Fellini: I’m a Born Liar

Fellini: I'm a Born Liar (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Damian Pettigrew
viewed: 04/27/09

I think I queued this film, a documentary about famed filmmaker Federico Fellini, to gain some perspective on his work, since I have felt somewhat unmoved by his films, also finding myself looking for a toehold to get into them.  This documentary came out in 2002, and I remembered it (it’s probably been in my queue all that time), that it had been well-received.

But one of those interesting happenstances happened.  Having just watched Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008), I was struck by an interesting parallel.  Synecdoche, New York is about a playwright and director whose life melds into his work, his construct of the world becomes more real than the outer world.  It’s a film about life and death but very much the creative process and the somewhat psychoanalytic therapy of directing work of one’s creation, of one’s life.  And this is because this is very much the discussion and dialogue with Fellini in I’m a Born Liar.

Fellini is a real old man in his interviews, not the made up old man played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Kaufman’s film.  Fellini is looking back on his process, his career, his philosophy.  Fellini’s successes and recognition perhaps freed him from the self-loathing that reeks from Kaufman’s character.  Fellini is full of contradictions, issues, but also worked this issue out quite literally himself in one of his most famous films, 8 1/2 (1963).  And I’m a Born Liar uses imagery from that film more than from any other of Fellini’s works.  It would be an interesting double feature, those two films, self-reflective, obsessed with the process of creativity and life.

Of course, the benefit of genuine hindsight is that Fellini cheerfully discusses his work and process, his philosophies.  And while we have some outside perspectives of the man and his process from people who worked with him, actors, art directors, cinematographers, friends, and we learn the contradictions therein.  Fellini is aware of the oxymorons and contradictions to an extent.  But again, this is where the parallel between these films becomes most profound.  Fellini notes that his construct of his hometown, one that he built in film and in his mind, is more real to him than the “actual” reality of the physical town.  Much like Hoffman’s re-build of Schenectady, New York, a personal microcosm within a microcosm, with actors who “play” the director.  In Fellini’s case, it’s Marcello Mastroianni who fulfilled this in his films, his cinematic  counterpart, rather than the endless streams of actors who fulfill Hoffman’s ever more complex universe.

Director Damian Pettigrew has a simple, elegant approach to the documentary, utilizing interview footage of Fellini still vibrant but only a year or so before his death in 1993, mixed with reflections of others, segments and images from his films, and tellingly, images of the present day locations of Fellini’s famous films, showing the change or lack of change, the “real” world which Fellini has come to deny, more fixated on his own version of events, place, the world.

I’m also a little more struck by the fact that Fellini went from realist to fantasist in his work based on experimentation with LSD.  That is a bit of a guess and simplification, but it seems quite possible.  Influential nonetheless.

It’s a good documentary, not utterly straightforward, but quite a discourse on art, creation, imagination and the cinematic experience.  I’ll have to see what will be next in the Fellini films that I watch.  There are a few out there on my queue.  I’ll have to move one or two up.

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