Federico Fellini | Critical Essay by Edward Murray

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Federico Fellini.
This section contains 3,409 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Edward Murray

SOURCE: "The Artist on His Art," in Fellini: The Artist, revised edition, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. Inc., 1985, pp. 25-34.

Murray is an American film critic, drama critic, and educator. In the following chapter from the enlarged edition of his critical study Fellini: The Artist, originally published in 1976, he discusses visual elements, the concept of neorealism, major themes, and notable stylistic influences in relation to Fellini's career and works.

I have no vocation for theories. I detest the world of labels, the world that confuses the label with the thing labeled.

                                   —Federico Fellini

Fellini does not espouse a theory of film. Indeed, as the quotation above makes clear, he has little respect for what he conceives to be the emasculating operations of the intellect. "I am not a cerebral artist," Eileen Hughes quotes him as saying. Fellini views the technique used in a picture as a rational process (the how), but he regards the inspiration behind that process as irrational (the why). An artist cannot wholly explain what his art means; moreover, if he attempts to do so, he destroys what is vital in the work. Hence Fellini has an antipathy for criticism: "Why reevaluate something that has moved you, water it down, control it, kill it?"

Although Fellini rarely utters a remark which might be construed as a generalization on the subject of film art, and although he normally resists offering explanations on the score of why he did such and such in a particular movie, he has been extremely voluble on how he makes a film.

Because cinema is basically a pictorial medium, Fellini believes that a director must be curious about what he calls "the multiple aspects of reality." Working with Rossellini,… taught Fellini that pictures are more expressive than dialogue on the screen. "I believe I have the internal rhythm of the sequences in mind well before shooting begins," he informed Tullio Kezich; however, he added: "If I find that a scene assumes a significance because the camera has started rolling around a glass and goes on to the discovery of all the rest, I adjust my way of shooting to the discovery I have made." Fellini denies that he chooses deliberately to use certain individuals or places for visually symbolic purposes. "Things happen," he informed Gideon Bachmann. "If they happen well, they convey my meaning." The Italian director would agree with the American critic James Agee that "there is only one rule for movies," namely, "that the film interest the eyes, and do its job through the eyes"; and that symbols should "bloom from and exalt reality, not be imposed on and denature reality."

According to Fellini, a black and white film allows the viewer a more imaginative engagement with the characters and story than a color film because viewers tend to project onto the screen the colors they desire. Nonetheless, aside from the fact that most spectators prefer color, and that almost all films today are in color in order to meet audience expectations, the color picture can make a positive aesthetic contribution to screen art. To do so, however, color must be an integral feature of the picture; color must be born with the film in the film-maker's imagination; color should not be a redundant duplication of reality but a vehicle for artistic values. Naturally, a color film is harder to make than one in black and white. As Fellini put it to Pierre Kast: "cinema is movement, color immobility; to try to blend these two artistic expressions is a desperate ambition, like wanting to breathe under water." Lighting is the secret to bringing out the distinctive qualities of a face or a landscape. Yet once the director calls for the camera to move, the light changes. Although the cameraman shot a green room, the screen later shows a rose room. Of the thirteen feature-length films Fellini has made, five—his last five—have been in color.

"Film is only images," Fellini claims. "You can put in whatever sound you want later and change and improve it." In most instances, the actors we see on the screen in a Fellini picture are not the sources of the voices we hear on the sound track. Fellini contends that it is rare to find an actor whose voice remains as true to the artist's conception as his face; consequently, he feels compelled to dub his pictures. In spite of the fact that Fellini believes (or pretends to believe) that the image is all in film, he works carefully on the dubbing, music, and other sounds, often running a scene one or even two hundred times in order to achieve precisely the effect he wants. The experienced film-maker, Fellini maintains, learns to alternate sound and silence in an expressive way. Undoubtedly, film is a combination of sight and sound and silence—though of the three elements, it is true, sight remains by far the most important.

"I cannot make a picture without knowing exactly who wears this shirt, that tie, a moustache," Fellini told Tom Burke. "I must know intimately everything I put in a shot." Yet Fellini is no partisan of the documentary approach. For to him, the imaginative world is in no way inferior to the phenomenological world; indeed, if a choice had to be made between imagination and actual events, he would even argue that his filmic transformations of the world "out there" possess more truth value than the empirical domain. Fellini is well aware that art and life are not identical; he also knows that there remains a subjective realm and an objective one. Selectivity on the part of an artist presupposes interpretation—with the obvious result that complete objectivity, even if it were desirable, is impossible.

Since Fellini performed as a scriptwriter for a number of neorealist directors before making pictures himself, his films reveal traces of the neorealist approach. Location shooting, the use of nonprofessionals in the cast, close attention to "this shirt" and "that tie"—all this is reminiscent of Rossellini's Open City and De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (1949); however, the stark "objective" style—that fidelity to external appearances—which distinguishes the cinema of those directors is not the dominant feature of Fellini's work. Fellini's attempts to define neorealism historically have not been successful. For example, he informed Enzo Peri: "The really important contribution of neorealism is that it suggested a way to look at things—not with the narcissistic glasses of the author, but with equilibrium between reality and subjectivism." The foregoing statement would seem to be a more accurate description of Fellini's pictures than of neorealism. "For me," the director told Bachmann, "neorealism means looking at reality with an honest eye—but any kind of reality: not just social reality, but also spiritual reality, metaphysical reality, anything man has inside him." Again, Fellini's remarks on neorealism tell us more about l'universe fellinien than about neorealism.

Because of Fellini's respect for the mysterious, for the indeterminacy of being (in spite of his gloomy utterances about the harmful effects of past conditioning), and for the viewers intelligence, he never really ends his films or presents ready-made solutions. He feels that if he did provide a closed ending, he would be guilty of dishonesty, since he has reached no lasting solutions in his own life. Fellini prefers to let the viewer imagine how the story will ultimately conclude, what will happen to the characters at last; for unless the viewer is permitted to construct his own conclusion by actively participating in the film, he will be handed a trite or rosy denouement, and thus will be discouraged from seeking remedies for the problems in his own life. Although some of Fellini's characters change and some do not, the conclusions of the films are never wholly determined, the endings are never final, there are always question marks left in the viewer's mind at the last fade-out.

Jean-Paul Sartre has written: "A fictional technique always relates back to the novelist's metaphysics." The same can be said of a cinematic technique. "I do not want to have a fixed idea about life," Fellini told Lillian Ross. "The only thing I want to know is: Why am I here? What is my life?" The motion picture is both an art form and an industry. Although Fellini likes to leave his endings open, he realizes that many viewers want smooth answers to thorny questions. What Fellini offers the viewer is art; what the director with a solution gives the viewer is entertainment. Generally, Fellini prefers not to express the problem in such a crude manner, however, because "art" and "entertainment" are not necessarily antithetical terms. Rather, he divides films into those with an author and those produced merely for consumption: films in the first category express an individual personality and vision; films in the second category express nothing and consequently are popular because they leave the audience undisturbed.

In his article for Variety, [January 5, 1972], Fellini argues that the film-maker must have faith in the public, otherwise he will never develop but will only go on repeating himself, giving the audience what it wants instead of what he wants to give it. Fellini believes that his films, personal though they are, relate to other people's lives; but he also holds that "salvation" is a state of being to be endlessly sought after, not a narcotic in the form of a conventional happy ending. Naturally, Fellini wants his films to make money. Art, however, comes first with him, pecuniary concerns second. If the viewer rejects Fellini's "truth," so be it: the artist has done what he has had to do. After a picture is made, Fellini remarked to Charles Thomas Samuels, "it becomes a prostitute, lives a commercial life; what it does for the public is the public's business. Working for the public doesn't interest me. I think that my films are produced by a wholehearted sense of vocation."

To the pure formalist critic, as noted earlier, only the aesthetic object matters, not the conditions under which the film-maker struggled or his self-confessed intentions. Of course, one must avoid the error of the "intentional fallacy"; that is, of confusing the picture with what the director says about it. But one must also avoid the error of the "unintentional fallacy"; that is, of paying no heed to anything the film-maker says about his films. We learn much about Fellini's work not only from acquaintance with the facts of his life but also from his own statements on the themes of his pictures—or the what of his art as opposed to the how and the why.

In part, Fellini creates out his inner conflicts; for example, he is both Gelsomina and Zampanò (La Strada). That is, Fellini is torn between love for others and indifference, the resultant strain dictating the subject matter in many of his films. He told Ross that he was not a sociable person; yet he informed Bachmann that the longing to establish a deep relationship with others remained a spiritual problem of our age—adding that this very problem could be seen in all his pictures. Although Fellini enjoys surrounding himself with people (when he is shooting a movie his sets resemble a huge family picnic or even a carnival), there is still within him the shy, timid boy from Rimini who detested competition and who found his keenest pleasure in solitude, whether it involved going off alone to a circus or movie, or imitating the clowns and Indians later at home. So it is not surprising that Fellini added in his interview with Bachmann that the stories he puts on celluloid point to tensions in the relationships between people who ought to love one another. Thematically, Fellini is always "saying": Look, the relations between human beings must be improved. It is Fellini's contention that if he had solved this problem in his own life there would be no creative unrest in him, no motive for making pictures.

Related to the themes of love-versus-indifference, and communication-versus-alienation (themes that dominate modern thought, and hence are by no means in themselves peculiar to Fellini's creations), is another idea. The director explained to Pierre Kast that a recurrent motif in his pictures is the endeavor on the part of some characters to free themselves from conventional patterns of behavior; such characters attempt to oppose an authentic mode of existence against an inauthentic one. In the same conversation, Fellini remarked that the characters in each of his pictures are involved in a search for self-discovery, personal identity, and a more meaningful existence.

As Fellini sees it, the Church stands for an inauthentic way of life, since it tends to thwart man's expansive capacities. Fellini regards his art, at least on one level, as a reaction to his Roman Catholic education. He also realizes that on occasion he may overreact to his past, with a consequent warping of his artistic personality. Because of the various psychological tensions that burden every artist, Fellini holds that the critic should not try to pigeonhole him or to identify him completely with that which arouses his hostility. Art, for Fellini, seems to represent a search for wholeness. However, not all artists, Fellini believes, can be comprehended in similar terms. In order to function creatively, one artist requires ideology; a second, love; a third, hatred; and so on. For the real artist—that is, for the man of personal vision—ideas merely trigger his imagination. When a specific film is completed, the idea that inspired it is exhausted. The artist can then turn to another idea—even one entirely at variance with the first—provided it will trigger a second narrative.

For Fellini, ideas are obviously much less important than feelings. Although he generally does not have cheerful words to say on behalf of intellectuals, he remains too well disposed toward all manner of men and all forms of existence to qualify as an anti-intellectual, or indeed as an anti anything. Fellini the artist seriously attempts to love the totality of existence. Where we detect a hostility in his work toward, say, some institution, the negative feeling is simply one factor in the artist's complicated response to experience. As Fellini has often noted, to give one example, his attitude toward the Church is a rebellious one; more accurately it could be described as ambivalent; consequently, his perspective on Roman Catholicism provides a complex psychological soil conducive to filmic creation. Since life is also complex, the polarities that distinguish the Fellinian universe guarantee the director a sufficiently rich assortment of themes with which to capture the interest of the intelligent viewer, who invariably likes to be shown the different sides of every experience.

Because he is afraid of being influenced by other directors, Fellini rarely goes to the movies. Many critics believe that 8 1/2 was influenced by Last Year at Marienbad (1963), but Fellini has never seen that famous Resnais film. Nor has he viewed any pictures (incredible as it seems) by Eisenstein, Murnau, or Dreyer. Similarly, he has not read Joyce; so Ulysses could not have had—as has sometimes been claimed—a direct influence on 8 1/2. Of course, Fellini doesn't rule out the oblique influence of great film-makers, novelists, and other artists on his work. A writer like Joyce transforms culture. The stream-of-consciousness subject matter of Ulysses is in the air every modern artist breathes.

Fellini makes no secret of his love for the poetic realism of the French cinema during the thirties, freely admitting to a possible indirect influence on his own creations. John Ford was another early favorite of Fellini's, possibly because of the warmth and sentiment in the American director's work. As anyone who has seen La Strada might well imagine, Fellini is also a fervent admirer of Chaplin; he singles out City Lights (1931) as a masterpiece among the silents, and he considers Monsieur Verdoux (1947) to be the most beautiful film he has ever seen. In La Strada Giulietta Masina's performance has been justly praised as an example of screen acting at its finest. With immense sensitivity, she develops the character of Gelsomina largely in nonverbal terms through her changing facial expressions, the way she moves and gestures, smiles and stares, dances and plays the trumpet. A few critics, however, have registered disapproval over what they regard as a Fellini-Masina imitation of Chaplin's Tramp. In Essays on Elizabethan Drama, T. S. Eliot writes: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion." Can anything more intelligent be said on the subject of influence? Eliot's comments as applied to comparisons between the Tramp and Gelsomina—or between any Chaplin film and any Fellini film—refute, I believe, criticism of La Strada on the score of imitation. For in that film a brilliant director and an outstanding actress preserve certain qualities of another great artist, namely Chaplin, while at the same time creating a singular work of art and a highly individualized performance.

Fellini denies, however, that Rossellini taught him anything except the primacy of the visual on the screen. Still, the director of Open City and Paisan helped Fellini to discover his native land—the people, the landscape, the special cultural atmosphere—and also the cinema as a serious art form. Thanks to Rossellini, Fellini discovered that film was the ideal means of expression for him.

The contemporary directors who elicit the most praise from Fellini are Kurosawa and Bergman. He has boundless respect for Rashomon (1950) and The Seven Samurai (1954), both of which make him feel like a boy again. Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Magician (1958) are Fellini's favorites among Bergman's pictures. Completely lacking in jealousy, Fellini loudly proclaims his Swedish contemporary a great film artist. Back in 1968, Fellini and Bergman were supposed to collaborate on a movie about love; but the project never materialized … which, considering the different temperaments and stylistic approaches of the two men, was probably all to the good.

Fellini admires the tight structure of Hitchcock's thrillers, though the form of his own pictures is entirely different. He has lauded The Birds (1963) because of its neat, perfect construction; and he has expressed a desire to shoot a film some day in the Hitchcock manner—that is to say, one whose structure would progress causally rather than episodically. The prospect of Fellini making such a picture in the near future appears rather remote … as remote as the prospect of Hitchcock making a film in the Fellini manner. Le style est l'homme même.

It is interesting to note that Fellini praises Antonioni's eye for visual detail; at the same time, however, he calls the films of his distinguished contemporary bloodless: "The allure of his pictures is very exterior and very elegant. They have a strange result, like Vogue: sophisticated, but cold." Elsewhere Fellini has said that he misses the "humanity" in Antonioni's films.

Fellini's favorite writers are Dostoevsky and Kafka; outside of these the books he mentions most often are Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels, The Thousand and One Nights, and Orlando Furioso. As can be seen, Fellini's taste does not tend in the direction of "realism." For the most part, the film-maker limits his reading to newspapers, science fiction, history, a little philosophy, and treatises on the occult (he is extremely fond of [the 19th-century philosopher of the occult] Eliphas Levi). His favorite painter is Botticelli; his favorite composer, Stravinsky.

Although Fellini is an extremely intelligent and sensitive man, he is neither well read, highly cultured, nor even particularly knowledgeable about the history of his chosen medium. Inevitably, there have been some influences on his work, both direct and indirect…. No matter. Fellini goes his own way, creating great films out of his own sources, as original an artist as one might realistically expect in a world such as ours, where so much art (and what passes for art) is almost too abundantly obtainable. Unlike Joyce, then, Fellini is not a learned man; however, like Joyce he remains a major figure: one of those exceptional individuals whose art, rather than merely reflecting culture, helps to shape it. If one is not quite the same after reading Ulysses, one is likewise not quite the same after watching La Strada. Ever after one will see the world, at least in part, through the Italian director's viewfinder. Fellini's best films exist at that rare level at which cinema becomes experience.

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