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Critical Review by Pauline Kael
SOURCE: "Lost Souls," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXII, No. 9, April 21, 1986, pp. 97-100, 103-04.
Kael is a widely-read and respected film critic, consultant, and educator. In the following excerpt, she discusses the plot, style and themes of Ginger and Fred, asserting that the film lacks energy and artistic inspiration.
I would dearly love to see Federico Fellini work on material that doesn't come out of his world-weary loins. If he worked with a script that had a story and characters and some propulsion, and if its contours made it impossible for him to get a bellyful of decadence and soullessness or to display grotesques, hermaphrodites, or even transvestites, he might be renewed and show fresh aspects of his poetic imagination. He might once again show some joy in moviemaking.
His latest film, Ginger and Fred, has one big thing going for it: that yummy, alluring title. Those two names have a happy aura all over the world; they're probably part of every moviegoer's (and many a TV watcher's) pantheon. But the movie isn't about those tapping, twirling icons. It's about two mediocre dancers, Amelia (Giulietta Masina) and Pippo (Marcello Mastroianni); in the nineteen-forties, they entertained Italian vaudeville audiences by copying the ballroom numbers from the Astaire-Rogers movies, and were billed as Ginger and Fred. Lovers, they quarrelled and broke up in the mid-fifties; presumably they could flourish only as imitations, because their stage careers ended, and they haven't seen each other since. Now they are being brought to Rome and reunited for a nostalgic appearance on a Christmas TV Special. Essentially, the situation is that of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, except for the crucial detail that those two men were once famous performers. These two were small-timers, curiosities. And the point is driven home by the assortment of other guests who have been rounded up for the three-hour show: celebrity look-alikes (Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan, Kafka, Proust, Kojak); a troupe of midgets who tango; an orchestra of centenarians; a housewife who (for pay) went through the torment of giving up TV for a month; a celebrated imprisoned Mafioso, with a police escort; a levitating monk; an ancient, decrepit war hero; a cow with eighteen teats. In other words, the movie is another Fellini circus and freak show. But this time it's TV that's to blame—TV, which has taken over the society and is debasing and trivializing everything.
Arriving in Rome after an absence of many years, Amelia is in a city that looks like a combination of New York and Vegas. She becomes part of the flow of traffic in the railway station, which is dominated by huge, garish posters celebrating TV and such products as cat food and a dish of sausages and lentils; on the way to the hotel where the swarms of guests for the show are to be put up, she sees enormous billboards advertising TV programs. Wherever she turns in the hotel lobby and in her room, TV sets are spewing inanities. The functionaries for the Special who shepherd her around are impersonally efficient, like humanoids, and at the climax she's in the mazelike passageways and studios of Tele-City itself. It's a city within a city, like the Vatican, but this one is in the business of destroying men's souls and keeping its victims diverted so that they're not aware of their spiritual squalor.
The whole movie has been given the cosmetized look of TV; visually, it's muted—it's blah—and then it's over-bright in Tele-City. The lighting is unimaginative, yet in some ways that's a relief: would anyone want more of the engorged surreal imagery of Fellini's Satyricon, or his Roma or Casanova or City of Women? The undistinguished cinematography here doesn't make you feel as if you were hung over from drinking sticky liqueurs. But Fellini has picked the wrong metaphor when he indicts TV for exhibiting people as freaks; he himself is too culpable on this score—freakdom has been his specialty. Besides, what's likable about Fellini's work is the feeling you get that he can laugh at his own vanity and conceits—that he sees himself as a bit of a freak. (It's something he has in common with Paul Mazursky.) Fellini's spoofs of TV programs and commercials go on throughout the movie; he "flashes" them as if they were obscene images, and he means them to be obscene. They're images of piggy abundance—big-breasted women, pasta with a thick sauce, olive oil being poured—and they're richer-looking than ordinary life. Oral and infantile, they have the glow of something lusted after. Fellini also uses Dante for a TV puppet show. This may have a point: it exposes the surface quality of TV entertainment and its tacky subversion of high culture. But Fellini himself has invoked Dante's Hell for surface effect a few too many times.
The film has a secondary theme, shadowing the attack on television: it's simply that Fellini hates getting old. At sixty-six, he's saying that he's not as graceful as he was—he's tired, he's winded, he stumbles. If you put this together with the primary theme, what you get is the complaint that he's not on top of things anymore; TV is. It's as if Fellini were condemning TV for being a green slime that's absorbing everything, and denouncing it, too, for passing him by.
In story terms, most of Ginger and Fred is simply the preparation for Amelia and Pippo to get together and do their number. After they broke up, Amelia married and raised a family; now widowed, she runs a small business in her home town, near Genoa, and has become a neatly dressed, contented grandmother. Masina still scrunches up her features when she shrugs, pulling her mouth down in a way that's familiar even if you haven't seen her for decades. She's still saucer-eyed and trim-figured, and when she clowns she still has that slightly pie-faced, Harry Langdon look; she has aged without really changing much. Yet when Amelia finds Pippo he looks at her—flabbergasted—and winces comically. He shakes his head in mock horror, as if she had become a fright and were barely recognizable. We're told that they were lovers for fifteen years and that he suffered when she left him, but there are no emotional depths in their encounter; it isn't even funny—it's just inert. The story of their romantic partnership seems no more than a pretext for Fellini to have a few whacks at TV.
Though Masina gives the only big performance in the film (most of the people we see are not professional actors, and don't need to be), and she plays the role with a pleasing modesty, the character is ultimately unsatisfying. Fellini and his writing cohorts (Tonino Guerra and Tullio Pinelli) present Amelia as a practical woman who accommodates herself to circumstances—a woman with some inner strength but no passion, no strong emotions of any kind. And though they seem to be trying to be fair to this unadventurous, proper little bourgeois their hearts aren't in it, and the film treats her with an element of condescension. (It's not unlike the way the mousy Juliet and her fantasies were treated in the 1965 Juliet of the Spirits.) Mastroianni's role is much sketchier. What's clear is that Pippo is Fellini as a bum. This drunken, heavyset wreck of a man, sweaty and slightly disoriented, is Fellini's view of himself as a sensualist who yields to temptations and has wound up like many a man who cons himself: selling encyclopedias. We're never brought close to Pippo; we don't feel we know him. Yet since he's not going anywhere but down, his silly dirty jokes, the half-formed leftish ideas he spouts, and his hopes of hustling a job as a TV host all seem messily human. Amelia's self-control makes her seem like a prosaic, well-behaved child—a neat little doll. Pippo is at least falling apart, and in a play or a movie the characters who are in chaos are almost guaranteed to be more magnetic than the chaste, tidy Amelias. But Fellini may be too honest—or too indifferent—to pull the strings that would bring Pippo to some kind of endearing life. Pippo isn't even guilt-ridden or a great scalawag; he isn't much of anything. (He just plays at rebellion—the way Fellini just plays at satirizing TV, without getting involved.) I don't think Mastroianni has ever had less presence or less resonance; he has never worked with Masina before, and it may be that in trying to adapt to her matter-of-factness he wiped himself out.
The only suspense is: Will the two old imitation Americans make it through their act without disgracing themselves or without one of them keeling over dead? And Fellini squeezes a little tired drama into this: Pippo shows off at rehearsal by lifting Amelia so many times that he's near collapse, and then orders brandies for himself while he's backstage waiting to go on. We do develop a faint rooting interest in the two; we want them to get by with their terrible dancing and be applauded—if only to spare ourselves the mortification of hearing them laughed at. We don't want them to be destroyed by TV. And so the film is able to milk us. It makes us admire the trouper's spirit in Amelia's firmly controlled dancing posture and in Pippo's ability to lurch through the steps when he's sloshed and dazed. (That's the only positive aspect of the entire picture.)
Ginger and Fred isn't painful to watch, and Nicola Piovani's score has a lovely finesse—he brings stray undertones of melancholy to the gaiety of the songs from the Astaire-Rogers pictures. But the movie is imprecise in a way that produces discomfort. Fellini's parodies of TV lack the slap-happy knowingness that younger directors, who grew up with TV, have brought to movies such as the American comedy-revue The Groove Tube and the dadaist farce from Spain What Have I Done to Deserve This! Fellini has no zest to energize his skits. He's venting his disgust with the changes in the society, and he does it in a way that makes you feel he's out of it. There may be a sick joke about television that's waiting to be filmed: a satire that gets into the possibility that those who watch TV the most are the members of the underclass, who remain in the economic pits because they don't learn any skills while sitting at home. (It has been suggested that one of the reasons that recent Asian immigrants to this country have been moving up so fast is that initially they couldn't understand American TV—or were willing to forswear it—and so didn't waste their lives zonked out with the box.) But Fellini looks at TV with the offended eyes of a poet and aesthete, and he finds it vulgar—perhaps the easiest and least productive approach, especially when it's taken (as it usually is) by those who aren't themselves TV watchers.
J. Hoberman on the "fellini-esque":
At its most vulgar, the Fellini-esque was Las Vegas with a human face, a permanent Mardi Gras, the state to which all nightlife and half the commercials on TV aspired. At its most refined, it was very nearly the same thing. Fellini-esque meant the modern world as circus with the movie director as ringmaster, and, as such, it captivated wannabes from Moscow to Mexico City and, in the U.S., from Elaine's to Spago.
J. Hoberman, in "On the Road Again," in The Village Voice, 9 November 1993.
Fellini has got TV and its effects on the culture mixed together with the ugliness of old age and decay. He has always counted the old among his grotesques, and now, seeing himself as one of them, he doesn't like what he sees. Mastroianni exhibits a bald spot like the Maestro's, with skimpy, longish gray hair around the sides and back, and he wears outfits like those the Maestro is often photographed in. He's a crumbling tower of a man—but without the Maestro's fabled rascal's charm. Ginger and Fred is a wobbling, insecure movie. Maybe it seems to be pulling in different directions because Fellini knows that he, like his sodden surrogate, Pippo, would be an m.c. in Hell before he'd consider the quiet life up north with Amelia. You don't expect Fellini, of all people, to be pious about the craziness of junk culture. And you don't expect him to be so upset about aging. (It isn't as if he hadn't lived.) As Ovid said, time devours everything. So why be cranky about it? While time is devouring everything we have some good moments.
This section contains 2,090 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)