Federico Fellini | Critical Review by Judith Williamson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Federico Fellini.
This section contains 1,112 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Judith Williamson

Critical Review by Judith Williamson

SOURCE: "Out of Step," in New Statesman, Vol. 112, No. 2903, November 14, 1986, pp. 23-4.

In the review below, Williamson offers a positive assessment of Ginger and Fred, praising Fellini's ambivalent treatment of the role of television in the modern world.

Where does authenticity lie in a world infinitely replicated by video, computer, and representations which are as much about other representations as about a real world? This is the question which preoccupies theorists of post-modernism (whose answer, incidentally, is 'nowhere'); and in a sense it preoccupies everyone in a world increasingly experienced through electronic media at a time of breakdown in social and political consensus. If our identity no longer fits snugly into place in an ordered world, how indeed can we have an authentic sense of ourselves? While theorists have diagnosed a loss of depth, of sincerity, of affect in this 'postmodern' world, movies have taken it to the logical conclusion of videodrome addiction, computer warfare, and—significantly—have turned 'replicant' into an everyday word.

Ginger and Fred confronts the problem of sincerity in a world of spectacle—but neither by theorising nor by projecting it into the future: Fellini the showman, who so often looks backward (or inward) for his circus material, has no need in this project to search beyond the surface of modern life itself. Fellini has always produced a good spectacle; yet here, in perhaps his most finely controlled film, he lets go the role of ringmaster which instead is dispersed through the anonymous forms of advertising and TV. His film as it were consumes the repetitions of sausages, slogans, sex on hoardings; the enormous promotional pig's trotter bedecked with fairy lights hanging in the station: the fragments of food and bodies which endlessly re-form the same patterns across the chaotic and decaying landscape of the city.

This kaleidoscopic diffusion of subjectivity finds a straightforward analogy in the deregulation of Italian TV, the backdrop for Ginger and Fred's story. Ginger and Fred are, in fact, Amelia (Guilietta Masina) and Pippo (Marcello Mastroianni), elderly tap-dancers whose Rogers/Astaire act broke up after its popularity in the Forties and Fifties and who are brought together again to appear on a special TV show. De-regulated television is a multichannelled stream of aerobics and sf, recipes and romance, interspersed with endless salamis, roasts, sauce-tasting competitions; and the variety show itself is a bizarre collection of lookalikes ('Woody Allen over here please', 'Kafka and Clark Gable come to the lobby'), weirdos (a woman in love with an extra-terrestrial, a dog that's been whimpering since the pope died) and celebrities (a famous admiral, a transvestite in a highly publicised court case). This may sound like a typical whacky Fellini scenario—but it is much more. Not only is TV de-regulated, so are emotions and values in society at large: which is why this film brings so clearly to mind the idea of the 'postmodern condition'. Meaning itself is dispersed and spread—in a sort of parody of democracy—with equal lack of emphasis across every facet of contemporary life, from the street to the screen; and this equality extends to the surface of the film itself, which will cut from a 'narrative' shot (e.g. Amelia in her hotel room) to a group of tiny people dancing round a giant plate of pasta, with no frame, no lines, nothing to mark the TV commercial as different from any other reality.

But instead of just revelling in his meat-market of imagery, Fellini explores it both through and against the sensibility of his central characters—who are both, in a sense, past their 'time' or at least the time when their values meshed with the society around them. Tenderly but without nostalgia, in the affect-less present where edible panties come in eleven fruit flavours plus tuna-and-onion, Fellini traces the complex and contradictory emotions of their reunion—Amelia, a respectable bourgeois grandmother with a small business, and Pippo, drifter and drinker, whose unrest conceals wasted warmth and intelligence. Both Masina and Mastroianni are superb, moving one to the most utterly un-postmodern feelings—which is part of the film's extraordinary finesse. For, however real their emotions, 'Ginger' and 'Fred' don't represent a simple reality posed against the artificiality of TV; rather they themselves stand for a different kind of showmanship.

Their act is an imitation, and yet contains the truth of their relationship: in it, they perform the emotions which they cannot repeat when, in an echo of their stage setting, they part at the station. Their most intimate exchange comes when a power cut suddenly stops the whole show—bringing home the fragility of that surface whose lack of depth contrasts with the profound emotions aroused by the occasion in Amelia and Pippo. As they sit in the dark, there is a moment of openness, caught in the folds of the TV glitz and glamour—both separate from it and, in a way, produced by it, a high pitch of intensity which cannot be matched in the light of day.

It is because Fellini is such a master of spectacular cinema that the ambivalence he brings to this image-world is so poignant. There is something reminiscent of Yeats—another great wielder of imagery—moving from 'it was the dream itself enchanted me' to the 'foul rag and bone shop of the heart' in 'The Circus Animals' Desertion'. Even the film's music suggests ambivalence, partly composed of the Astaire/Rogers dance music, elegant and familiar, but partly composed of the looped theme music of the TV show itself: Ginger and Fred is at once being the show, bringing us the show, and at the same time showing us how much it can't show. Fellini is as flamboyant as ever, but unusually gentle and serious too: it seems relevant that the dance at the centre of the film is the 'hesitation'.

For in many ways his world, where trendy young producers in leather jackets show no interest in or respect for the people they direct, is a bleak one; yet it has its share of softness and joy. There is a beautiful scene where, after Amelia has been disillusioned to find that her new friend is a transvestite, she watches 'her' and her friends dancing on the waste ground in front of a night club, a neon no-man's land without judgment or gender—and she almost joins in, watching a little wistfully from the shadows. And here is Fellini the ringmaster, watching the surface circus of modern media. The 'flying priest' on the TV show says, 'Everything in life is a miracle, it is up to us to find it in all that we survey.' However trite it sounds, [Ginger and Fred] does just that; surveying the modern world with a simultaneous sense of richness and loss.

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This section contains 1,112 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Judith Williamson
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