Fellini Satyricon (1969)

Fellini Satyricon (1969) movie poster

director Federico Fellini
viewed: 12/18/2016

As Fellini Satyricon opens, there is a sense of theatricality and staginess to his adaptation of the Roman classic play by Petronius.  For me, this is usually a warning sign that I’m not going to like a movie.  This potential pet peeve, though, is not only disproven but eventually utterly eradicated.

Satyricon is masterful.

It’s a sprawling work, interweaving so much in its 129 minute running time that I don’t even know where to start.  Episodic, fantastic, far-reaching, at its essence it is about two friends, Encolpius and Ascyltus, having a falling out over a young lover, Gitón.  There is much sexuality in the film, desire, fulfillment, loss, yearning.  And it is somewhat pansexual but also very much about homosexual love and desire.  It feels amazingly progressive, even for 1969.

This rich and complex fantasy is more than I can react to from a single viewing.  It’s surprising and vivid, outrageous, painful, wildly evocative.  From what little I’ve read about Fellini’s approach and interest in the source material, a play only known in fragmentary form, seems really interesting.

I’m really at a loss to say more of it at the moment.  I thought it was amazing.

Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

Juliet of the Spirits (1965) movie poster

director Federico Fellini
viewed:  11/25/2015

I can’t say that I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Federico Fellini, though that would sound more familiar and maybe make more sense.  What I’ve had is more of a get-don’t get relationship with him as I’ve come to his films over the past more than a decade.  But such a major figure in World Cinema, Fellini still draws me to his films, the major films I haven’t seen (but have had queued for forever.)

Juliet of the Spirits is perhaps the first of Fellini’s films that I’ve like right off the bat.  In fact, I think I liked it more than any of his other films I’ve seen, I Vitelloni (1953), La Dolce Vita (1960), 8 1/2 (1963), or The Clowns (1970).  Having seen these five films now spread out over 20 or so years, I probably haven’t come to a realization as quickly as if I’d simply watched them in quicker succession.  In fact, maybe if I’d liked even one of them better, I might have watched another shortly after watching the documentary, Fellini: I’m a Born Liar (2003), which I watched 6 years ago.

It seems that Fellini had an awakening (perhaps influenced by LSD) that led to his notable classic 8 1/2.  He pivoted styles, from the Italian neorealism from which he apprenticed, to the dreamworld surrealism of his more mature works.  It is this latter style that is most often considered when hearing the term “Fellini-esque”.  But would you find that in La Strada (1954), Nights of Cabiria (1957), or La Dolce Vita?  All major films by the Italian maestro?

Juliet of the Spirits bears perhaps some kinship with 8 1/2 (it was his first feature that followed that break-through) in that it deals with a break from reality and sense of self and society, life and family, all meaning perhaps, but instead of Marcello Mastriani as a stand-in for Fellini, the story belongs to Juliet, played by the then 40 something Giulietta Masina, a middle aged woman with a philandering husband, and a world about to come apart at the seams.

But instead of coming apart at the seams herself, Giulietta breaks with reality for the better, not into psychosis or depression but into a wider, wilder realm of change, of self-awareness or independence, not tied to cultural norms nor pre-ordained scripts.  The ending, while indeed wide-open, suggests the unwritten, the possible, and freedom.

Perhaps in changing the focus from a male character to a female, something also shifted.  Masina had starred in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, but I don’t know enough about their relationship as creative partners to speculate on the possible significance of this focus.  But I can say in Fellini’s other films, the classic Italian patriarchal world  feels so unchallenged, that here it felt taken afresh.

Nights of Cabiria has been at the top of my list of Fellini films to see, so maybe I will finally start to watch his movies in closer consection than I have in the past.  I can say that if asked, at present, Juliet of the Spirits would be the first Fellini film I would recommend to someone, truly the first Fellini film I have genuinely liked.

I would be utterly remiss in not saying something about the color and the costumes, the hats, of which, are absolutely amazing.

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.

8 1/2

8 1/2 (1963) movie poster

(1963) dir. Federico Fellini
viewed: 04/07/08

I often note that no matter how many films a film fan, student, scholar, or cineaste has seen, there are going to be huge gaps in the list of major films or major filmmakers’ works that one has seen.  Federico Fellini has been one of my major blind spots in my litany of the major filmmakers of the 20th century whose work I have seen so little of.  Up until this point, I’d only seen three, The Clowns (1970) (which is pretty anomolous I gather), I Vitelloni (1953), and La Dolce Vita (1960).  While La Dolce Vita is one of his major works, I think I was unaware of his early style (Italian neorealism) versus his later surrealistic style that seems to have developed starting with this film.  When someone says that something is “like a Fellini film”, they usually mean the bizarre, the dwarfs, the clowns, the weird stuff.  I don’t think I’d ever seen one that met that criteria.

From the opening sequence, in a traffic jam in a tunnel, which evolves into a fantasy sequence of escape and floating in air, I realized that I was finally seeing what equates more to the typical consideration of Fellini and his work.  That said, the film still maitains a realism that contrasts back with the fantasy sequences, which is a singular part of the film’s workings.  is a film about a filmmaker’s mid-life crisis, in his work, in his marriage, in his religion, and his culture.  The breaking with the narrative, the sequences of internal fantasy, memories that eventually give way to the creation of the film, the dance of all that is part of Fellini’s ego, his self, his world.

It’s a very mid-20th century vision.  Very Jungian, very modernistic, still steeped in the Catholocism and the beginnings of therapy and self-analysis, rife with a sexism that also is open to not quite feminism, but something.

The film has been so influential that many films and filmmakers come to mind throughout the unreeling of it.  There is a brilliance, the novelty of its time, the breakthrough creatively that a film about the suffocation of “writer’s block”, the breaking the wall between life and the creative process, and the psychosis of the director’s world, the world of filmmaking.

The funny thing, too, for me, is that almost was one of the first “art films” that I ever saw.  It played on HBO or something back when I was an early teen, and I remember being intrigued by it, as I was beginning to develop an interest in “film”, in exploring stuff that I have not been familiar with.  Strangely enough, more than 20 years later, I finally get to see it.  I consider what my reaction would have been at the time, what influence it might have had on me.  It’s interesting.

It finally came up for me as part of my broken “numbers” films, watching movies whose titles began with a numeral, rather than a word.  This little whim of a festival brought it to the top of my queue, even though in the end, I didn’t watch all the number films in a row.  Well, for whatever reasons I finally got to see it, I am grateful.  And I am now more interested in seeing others of his films, including the documentary that came out a few years back about him called Fellini: I’m a Born Liar (2002).  If you haven’t seen it, it truly earns its mark in the filmmaking of the 20th century.

I Vitelloni

I Vitelloni (1953) movie poster

(1953) dir. Federico Fellini
viewed: 12/15/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, largely because I tend to repeat myself ad nauseum, but despite having been a film studies student, there are a multitude of significant directors of whom I have seen little or nothing. Of Federico Fellini’s films, I have seen one, The Clowns (1971), which was made for television, I believe and might cheapen it as an entry. I did see it in film class, though.

For the Monday Night Movie Club, this is the kind of thing that gets us out to the theater, seeing the art cinema stuff and classics and whatnot.

I Vitelloni, I don’t think, is utterly typical Fellini, though I am obviously not one to be able to say that with absoulte self-assurance. It’s an earlier film for Fellini, one that is less “fantastic” or “surreal”, but is more a sort of naturalistic tale of a group of young Italian men and their carousing misadventures. Not a great summary there, but it gets the gist across. This film, I have read, insired Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), which potentially adds something to it.

Overall, I wasn’t overly excited about the film, though it was mostly fairly pleasing throughout. There is interesting camerawork and engaging storylines, and certain scenes are particularly nice. Some of the party scenes have a fun aesthetic. And the post-carnival scenes, with the deserted streets and all of the giant clown heads in fountains and lying on the ground make for a strange, almost post-apocalyptic world.