I Vitelloni (1953) / Amacord (1973) – Fellini double bill
Viewed Curzon Mayfair 17 07 05 Ticket price -£5- 00
There is an tendency to see films through the telescopic concept of the auteur principle understanding film through the singularity of the director’s voice. Certainly it is valid to look at a director’s output and try to discern their underlying film attributes and themes as they develop over the course of a career: style - formal concerns - structure - subject and content. Viewing two examples of Fellini’s output, one relatively early and the other relatively late was for me also a strong reminder that filmic output is often collaborative work and that for some directors there are essential collaborations in their careers that determine the force of their attraction. Collaborative partnerships can be with producers, writers, cameramen, editors and actors. From a viewing Fellini’s films recently I think that Fellini’s owes his reputation as a director to Guilietta Masina the actress whom he married and who was the clown star of most of the work central to his reputation.
With I Vitelloni Fellini shows that he is a director endowed with a fluid musicality in his composition, in his use of his tracks and pans and his ability to orchestrate space and spectacle. But these achievements in their visual aesthetic qualities, divert attention away from the fact that I Vitelloni feels like a film, visuals excepted, without a strong core either in focal concern or subject matter. Autobiographical in inspiration, I Vitelloni sentimentalises provincial Italy of the early’50s. The 5 young men, whom the film follows in their contextual world of the out of season sea side town, all feel too old too formed. This is not an absolute age connected observation. The characters feel like they are already formed beings so the film can never deliver a sense of the process of forming or of change. The rebellion of the characters, such as it is, is circumscribed by the preformed boundaries of the originary world of the film - physical metaphysical and social. The revolt by the characters is a sham. A sham which is beautifully captured as spectacle by Fellini. But is a sham with which he seems happy to conspire, a pretend reaction to what is a phantom world with which he is ultimately content. Interesting to compare I Vitelloni with Antonioni’s Il Grido. Shot in a provincial canal side setting, it is a film set in the fog of post war Italian society where all certainties are now blurred and society and social relations are torn apart with no obvious ways in which to repair the rents. A strong forceful work showing the forces of disintegration at work in post war Italy.
In its focal concerns, its originery world and main subjects (but not in visual style) Fellini’s I Vitelloni resembles something of the output of Ealing Studios in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. In particular those which were based on the concept of a world: Whiskey Galore, the Titfield Thunderbolt, Passport to Pimlico. All products of an unashamed sentimental vein of filmmaking, all constrained in their capacity to make social connections by the hermetically sealed nature of their context. Films locked into sealed worlds with scripts tricked out with fake social and character tensions - enjoyable as sacred social relics(charm)and for the strong social character acting but weak in ideas and filmic impact.
Fellini’s I Vitelloni has visual style and charm but nothing to say. But this at least in relation to Amacord makes it watchable movie. Amacord is unwatchable in the sense that by this stage in his career Fellini is only interested in indulging his craving for creating and filming spectacle; as if spectacle alone were the necessary and sufficient effect to justify a film. Like fireworks they are spectacular to view two or three times a year; to view them every night - unless you are the pyrotechnican - is tedious. Amacord delivers a firework display every 15 minutes. In fact the opening 20 minutes presents as full of promise: this opening suggests the idea of a visual examination of fascism through use of spectacle. An idea which held me in thrall until the repetitive motif’s of the made up faces, the red dresses, the uniforms, the fires and the fireworks revealed that to realise such an idea was beyond Fellini’s powers. Without a collaborator such a Giulietta Masina to work with, Fellini becomes increasingly trapped in his own self referential world, entrapped in a barren circularity. Doomed to recreate vacuous fluid works in the opera bouffe manner.
When I Vitelloni and Amacord are compared to films that he made with Guilietta Masina the critical difference seems to be the ability of these works to connect the formal visual style and the subjects of the films to the wider referential world of contemporary Italy. Something happens to Fellini’s films when Guilietta is involved. The films are linked into a wider field of concern and they possess vitality, allowing Guilietta clown to escape out of the confines of the originary context and connect with social processes. Il Bidoni, La Strada, La Notti de Cabera all have a clown entity in the form of Masina but as such an entity she transposes her clown nature, without sentimentality, onto a wider social canvass. From La Strada -1953 - to Juliet of the Spirits -1965 - this seems to be the period when Masina was in most of Fellini’s films. As collaborator and Fellini’s wife it is her spirit as the ultimate clown that fills out these films not with mindless indulgence but with a sure understanding of how the character and dilemma of the clown could be tuned to focal connections with society. The clown cannot exist in vacuo. The clown - she who is always in the shit - has to exist in a world of wider references or she quickly uses up all her material a series of gestures that yield increasingly diminishing returns.
That film is often a collaborative undertaking is seldom recognised. Both Lean and Eisenstein have acknowledged the role played by Young and Tisse as their respective cinematographers. Sydow Bjornstrand and Anderson seem to be involved in Bergman’s films far beyond their calling as actors. As wife and partner to Fellini, Guilietta Masina’s influence on the films in which she was involved during this period have the effect of raising Fellini’s work out of the mediocrity of his self indulgence to a level of significant filmic achievement where ideas, visual concerns and style, attention and subject matter combine in complex interplay.
I don’t know if Masina’s influence on Fellini, her consummate acting abilities and strength of personality worked to inspire him to move beyond the boundaries of his natural egotistical concerns, or whether there was collaboration between them at the level of ideas and/or in the composition of the scenario. I do think that the Masina effect is an effect that can be seen in the films in which she and Fellini worked togather, and the consequences of her lack of presence are evident in the ordinary output of his early period and the dire product of his later films.
8 September 05