini movie’.
La Dolce Vita (1960) was visionary, and ushered in a personal and expressive style of filmmaking that finally eclipsed the neorealism genre that had dominated Italian cinema since WWII. Yet in 8 ½, Fellini took experimentation to the point of incomprehension. The juxtaposition of dream, vision and fantasy make it impossible for viewers (and by that, I do mean myself) to understand what’s going on: to borrow from a New York Times reviewer, ‘it has no more plot than a horse race’. Narrative structure might not be the only prerequisite for great filmmaking, but it certainly aids it. But 8 ½ is also a let down because it’s so easy to ignore incomprehension in lieu of the beautiful images that are – in truth – little more than a series of tableaux with a limited common thread. The symbolism is too tangential– by prioritising imagery over ideas, Fellini appealed to an increasingly limited audience. Whilst 8 ½ has clear elements of being a ‘masterpiece’ its also frustratingly elusive; even the title is an in-joke reference to previous films.
Perhaps, then, I dislike this particular Fellini because I don’t understand it. The fault lies with my imagination, my need to fit events into neat linear boxes. Except – does it? 8 ½ is a film about filmmaking, told from the director’s point of view. Guido (played by Marcelo Mastroianni) is clearly meant to represent Fellini, so who better to explain away the confusion than the director himself? Well, no one, apart from the fact that he – frustratingly – refused to answer questions about the meanings of his imagery:
‘Meaning, always meaning!’ he scoffed. ‘When someone asks, ‘What do you mean in this picture?,’ it shows he is a prisoner of intellectual, sentimental shackles. Without his meaning, he feels vulnerable.’
Whilst I agree that our lust for ‘meaning’ is eclipsing other experiences and aptitude, it’s surely not so difficult for a visionary to explain his thoughts to the masses. Leaving it open to critical interpretation only muddies the waters of understanding. Simple answers are acceptable. Complication isn’t always better. But Fellini hid behind the masquerade that it was, and that by withholding the secrets, he’d created something that was better, more intellectual. In the case of 8 ½, it’s impossible to separate the ‘man’ from the ‘film’. Some critics have suggested that it’s the flailings of a filmmaker without a plan, that he actually made a film about himself not being able to make a film. I for one don’t buy this angle: Fellini could make the film – he just refused to explain it. As Alan A. Stone observes, 8 ½ was ‘the beginning of the end… in 8 ½ we see the blueprint for Fellini’s disintegration as a filmmaker’.
But it’s absurd to dismiss a director such as Fellini on the merits of one film. What other ‘issues’ are there? From his very earliest films, Fellini drew on his own experiences to create semi-autobiographical narratives. He went further when he cast his wife Giulietta Masina in La Strada (1954). After that, his films (as the previously discussed 8 ½ reveals) became increasingly introspective and personal and more difficult to relate to. As Stephen Hanson observed, each of Fellini’s films is a ‘deliberately crafted building block in the construction of a larger-than-life Fellini legend which may eventually come to be regarded as the ‘journey of a psyche.’ La città delle donne (City of Women), released in 1980 when he was struggling to secure financial backing for his projects, centred around a middle-aged journalist who, after following a woman on a train, wakes up to find himself in an all-female world, ruled by Dr. Zuberkock. An on-the-surface ode to feminism, it’s actually anything but – most of the female characters are one-dimensional (an accusation that can be levelled at much of his work). Ultimately, it’s not a conclusion to a trilogy that began with 8 ½, merely a derivative reflection on what’s come before.
But it’s absurd to dismiss a director such as Fellini on the merits of one film. What other ‘issues’ are there? From his very earliest films, Fellini drew on his own experiences to create semi-autobiographical narratives. He went further when he cast his wife Giulietta Masina in La Strada (1954). After that his films (as the previously discussed 8 ½ reveals) became increasingly introspective and personal and more difficult to relate to. As Stephen Hanson observed, each of Fellini’s films is a ‘deliberately crafted building block in the construction of a larger-than-life Fellini legend which may eventually come to be regarded as the ‘journey of a psyche.’ La città delle donne (City of Women), released in 1980 when he was struggling to secure financial backing for his projects, centred around a middle-aged journalist who, after following a woman on a train, wakes up to find himself in an all-female world, ruled by Dr. Zuberkock. An on-the-surface ode to feminism, it’s actually anything but – most of the female characters are one-dimensional, an accusation that can be levelled at much of his work.
By referencing his work so deeply in his own experience, much of it becomes too introspective. As a viewer you want something more – a contextual understanding and meaning. Perhaps my opinion of Fellini stems from his attitude towards filmmaking: ‘our duty as storytellers is to bring people to the station. There each person will choose his or her own train… But we must at least take them to the station… to a point of departure’. I want the Fellini carriage to take me the whole way, to offer all the answers, to reveal all the secrets – not because I can’t find them myself, but because I know he has wondrous, imaginative ones that should be shared. Despite all my misgivings, I can’t deny that there’s something wonderfully natural about Fellini films, for him; filmmaking was as necessary as breathing. So by keeping his answers so close to his chest and refusing explanation, he’s short-changing the audience and, perversely, planting seeds of doubt that maybe there isn’t more to understand, that maybe it’s all a big in joke.
That brings me to one final point: Fellini isn’t a director you can take in half measures. Many of his films need to be watched with complete attention. Then watched again. And again. Thanks to their autobiographical and nostalgic nature, many of the subtleties only make sense once you know more about Fellini or have perhaps read Dante (I haven’t, don’t judge). But it shouldn’t be so difficult. Fellini could easily have made films with niche and mass appeal, stories that made sense on the surface but were layered with pathos on meaning. Instead, he (admirably) chose to eschew commercial success for indulgency but in the process denied movie goers across the world the chance to truly appreciate, engage with and yes, learn from an undisputed master. And that’s a pity.