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Cultural cohesion, p.68
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       Cultural Cohesion, p.68

           Clive James
 

  When I got back to London, Amarcord, the film that actually does remember Rimini, was showing on television as part of a memorial season. I had always recalled it as a delight, but now it looks like a masterpiece. It hasn’t changed; perhaps I have. Amarcord (in the dialect of Rimini, the word means “I remember”) is like all the childhood flashbacks in condensed into one. Saraghina is there again: a nameless tobacco vendor this time, but with breasts bigger than ever. Our young hero, appropriately called Titta, gets his head caught between them, and this counts as a big adventure. Everything here is small-time: the cinema, the bar, the square. The cars of the Mille Miglia automobile race howl through town, but they are going somewhere else. The big, lit-up liner sails away. The citizens remain, eating, drinking, having families and occasionally dressing up as Fascists. It takes a while for the viewer to realize that this is a film about Fascism, and longer still to realize that this is the film about Fascism. Especially in the late 1960s, Fellini was accused of having said nothing about politics. He defended himself by saying that he saw politics purely in terms of personal liberty, and in Fare un Film he explains that the life led in Amarcord was the soil from which Fascism grew and can always grow: a life of arrested adolescence, narrow horizons, mean dreams, easy solutions and—saturating everything—ignorance. The film bears out his analysis in every respect. He shows the disease with a clarity that defines the cure: Fascism is undisciplined nostalgia, a giving in to childish wishes, the cuddle continued, the tantrum in perpetuity.

  Fellini’s Casanova is the film he should never have made. Artistically, it has some interest; strategically, it was a disaster. Some critics decided, on the strength of its weakness, that he had been an erotomaniac all along. But Casanova is a dud precisely because Fellini was no pornographer. If he had been, his films would be running continuously on Eighth Avenue and making a lot of money. Casanova the seducer is the wrong hero for a man who wanted to submit to his women, not dominate them; Fellini craved their individuality, not their similarity. (So did Casanova, incidentally, but the statistics made it look otherwise.) Fellini had nothing but contempt for Casanova and wanted to prove it—a bad plan for an artist whose forte was his range of sympathy. The film was such an unequivocal stiff that you wept for Donald Sutherland, who must have felt honoured to be in it and devastated when it didn’t work out. (Sutherland had previously starred in Larry Tucker and Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland, a now forgotten but considerable homage to , in which a young American director has trouble starting a movie.)

  Casanova is in Fellini’s next big film and last masterpiece, La Città delle Donne (The City of Women, 1980)—only this time he is called Dottore Sante Katzone. (Since cazzo is the Italian word for “cock” and -one is the enlarging suffix, the name means that he has a big one.) Katzone, like Casanova, is really just another version of Don Juan, and must suffer the same fate: to find his own endlessly repeated excitement an endless disappointment, to suffer the built-in let-down of the permanent hard-on. Katzone, though not on-screen long, is probably the best stab at Don Juan’s pitiable doom since Mozart’s. Bergman, in The Devil’s Eye, gave his Don Juan too much finesse: his punishment is to have the woman disappear at the moment he embraces her, whereat he gently recoils with a polite sigh. Katzone gets what he wants, and it eats him up. He can feel himself coarsening even as he thickens, turning into one of the phallic sculptures that decorate his room, a petrified forest of dildos in which he is the only flexible component, and only just. Snaporaz, the film’s hero, has no desire to be Katzone. Played by none other than Marcello Mastroianni in full panic mode, Snaporaz (the name seems to be one of Fellini’s many code names for a liar) is, like Guido in , a married man battling his sexual imagination, but this time it’s in colour, and the women of his desires come on in choruses, in kick lines, in cabarets with Las Vegas lighting effects: they slide down poles and go up in balloons. At the beginning, he gets off a train, and he spends the rest of the film trying to get back on. (It sounds like the same train scene that was cut from the end of when Fellini realized that the circus finale was the only possible wrap-up.) He is trying to hide out in his own fantasies, but the militant feminists are in there, too, and they want his guts for garters and his scrotum for a handbag.

  Mastroianni’s brilliantly conveyed helplessness didn’t save the film’s reputation. An unflinching portrayal of a man at bay was widely condemned as a conscienceless parade of unreconstructed male chauvinism. By this time, Fellini was routinely being called sentimental, even by critics who conceded the historical importance of his central films. Sentimentality was supposed to be his weakness. His case wasn’t helped by E la Nave Va (And the Ship Sails On, 1983). The ship-of-fools format is a certain loser unless the ship makes landfall: we are given no tangible social life for comparison, so the artificial one on the ship has to refer to itself, with cramped results. But faces, as always with Fellini, stick in the memory: Pina Bausch playing a blind woman, staring straight out of the screen with eyes like those of the dead sunfish on the beach at the end of La Dolce Vita, when Mastroianni sees the girl who incarnates his lost innocence. . . . Even at the end of Fellini’s career, there was something in each new movie to remind you of all the others—something to remind you that there was a man behind the film, and that he had a woman beside him to whom he felt bound to explain himself. The explanation was always about the difficulty of marriage and the emptiness of the alternatives. It was always about Fellini and Masina. Ginger and Fred was charming, but unworthy of them: the story of a couple of old hoofers who couldn’t really dance that well, it gave Masina and Mastroianni all too many opportunities to be cute. But Fellini and Masina could dance that well: they were people of majesty, not puppets of fate. Pathos was inappropriate.

  . . .

  I called some friends in the Czech Republic recently, who said they were looking forward to seeing the next evening on a satellite movie channel. Fellini distrusted television. In the later part of his life, when big movies were harder to finance, he made films for television, but he always disliked the restrictions: the TV screen didn’t have enough information in it; the shot could never go deep; the lighting had to be too even. Above all, he disliked the atomization of the audience—one, two, or, at most, a few people in front of the set, eating, drinking and talking. He thought that the movie house as he had known it for most of his life was the last church. He valued its sacred aspect. Well, TV screens will get bigger, and the resolution will get better. It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to envisage the day when all you can see in the cinema you will be able to see at home, without some lout behind you laughing through his popcorn at all the wrong moments. Every movie of any consequence that has ever been made will be there in front of you at the touch of a button. But l’aspetto sacrale probably won’t be coming back. On the information highway, each of us is going to be alone in the middle of a hundred lanes of traffic. It will be a lot like trying to walk out of Los Angeles on the freeway system.

  In any case, most of the entertainment that people all over the world touch their telephones to get will be manufactured somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. And I suppose a more horrible fate for the world can be imagined: American films at their most mindless have seldom been as toxic as any totalitarian country’s films at their most sophisticated. On the whole, back in the 1960s, we were right to restate our enjoyment of the old Hollywood as admiration, to turn fandom into scholarship.

  But this development had one lasting deleterious consequence. The attention that had been focused on the great national directors of other countries began to lapse. Renoir, Bergman, Ray, Wajda, Kurosawa, Ozu, Fellini: we had been preoccupied with them for a long time; we had grown bored with endorsing their obvious eminence; and, anyway, they could look after themselves. So we sort of let them go. Yet they had something that their successors didn’t always have—we could see that Truffaut might be another Renoir, but Godard obviously wasn’t anything of the kind—and that the American directors didn’t h
ave at all. To begin with, the earlier masters were mainly true filmmakers, not just directors who were nothing without the right producer to bring them the right script. They developed a project from the beginning and got the whole of their country’s life into it, and they went on doing this until they were old and grey. In America, Orson Welles might have done that if his personality had been different. Peter Bogdanovich might have done it if his life had been different. But it has always been hard to avoid the conclusion that what really needed to be different was America itself.

  Not that Hollywood lacked a sense of history. Contrary to what foreign intellectuals usually thought and had such fun expressing, Hollywood always expended huge energy on getting the historical details right, right down to the buttons on the costumes. Where history went missing was in the people. Even today, when some of the cleverest people in the world are writing and directing Hollywood films, the characters on the screen are usually present only in the present. They haven’t got a past, except as a series of plot points. They might say wise things, but not from experience. They are happily married until they love someone else, and then they leave the person they were with and go off to be happy with the other, as if love were some kind of moral imperative. And if one of the miracles of modern Hollywood is the energy that is lavished on these sleepwalking ciphers, another is how the people doing the creating often end up behaving like their creations.

  Too many of the people busy with their careers in Planet Hollywood are just boys and girls, whereas a man like Federico Fellini was a man. Called “sentimental” by those for whom his emotions were too big and too pure, he was really the enemy of sentimentality, which he had correctly diagnosed as being only a step away from cynicism. The typical aria of sentimentality is from an operetta: it breathes the perfumed atmosphere of Leichtsinn, that dreadful Viennese word which makes the heart heavy the moment it is sung. In , Mastroianni at first glance looks like a refugee from an updated production of Die Fledermaus. But there is no Leichtsinn here, no glibly wry tolerance of other people’s suffering, no easily borne betrayals. Instead, there is melancholy. It comes from the self-examination without which life is not worth living. Fellini’s is the tragic view of life, the gift of the old countries to the new ones where people think their life is over if they are not happy. It is the view of life formed in that aspect of the mind which, even when all the religions are dead, dying or preaching holy war, we still feel bound to call the soul. Anima: the word denotes a thing.

  Fellini was by no means a perfect man. He was not an ideal man. He was a real one. His individuality resided in his being able to see what was universal about himself; he had a scope, within and without, that made him in post-war Italy what Verdi had been for the Risorgimento: the great cultural figure of Italy’s recuperation, and, beyond his own country, one of the great men of the modern world.

  Fellini was even beyond the cinema as a specific art. Though he was the master of all its techniques, he pursued it not as one art form among others but as if it were art itself. The last scene of Les Enfants du Paradis is magnificent, but it is just cinema. Its director, Marcel Carné, would have been lost without Jacques Prévert’s screenplay, and Baptiste and Garance were only symbolically separated by the crowd flowing past the Théâtre des Funambules—they could have met again around the corner. The last scene of is often compared with Carné’s flag-waving finale, but the difference is the difference between substance and stylishness, between a revelation and mere flair. Fellini’s outburst of exuberance has a grief in it that leaves the children of paradise looking like the children they are—patronized by their parents, the makers of the film. Fellini patronizes no one. He knows himself too well. When Guido joins the circle with his wife and all the people he lives and works with, the spectacle is no pretty ring out of an Arcadia by Poussin. It is an acknowledgement of a truth that the most prodigious artists realize with their souls, even if they sometimes deny it with their mouths: that, despite their uniqueness, they are not alone, that they live and work for the people, of whom each of them is only one.

  The evidence suggests that Fellini, for all his mighty ego, was a man with no vanity (except about his thinning hair), and that he experienced his talent as a responsibility to be lived up to as long as his life lasted, even when his best collaborators were gone, the money had run out, the young directors who had hoped to emulate him had given up or gone abroad and Italy’s mondo del cinema, stripped of its atmosphere by the voracious gravity of Planet Hollywood, was reduced to a lifeless satellite. As long as the art prince Fellini was alive, the Italian film industry had a face.

  But though la faccia is gone, l’anima yet lives. Fellini’s films are already popping up everywhere, even out of the armrests of airline seats, and at least one of them will be watched in awe when human beings live in spaceships and have at last grasped that the longest voyage is inside the mind. will transmit the distillation of a national culture to an international, homogenized future that might well be condemned to have no other source of such qualities except the past. It is the work of a man who could realize his gift because he realized what a gift is. A gift comes from Heaven, as an elation of the spirit. For its recipient not to enjoy it would be ungracious, despite the grief it might bring—which is why Fellini told Marcello, before he began his long, weary walk down the corridor, to flick that foot.

  The New Yorker, May 21, 1994; later included in

  Even As We Speak, 2001

  46

  WHO WAS THAT

  MASKED MAN?

  Peter Bogdanovich doesn’t need a career, because he has a destiny. The same once applied to his hero Orson Welles, and it is a tribute to Bogdanovich’s mind, soul and stature—all increasingly rare attributes in modern Hollywood—that the comparative powerlessness of his mature years should remind us so much of how Welles’s exultant precocity came unstuck. In at least one dimension, the comparison works to Bogdanovich’s advantage: his opening moves, though uncannily assured, might not quite have ranked with Welles’s for their lasting impact, but his endgame, despite a private life undeniably baroque in some of its salient aspects, is showing a lot more class. Welles wound up narrating commercials for social-climbing brands of mid-price wine, and one of the reasons for his inability to get a film financed was that he was a spendthrift: prodigal even with peanuts, he was the enemy of his own best gift. Bogdanovich, though he might never be allowed to direct another movie, looks admirably determined to keep at least one side of his best gift well tended and fruitful.

  Right from the jump, he could write about the movies with a cogency that placed him in the top flight of critics, and as an interviewer he has always been without peer. His latest book, Who the Devil Made It, is just further confirmation of a quality he seems to have had since the cradle. When it comes to movies, the master of the medium is often a buff but rarely a scholar—he hasn’t the time, even when he has the inclination—yet Bogdanovich somehow always managed to service his debt to the creativity of his past masters while he was busy with his own: articles and interviews, slim monographs and fat books were all done with manifest love, despite his being in a tearing hurry. Here, from the new book, is Bogdanovich on the Lubitsch Touch. First he defines it as “a miraculous ability to mock and celebrate both at once.” Then he gives an example.

  In Monte Carlo, alone in her train compartment, Jeanette MacDonald sings “Beyond the Blue Horizon” in that pseudo-operatic, sometimes not far from ludicrous way of hers, and you can feel right from the start that Lubitsch loves her not despite the fragility of her talent but because of it: her way of singing was something irrevocably linked to an era that would soon be gone and whose gentle beauties Lubitsch longed to preserve and to praise, though he would also transcend them.

  When a critic can quote so creatively, his criticism becomes a creation in itself. Among Bogdanovich’s previous volumes, Pieces of Time remains a model of how a miscellany of pieces can add up to a lodestone, and This Is Orson Welles rivals Truffaut
s mega-colloquy with Hitchcock as an example of how a sufficiently instructed disciple can get his master to talk revealingly about the nuts and bolts in the mechanism of his miracles. Bogdanovich was, and remains, the kind of star student who goes on studying after he graduates.

  Being a star student was how he got into movies in the first place. He started off as an enthusiastic young archivist, putting retrospective screenings together for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Catalogues for the retrospectives would include interviews with veteran directors, conducted in extenso by Bogdanovich himself. His licence to pester gained him entrée to the Hollywood studios, where in time he was allowed to try his hand as a director, perhaps because it was less trouble than showing him the door. After proving his competence with a low-budget effort called Targets, he was off and running like Craig Breedlove. But when his run of hits—The Last Picture Show (1971), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), Paper Moon (1973)—was wrecked by the failure of the musical At Long Last Love (1975), his wunderkind’s privilege of creative freedom was brutally withdrawn. (The memory of that deprivation must surely have been rekindled by the recent success of Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, another musical full of people who can’t sing, but this time with the sour notes meeting critical approbation.)

 
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