Friday, September 12, 2008

Let's Just Be Friends: Federico Fellini

Federico Fellini vs. Michelangelo Antonioni

Trying to give this series a little diversity, I knew that I wanted to write about a European art director, but that was by far the hardest category for me to find someone I didn’t adore. I was slow to click with French poetic realism and I almost choose Jean Renoir (with Marcel Carne as the preferred candidate), but I’ve gradually converted during the last few years as I see some of his lesser work. Even Fellini is a bit of a stretch, since I’ve only disliked one film by him (“Amarcord,” if you’re interested). Much like Ozu, my sense that we don’t connect comes from the discrepancy between my mild enthusiasm and the critical establishment’s thunderous praise.

Fellini has a lot going for him in my book. Whether in black and white or in color, he has preternatural sense for constructing powerful visual impressions. He’s a gifted surrealist, with a fantastic imagination full of rich minutiae and rapturous flights. Although sometimes overly given to ponderous symbolism for its own sake, his ability to drape layer after layer of meaning (personal, religious, political, psychological, sexual) onto his imagery turns his films into exhilarating intellectual carnivals.

It’s his early work that I think is least arresting. In “Nights of Cabiria” and “La Strada” he’s still too held back by neorealism and it clashes with his use of fatalism and expressionism. I think he also made a mistake in casting his wife, Giulietta Masina, in these and other films. Her acting is too theatrical, with exaggerated emotions painted broadly across her face. The way Fellini idealizes naivety, both in Masina’s characters and in the youths of “Amarcord,” strikes me as false.

I’m more a fan of Fellini’s later work, when he began to adopt a flamboyant style with hallucinatory dream imagery and striking coloration (thought to benefit from a disorder called synesthesia where words, concepts and sounds have involuntary color associations). Around the same time, his collaborations with Marcello Mastroianni took the acting to a higher level.

Still, there’s seemed to be a barrier between me and Fellini. I’d describe it as almost a personality difference. I just don’t share his fascinations, like his absorption with social spheres, sexual conquest and gaudy luxury. It always seems to me that even as he satirizes and unmasks the shallowness of the decadent rich with their idleness, gossip, pettiness, vanities, affairs and orgies, he was also inextricably drawn to it. Like how so many action and war films that try to expose the terribleness of violence ends up glorifying it. The stunning beauty with which Fellini renders the parties, banquets and orchestras drains the venom from his fangs.

Michelangelo Antonioni was Fellini’s contemporary, an Italian art film director who also focused on the wealthy elite. He also shared a fondness for casting Mastroianni. I think the big difference is that Antonioni’s films are more austere in their visuals and more ambiguous in their symbolism. He’s arguably harder to watch and to enjoy.

Fellini had a talent for bringing dreams, memories and fears to vivid life, while Antonioni keeps his characters introspective, repressed and demure. One finds clues into their emotional states in the texture, framing and architecture rather than in expressions and words. Fellini uses the instantaneous impact of images to get raw reactions from the audience (and I should note he does this very well) while Antonioni has a delicacy and precision that requires the viewer to investigate the image. This gives Antonioni’s work a more gradual buildup of meanings rather than an overwhelming glut. I love Fellini’s intensity, but I often find it more rewarding to mull over and rewatch Antonioni’s films.

There is also more potency in Antonioni’s criticism. His assaults on shallowness and decadence show less mercy. When Antonioni’s camera shows up at a party, it doesn’t enjoy itself. Every amusement is shown to be vacuous. Every smile is revealed to be serpentine. One can hardly blame his characters for fleeing in disgust. They’re left wandering lonely streets with doubts about their purpose; existential quandaries that lead to depression and apathy or journeys for truth down blind alleys.

I also enjoy Antonioni’s unusual sense of mystery. Not in the whodunit sense, but in an airy philosophical way. Not only are his characters inscrutable enigmas, but their crises often take the form of quests for some unarticulated inner grail. In films like “The Adventure” and “Blow-Up,” there is a semi-concrete mystery to be solved, but at the heart the real subject is always more abstract. The question, sometimes never even fully formed, usually involves the search for identity, meaning or fulfillment.

This is the closest competition in this series. I actually like both directors quite a bit and admire their talent. I’d actually say Fellini is nearer to the typical type of director I champion and he has more films left that I’m interested in watching. It may have influenced my preference for Antonioni that I took a class on his work, studying it closely and at length (I still find him frequently impenetrable). If I had to choose someone who may really outshine Fellini, it’d be Wojciech Has, but I’ve only seen a few of his films.


Anonymous said...

I'm on board with you on this one as well.

Anonymous said...

I'm really fond of both directors so I hate comparing them, but their work is very different in my mind. Fellini is often obsessed with sensual and tactile pleasures where Antonioni is not. I can appreciate what they both offer viewers but I it seems as if Fellini is falling out of favor lately. I have a lot of opinions about this but maybe I should save them for my own blog.

I do agree with you about Fellini's early films to some degree. I think he really found his voice as a director when he let go of neorealism. While I wouldn't characterize Giulietta Masina's acting as false, I can understand why you might find it too theatrical at times. My own favorite Fellini films were made in the '60s (La Dolce vita, 8 1/2, Satyricon and Histoires extraordinaires) and I think Masina is best used in Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits which was made during this period.

FilmWalrus said...

It is interesting how different Fellini and Antonioni are despite the outward simularities in time and space. I think your fondness for Fellini is certainly justified and my own failure to connect has never resulted in a lack of interest. I'll definitely be checking out Histoiries Extraoridinaires.

And I wholeheartedly agree about Juliet of the Spirits.

FilmWalrus said...

4 or 5 more Fellini films later and I'm already coming to regret this post! Oh well, it just goes to show that interesting/difficult oeveres can be better than amiable/boring ones.