Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Fellini: I am a Born Liar"

“Fellini: I am a Born Liar” was recently shown on Irish TV. It was made in 1993 and provides the last interview the Federico Fellini had before his death. Fellini was considered one of the most influential movie directors of the mid-twentieth century. His films include “8 1/2”, “Satyricon”, “Fellini’s Roma”, and “Juliet of the Spirits.” The interview with Fellini was interesting and led me to modify my view of his work. The interview contains clips of his movies, but does not identify which movies they were in. They are used to illustrate his ideas rather than to be a “greatest hits” compendium. I frequently find that interviews with artists are tedious because artists frequently talk in a language that has meaning for them but is so idiosyncratic that it leaves the rest of us behind. This is particularly a problem for someone like me who tends to be a concrete thinker and a reductionist. This interview was no different and it was made worse because it was in Italian with English subtitles. When I have seen English language films with English subtitles, I can see how meaning can be slightly changed through the subtitling process. I can only imagine what was done here.

The interview with Fellini was augmented by interviews with Donald Sutherland and Terrance Stamp, two of the most interesting and talented actors in the last 60 years. Neither actor seemed to like working with Fellini very much. They both found him to be overbearing in some instances and too uninvolved in others. Fellini, in contrast, thought that he was very tuned into actors and that he liked them very much. The one actor with whom he had a long-term professional relationship was not interviewed, i.e., Marcello Mastroianni. From others interviewed it seems that Mastroianni was able to not personalize Fellini’s direction and he often simply walked away. Nevertheless his acting style was probably more to Fellini’s natural rhythm that Sutherland’s and Stamp’s.

After Fellini sought treatment for depression from a psychoanalyst, his movies became more informed by Freudian theory. His movies were never just about storytelling. They were not simply a presentation of his perception of a story. Rather they were about his interpretation of the story through the lens of his understanding of his psychological makeup. In that way, Fellini’s movies were self-indulgent and sometimes full of images that were strange and unapproachable. Fellini used actors who were often grotesquely overweight with big hair and who were scantily clad. He used little people, old people, and disabled people to populate his cities and towns. He used these characters not because he was particularly interested in them, but because they reflected his psyche. They were representative of his fears, conflicts, and neuroses. Through his approach, Fellini invited us into his psychoanalysis but we often did not know what he was showing us.

There were two scenes from his films that were part of this interview that illustrated this. The first involved three children on a beach who were peeking in a cabana to see a woman change into her beach clothes. Because it was his recollection of the beach, he insisted that the real ocean would not reflect the quality of memory. He then had his designers build a faux ocean using large sheets of plastic that made artificial waves when moved. In this scene, the woman in the cabana exited and started to walk toward the ocean. She was dressed in a red bikini. She was voluptuous but her derriere was large. This scene incorporated techniques that were designed to make concrete Fellini’s memory using artifice and grotesquerie. One other point- Fellini never stooped to making the scene gratuitously sexy. There was never a close up on the woman’s posterior to highlight its ampleness. What a contrast to modern movie making.

The other scene that I thought illustrated Fellini’s art. It was a scene in a large hotel lobby. I was not certain if this was a real hotel or a set. The lobby was a baroque concoction in red, white and gold leaf. Mastrioanni walked across the lobby. At first the scene was presented in full color. It was then replayed in Fellini’s black and white. It was amazing for me to see how the latter transformed the scene into an abstract work of art. I interpreted this brief scene differently when the color was stripped out. It became cooler and the actor became less engaged with the surrounding but more engaged with me. It was fascinating.

“Fellini: I am a Born Liar” informed me about Fellini’s art. I am less convinced that his work is as great as I once thought, but hearing (or reading) him discuss his films was interesting and provided insights into Fellini’s filmmaking approach. There are scores of movies by others that are indebted to Fellini’s technique of using the director's psychological constructs to tell a story.

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