Cultural Cohesion, p.66Clive James
Asanisimasa is a seeming nonsense word that crops up early in Fellini’s . Later on you find out that it isn’t nonsense at all, but a real word expressed in a children’s code, like one of the language games Mozart played with his sister. Simpler even than pig Latin, the code works by inserting an “s” after each vowel and then repeating the vowel before moving on to the next consonant. Take out the padding and asanisimasa contracts to anima, the Italian for “soul.” At the heart of Fellini’s greatest film, one of the greatest works of art of the century, is a single word.
To get to it, though, you have to do more than crack a childishly simple code. You have to follow the director down a long corridor in an old-fashioned luxury hotel. It is late at night. Along the corridor comes Marcello Mastroianni in the role of Guido Anselmi, a renowned Italian director buckling under the strain of starting work on his latest, make-or-break film before the script is really finished. Guido is wearing a black hat with its sides curled up, he has hangdog bags under his eyes and his overcoat is draped over his forearm. Surely this is the studied sartorial insouciance of Fellini himself—a clear confession that the director is his own hero. We know who this is. We know what must be going on in his head: anguish, remorse, panic. But without breaking step in his forlorn march he suddenly twists and flicks one foot sidewise while it is in midair, as if he were momentarily attacked by the memory of a dance. Why does he do that?
I first asked myself this question in Florence, in 1963, when came out. Even in the delighted shock of that first viewing, it was clear that had dozens of such apparently self-contained moments, enigmatic yet instantly memorable: the squeaky crackle of Guido lying back with languorous angst on a bed heaped with the eight-by-ten glossies of actresses from whom he has to choose the supporting cast; the sheeting that shrouds the scaffolding of the uncompleted rocket ship flapping in the sea wind at night; Guido’s father going down into his hole in the ground; the ancient cardinal’s face inhaling the steam in the sauna at the spa; Sandra Milo, Guido’s airhead mistress, trying to walk in two different directions at once when she spots Anouk Aimée, the terrifyingly poised wife; Guido slumped in the preview theatre in front of the intellectualizing screenwriter who has nagged him beyond endurance and who, in the beleaguered director’s imagination, has just allowed himself to be hanged. If you could have stopped the film from moment to moment, it might have looked like any film in which a visually gifted director lights fireworks that will illuminate the darkness of an unilluminating script. But the film established its coherence in the first few minutes and unfolded inevitably. It was a film about an unfinished film—about a film that never even started—and yet it looked and sounded more finished than any film you had ever seen. About a director who didn’t know what to do next, it always knew exactly what to do next. It was a cosmic joke.
That much I got, though I couldn’t understand all the dialogue. At the time, I knew barely enough Italian to follow the story. My future wife, who spoke Italian fluently, was sitting beside me: she disliked having her concentration broken but provided whispered explanations when asked, filling in the details about the lying, cheating husband, who is insufficiently consumed by guilt for having granted himself romantic privileges on the strength of his creative gift, while his classy wife faces yet another crisis in the endless process of deciding whether to put up with him or walk away. The film should have functioned as a pre-emptive counselling session—an advertisement for the advisability of filling out the divorce papers before signing the marriage register. But the aesthetic thrill overwhelmed everything. Long before the lights went up on the stunned audience, everyone in it knew that this was a work to grow old with—one that, as T. S. Eliot once said about Dante’s poetry, you could hope to appreciate fully only at the end of your life. You couldn’t expect, then, to tease out the meaning of the film’s single moments. First, you had to absorb the impact of its initial impression, as authoritative and disabling as that created by the two great widescreen Botticellis in the Uffizi—only a few hundred yards away from the cinema where was playing in prima visione—which slowed your step and kept you at a distance while you strove to refocus your brain along with your eyes.
In the subsequent three decades, growing older if not wiser, I have seen every time it was re-released. Now there is a video of it: not a perfect way for a newcomer to see the film but, for anyone who knows it well, a handy aide-memoire to the order of its events—an order that, though precisely calculated, is inherently bewildering, because the chronology of the immediate narrative sometimes includes scene-long figments of Guido’s self-serving imagination and is continually intersected by divergent ripples spun out from his underlying memory. On the whole, “personal” films are to be distrusted, if by personal it is meant that they are personal to their authors. (After the auteur theory took hold, no director could make a film bad enough to be dismissed: a kludge on the scale of John Ford’s Seven Women was discovered to be personal instead of lousy.) But is the kind of film that becomes personal to its viewer. Whether is really about Fellini is a question raised by the film itself—a question answered, in part, by the uncomfortable certitude of any married man who watches it that it is really about him. Men, we’re all in this together. Fellini had us figured out.
Until almost the eve of the start of production on the Guido Anselmi character wasn’t a film director. We know this because Deena Boyer, a journalist born in America but raised in France, was trusted enough by Fellini to be given unprecedented access to the preparation of this film about the preparation of a film. Even the best movie books are usually more entertaining than indispensable; hers breaks the rule. It was first published in French, as Les 200 Jours de , but I have never seen it except in German, as a tatty second-hand Rowohlt paperback called Die 200 Tage von . There is no point in trying to be omniscient about a work of art whose stature depends upon its knowing more about life than you do, but Boyer’s supply of first-hand information is handy for dispelling illusions, and the illusion that Fellini set out to make a film about a film director is a crucial one to have dispelled. Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, in part a copycat of , could hardly work if it were not about an artist in a crisis. But Fellini’s ur-hero was l’homme moyen sensuel in a crisis. At first, he was “just anyone,” or, as Fellini told Boyer, “a man who goes to a watering place and starts thinking about his life.”
Guido graduated from being just anybody after Fellini decided to give him a career, so that the audience could get a handle on what his immediate crisis was about. Guido graduated from being just anybody to being a writer, Boyer records. If had actually been made on that basis, it would have provided an interesting parallel to Antonioni’s masterpiece of two years earlier, La Notte: same leading man, same professional anguish, same lustrous camerawork by Gianni Di Venanzo. But, as the start of production drew near, Fellini, with Mastroianni already cast, opted for the calling whose nuts and bolts he and his star could most easily show. Thus, very late in the game, acquired the solid-seeming foreground that snares your initial attention while the psychological background sends out tendrils through its interstices to gather you in. All the fascination, all the fun of the Italian film world, the mondo del cinema, is right up front working its charm: the randy production manager getting off with bimbo bit players, the producer carrying on like a prima donna, the prima donna melting down like a maniac, the deals, the double deals, the chaos, the creativity.
. . .
Above all, the creativity. It’s getting hard for younger generations to grasp, as time goes by, but in the 1950s and 1960s Italy was the true centre of the film world. Before the auteur theories promoted by Cahiers du Cinéma in France, by the magazine Movie in Britain and by critics such as Andrew Sarris in America forced the movie-mad intelligentsia all over the globe to reassess the Hollywood heritage instead of just enjoying it—a vital preparatory step in the development of the Planet Hollywood we all
Australians of my generation on their way to Britain stopped off in Italy to absorb an atmosphere they had correctly divined to be a magic compound of culture and hedonism. Those of us who stuck around long enough to pick up the language found that the film world was even more effervescent than we had guessed. In Florence there was an unending supply of American Fulbright scholars who were supposed to be studying Mannerist painting but still found time to keep up with all the gossip of the Rome-based industry, as if Pasolini were as important as Pontormo, Bolognini as Bronzino. They didn’t have to haunt the library to get the facts. It was all in the papers. Producers, directors, cameramen and actors were getting married, divorced, sued, betrayed, killed, buried and born again in a pattern constant only in its unrelenting turbulence. Everyone was a star.
Essentially, each Italian film was a collaboration, usually involving three or more writers, two or more of whom would be directors next week and one or more of whom was a producer last week, but the money ran out. All those egos, however, were born to clash: hence the fizz, and hence the air of dedication, detectable in comedies and serious films alike. It is unfair to Antonioni to read his career backward—from the disaster of Zabriskie Point, through the awful, wilful obfuscations of Blow-Up to the brain-curdling deterministic lethargy of Red Desert and The Eclipse—and to decide that the spaced-out pacing of his high-impact central movies La Notte and L’Avventura was a bogus claim to seriousness. You didn’t have to be mad about Monica Vitti (and we all were, even the women) to decide that those films were definitive treatises on the loss of love, all the more convincing for moving no faster than a snail’s funeral. They retain their integrity when seen now, if we can suppress our awareness of how the director himself fell to pieces. Seen at the time, they looked monumental, but they didn’t stand alone: bustling at their feet was a metropolis of the imagination.
On the subject of the mature Italian male’s sexual dilemma, the comedies of Pietro Germi looked at least as thoughtful as any dirge by Antonioni, and packed in a lot more incident. (In Germi’s L’Immorale, Ugo Tognazzi runs around frantically to keep three fully fleshed female characters happily out of touch with one another until he finally conks out—not from guilt but from an overtaxed heart.) Watching the comedies of Germi, Salce, Comencini, Monicelli and a half-dozen others as they appeared, we got an education in just how comprehensive and satisfying a popular art form could be without ceasing to be either popular or artistic. The entire national life was up there on the screen, with an interval for drinks.
Over and above the comedies, there was the straight stuff. Post-war neo-realism had evolved into something even better: realism, with a fact-based imaginative scope that could take in anything, even the deep-seated, dangerously retaliatory corruption of the country that had given rise to it. In 1963, Francesco Rosi’s Le Mani sulla Città (Hands over the City) helped to light a fuse under the Italian political system which finally burned its way to the dynamite more than two decades later. In 1966, Gillo Pontecorvo made The Battle of Algiers. A radical film of such power that it remains compulsory viewing even for conservatives, it put the dazzling first features of Bertolucci and Bellocchio into sober perspective, making them look childishly hipped on their own anger. In short, the Italian cinema of those years was a lush field for someone to stand out from. Fellini did, head and shoulders.
. . .
Even more than La Dolce Vita, is a clear demonstration of how Fellini became Italy’s national director and its ambassador to the world—the ambassador who never left home. The totality of his films is more than the sum of its parts, but all his films are contained, at some degree of compression, in : they all lead up to it or lead on from it. Rich even by his standards, his supreme masterpiece first conveys its wealth through its sumptuous visual texture. Since Nights of Cabiria, for which the designer Piero Gherardi joined his entourage, Fellini had already put more of his country’s visual excitement into his movies than any other director except perhaps Kurosawa. In , with Di Venanzo lighting Gherardi’s sets, Fellini excelled even his own previous efforts at pulling his tumultuous homeland into shape.
The lustre isn’t just the look of Italy; it’s the look of Fellini. Compared with him, the world’s other great national directors hardly cared about what the camera could do. Buñuel never moved the camera unless he had to. Renoir called for a bravura set-up only if there was no other way to make a narrative point: that much-studied, Ophuls-like long exterior tracking shot in Le Crime de Monsieur Lange is there just so you can see exactly how far the hero has to run along corridors and down flights of stairs. And you can’t imagine Bergman actually enjoying what in his case you feel inclined to call the physical side of it. But Fellini, even in his maturity, is like Orson Welles playing with the toy train set for the first time. In , through sets built by Gherardi to look real and real locations lit by Di Venanzo to look like sets, the camera sails and swoops weightlessly yet without a flutter, as if following grooves in space. As Boyer’s book reveals, there was no question of Fellini’s standing aside and letting Di Venanzo make all this happen. Fellini was with him behind the camera: the instructions given to the operator, Pasquale de Santis, were their joint work, with Fellini always in the ascendant, specifying every aspect of a black-and-white mise en scène gorgeous enough to make colour look famished. Fellini was so sure of getting what he wanted that it didn’t bother him if he was unable to check his work. He almost never looked at rushes, although for much of the shooting of he couldn’t have even if he had wanted to: the laboratories were on strike.
Not only were there hardly any dailies, there were practically no scripts. Only two complete copies of the script existed anywhere near the production. Fellini had the picture in his head. To a large extent, it happened the way you feel it happened: like a marvellous, fluent improvisation, with a freedom of expression which extended to the actors—even to those who were amateurs and needed dozens of takes to get a tricky scene right. According to Fellini’s usual practice, the players, whether professional or amateur, were cast for their faces. For Fellini, la faccia was everything. In a little book of 1980, Fare un Film, Fellini said that he would have preferred not to decide on his cast until he had seen every face in the world. Fellini had always taken delight in casting untrained faces and getting precise performances out of them, but until La Dolce Vita he mainly confined them to the lower ranks of the cast. In they are up among the leading figures. The role of Guido’s increasingly apoplectic producer (clearly modelled on Fellini’s real-life bagman, Angelo Rizzoli) is played by an industrialist, Guido Alberti. Physically ideal in his pampered rotundity, he uncorks a performance that a trained actor would be proud of. (Alberti went semi-pro afterwards: he’d got the bug.) Similarly, the screenwrite
In a TV interview given by the late Alexander Mackendrick to Stephen Frears, Mackendrick said he had always found mixing untrained actors with trained ones doubly fruitful, because the untrained caught discipline and the trained caught naturalness. This effect can be seen working at a high pitch in . The principal players have no star mannerisms: they are just people. Mastroianni and Anouk Aimée, playing Guido’s wife, Luisa, aren’t on-screen together for much more than fifteen minutes, but the way they connect across distance burns at the centre of the film: these are the embers of a long love, too spent to keep either party warm yet still too hot to handle. As his mistress Carla, Sandra Milo pulls off the impossible trick of being a nitwit angel that a smart man might like to know almost as much as he would like to lay. To fatten her up for the role, Fellini made her eat until she groaned. In Fare un Film he calls the character a culone, which more or less means that her brain is in her behind. Milo convinces you that it’s a good brain anyway. Purely physical, ecstatically devoted to her exciting lover—he is the White Sheik from one of Fellini’s early films, but in a black hat—she is not to be blamed that he is bored with her almost as soon as she steps off the train. It isn’t her fault: it’s his. This is about something deeper than adultery. If it was just the story of a man caught between wife and mistress and satisfied with neither, it would be La Dolce Vita. But isn’t about the melodrama in the life of its protagonist, it’s about the psychodrama in his mind.
Cultural Cohesion by Clive James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes