There is, from all available experience, some undefinable, nebulous boundary for all the mass consumed arts, beyond which the degeneration of art form into something less joyful (joy does not always accrue from happiness, beauty or decency. Agony and pain can also be redemptive enough to be a source of artistic joy) starts. Extravagance of spectacle is a value in itself but not beyond a point where it loses the beating heat of communicating joy. A provocative over-emphasis on grotesque, spectacular and excessive is needed to make an artistic statement forcefully. Sex, violence, ugliness or sheer breath-taking beauty have been used to jolt the audience form inertia of habitual numb unaroused state and prep them up to imbibe the joy being presented. These tropes, these moments become the signpost or thumbnail for the work of art. “Felliniesque” became a well-established adjective not because of its timidness but because of its almost obscene bravado.
Federico Fellini the Italian Maestro, created a style unique to him and created a repertoire of pure magic in his realized works like La Strada (1954), Nights of Cabiria (1957), "La Dolce Vita" (1960), "8 1/2" (1963), "Juliet of the Spirits" (1965) and to a certain extent, "Amarcord" (1974). He won multiple Oscars for his films. These supreme masterpieces bear testimony to Fellini’s raw talent, his mastery over the medium of cinema. He could create, and more importantly, communicate the most esoteric and opaque recesses of human soul visually. He brought alive, guilt, ennui, lust, ugly darkness of human existence alive very vividly and viscerally on screen. Communication, the key ingredient of artistic appeal was intact and Fellini, like an orchestra conductor, took his audience to the depths and peaks of joy and sorrow and gave them not only a peek but a front row seat to the dark abyss of despair and boredom in the most enthrallingly vivacious manner. His provocative use of imagery was serving its purpose by accentuating the joy, message and purpose of the great movies. It was establishing a brand too. Not for nothing Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg frolicking in Trevi Fountain in Rome is such an iconic image from La Dolce Vita. Excess creates personality and brand. Art itself is defines as ‘sweet excesses.’ Qualification of excess as ‘sweet’ is telling.
Communication need not be confused with just ‘idea’ which Pauline Kael debunked in her review of 8 ½. Idea, Kael wrote, is a word used as a substitute for much wider ensemble of attribute to be an artist. Just having an idea is no guarantee of being inspired or skilled enough to create a realized product of art. Another great critic, Ebert, has found idea as a poor yardstick for testing a movie. He says “a filmmaker who prefers ideas to images will never advance above the second rank because he is fighting the nature of his art. The printed word is ideal for ideas; film is made for images, and images are best when they are free to evoke many associations and are not linked to narrowly defined purposes.” Both the great critics are bang on. Ebert while freeing movie images from the burden of ‘narrowly defined purposes’ has not freed the medium from ‘evoking many associations’. Communication of joy remains important howsoever exalted a place is granted to the visual grandeur of a movie.
Late works of Fellini are true examples of deterioration of monumental talent. His admirers turned into a waiting bunch of expectant connoisseurs erupting into celebration just by the glimpse and whiff of greatness in the works which were quickly losing their joyous heart. This yearning to detect greatness out of nostalgia can be seen even in one of the most clear-eyed film journalist of our times, A. O Scott of The New York Times when he wrote about ‘Fellini Satyricon’, a lush, bravura and for most of its length an excessively dehumanizing movie which stays in the note of joyless grotesque for too long. “Once you've shaken off expectations of coherence or relevance” Scott wrote, “you can marvel at the scale of Fellini's folly. Using the most advanced technology at his disposal, he attempted nothing less than the abolition of nearly two millenniums of Western civilization -- Christianity, sexual morality, domestic order, aesthetic modesty. By the movie's end, intoxicated by poetry, color and the episodic rhythms of his endless, pointless story, you may find yourself wishing he had succeeded.” In many other cases even this scope of “marveling at the scale of folly” was not possible. The sweet spot of extravagance of imagery and communication of joy dissipated. Visual flourish was serving a hardened heart deprived of sympathy for humanity. Grotesque, in many cases, turned into value in itself, instead of serving as compassionate vehicle to portray the pathos of everyday living. Craft and flourish stopped being subservient to art.
I stand somewhere in the middle ground as an admirer of Fellini. Apart from the Six masterpieces, I am willing to say that ‘Amarcord’ and ‘Fellini Satyricon’ ‘Fellini Roma’ are replete with great images and Fellini’s forceful film-making shines through. I don’t understand Kael’s coldness towards La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ . I could easily be mesmerized by the visual excesses, witty phantasmagoria, and extravagant imagery of these two films. To me, the sympathy, pathos and joy of these films was very clear. These two films standing on the cusp of his early neo realistic training (brilliantly realized in La Strada) and later full blossoming of ‘Felliniesque’ are his most accessible movies, that conveyed their agonies and joys in the most exquisite manner. La Strada (1954), says Ebert, perhaps the most accessible interpreter of Fellini, and, for that matter, any thing cinema, wrote “The movie is the bridge between the postwar Italian neorealism which shaped Fellini, and the fanciful autobiographical extravaganzas which followed. It is fashionable to call it his best work - to see the rest of his career as a long slide into self-indulgence. I don't see it that way. I think "La Strada" is part of a process of discovery that led to the masterpieces "La Dolce Vita" (1960), "8 1/2" (1963) and "Amarcord" (1974), and to the bewitching films he made in between, like "Juliet of the Spirits" (1965) and "Fellini's Roma" (1972). "La Strada" is the first film that can be called entirely "Felliniesque."” The Film features many devices that became his trade mark, Circus, man hanging between sky and earth, community feasts and religious and feminine motifs.
My favorites are "La Dolce Vita" (1960), "8 1/2" (1963) movies that satisfy so many urges ranging from euro-trash indulgences, pop philosophical sturdiness, lyrical extravaganza of life which clearly can be taken at its face value as carnival or as a curtain for boredom, ennui and purposelessness. Literary and sexual impotency in the movies are intriguing and exhilarating without becoming a drag. Writer’s or director’s block was never so seductive. That passive but redolent receptacle of sensuality – Marcello Mastroianni making the indignity and pointlessness of lust and longing so sexy. Pauline Kael was repulsed by that, perhaps she saw the seeds of future debasement of this lush talent. Still, to me, these are pure masterpieces. I am a sucker for Kunderasque European sensibilities. These Films along with Nights of Cabiria (1957), Most of them got him Oscar for best Foreign Movie, are sufficient to cement his name somewhere near the very top auteur pantheon.
The path is very common. When basic craft and talent for creating a unique imprimatur remains intact in these great talents while discipline and feel for emotions or some such key ingredient get evaporated. A genius of Fellini’s caliber or for that matter, Hitchcock can create a basic piece of art even in their sleep. Basic film making is almost like muscular memory for such people and they keep on using that for a long time beyond the expiry date their exhilarating superlative apogee. Blurring of boundaries between extravagant beauty of first-rate imagination and mania has been played out too often in the history of cinema. “A grandiosity of intention amounting to hubris” as one critic had pointed out once.
Pauline Kael has attributed the tendency to his international success. She saw this in 8 ½ something with which it is difficult to agree as 8 ½ is so well structured and its ingredients so well utilized. However, she did prove prescient, this has to be given to the pugnacious and perceptive critic, even if we may not agree with her assessment of the great Fellini films of early years. She wrote “8½ suggests some of Fellini’s problems as a director, but they are not so fantastic nor so psychoanalytic as the ones he parades. A major one is the grubby, disheartening economic problem that probably affects Fellini in an intensified form precisely because of the commercial success of La Dolce Vita and the business hopes it raised. A movie director has two “worst” enemies: commercial failure and commercial success. After a failure, he has a difficult time raising money for his next film; after a success, his next must be bigger and “better.” She continues “8½ does indeed make a spectacle of the spirit: what else can you do with spirit when you’re expected to turn out masterpieces?” Avoiding this slippery slope required a serious courage to play beyond the tropes of formula success and continuous reinvention by the master. Fellini chose to double down on his strength of flourish to the point that they became liabilities.
As Fellini is too important a film maker to be approached from wrong direction as missing his true genius will be too great a loss for anyone interested in Cinema, I would like to conclude with the brilliant summation of the NewYorker’ Anthony Lane, who wrote on 100 years of Fellini in January 2020 “No wonder these late movies feel so hermetic. We may be charmed and dazzled, but often we can’t breathe. That is why, if I had to introduce a novice to Fellini, I’d suggest a big-screen showing of “I Vitelloni” (1953)—an early film, breezy and inconsequential, about a bunch of aimless pals in a Rimini-like town. Somehow, the younger Fellini strikes me as sadder and wiser than the all-powerful magus he would eventually become. (Maybe Ariel knows more than Prospero ever will.) The movie is sparsely plotted and blessed with fresh air; a typical day finds the vitelloni down at the misty beach, in coats and scarves, staring out to sea, like castaways hoping for a ship. And the ship, of course, sails on.”