|“Aesthetic emotion puts man in a state favorable to the reception of erotic emotion. Art is the accomplice of love. Take love away and there is no longer art.”—Remy de Gourmont|
We don’t have to ask what the best thing is in any art— everybody knows. What’s the greatest painting if not the Sistine ceiling? The greatest sculpture? The greatest play? The greatest film? Many people who bother to consider such things would say 8 ½; and indeed who is the axiomatic director but Fellini?
So let us stand the greatest play and the greatest film side by side: the melancholy Dane and the melancholy Guido. Eternal high-school kid that I am, I’m always looking for a key to Hamlet. Maybe this is it!
Like Hamlet, Guido is a new kind of man. Hamlet Senior is modeled on Achilles, as heroes had been for millennia, and still are. “Strength and honor” is the salute in Gladiator—the values associated with the heroic, and with pop culture. If you’re not interested in tough guys most cinema is meaningless to you.
The ghost walks in armor, and he expects his son to do the heroic thing, because revenge is the epic motive. Check your TV Guide. But Hamlet just isn’t Achilles. He can’t bring himself to kill Claudius—not that he lacks the murderous impulse. In neighboring Norway Fortinbras, which means “Strong-arm,” is a replica of Fortinbras Senior. Hamlet catches sight of Junior marching his army through Denmark to attack the Poles, and is full of admiration; but like all the masks Hamlet tries on, it just ain’t him. No mask fits Hamlet ("I have that within which passeth show") but he can't represent himself without one. Who can? He is, as Harold Bloom says, something new.
Same goes for Guido, and for all of Fellini’s men. When, in La Dolce Vita, Lex Barker punches Marcello for being out all night with Anita, Paparazzo says, “You’re not going to fight back?” Marcello shakes his head. No machismo for him.
Hamlet and 8 ½ both persuade us that the inner life can be portrayed on the stage, on the screen. We had had to project that innerness onto the gestures and speeches of the actors; these works put it in our face.
Like Hamlet Guido makes a film within a film, if I may so put it.
Like Hamlet, he lifts his inner torment above the others, and resorts to irony when he deals with them, and indeed with himself. Each is understood, in his respective world, by no one.
Like Hamlet Guido is haunted by his father, who climbs out of the grave and complains about the accommodations. “How’s my son doing?” he asks Guido’s producer, but the producer just shakes his head.
Like Hamlet he has an ambiguously erotic relationship with his mother.
Like Hamlet's, Guido's dream girl turns out to be "a little bore," as he calls Claudia.
Like Hamlet he thinks a hundred thoughts, and none of them are really him.
Like Hamlet he’s a comedian, a monologuist, a clown and, like most clowns, a sad one. The pair of them are self-pitying smart-asses.
Hamlet is a refined man. He's been played infinitely differently, and several times by women, as Poldy remarks in Ulysses, but as many ways as we can imagine him, we can't think of him as vulgar. Why not? He is crass, dishonest, rash, cruel, murderous—there's hardly a disgrace he doesn't commit. Ah, but that wit of his. "So is it, if thou knew'st our purposes." "I see a cherub that sees them."
Same for Guido, who never commits the vulgarity of action; it's all in his mind. Fellini wasn’t happy with Marcello as his alter-ego, and made him have his chest waxed to be more refined. I think he’d have preferred an Alain Delon or an Oskar Werner. “Oh, Maestro, Marcello again?” say the spirits, mocking him (as when do they not?) in City of Women.
Like Hamlet Guido lives in a world of spirits—in his case Italy, where ancient presences from the pagan panoply that underlies Catholicism roam the earth, and know his thoughts. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Like Hamlet he's blocked by his contradictions. “And in my heart there was a kind of fighting.” Guido answers yes and no to every possible question. “Do you have children?” says the Cardinal. “Yes, I mean no.” This too is post-heroic. The hero is always yes or no, zero or one: only one man comes back from a gunfight. “Decide, Guido!” his producer shouts as they view the screen tests; “Choose!” Guido can’t. He is not the decider.
At the station he throws away his collaborator’s ruthless critique of his script, then picks it up and reads it again. This is a scene he stole from Buster Keaton (Leone used it too, at the beginning of Once upon a Time in the West): the train leaves, his mistress hasn’t arrived, he’s relieved and gets up to go, but as it pulls out there she is in white fur trimming. “Yoohoo!” He looks around; does anybody see?
Then he takes her back to his room and has her perform his sexual fantasies. For once he’s a director who knows what he wants.
Like Hamlet, Guido knows the self is not socially acceptable. They free us from Christianity—that won’t work for either of them. Hamlet, murderer of men, torturer of women, frees us from sin, negates sin. It no longer matters. Yet we have no doubt of his metaphysical validity. (I don’t want to say “salvation”—Christianity doesn’t work for me either.) The redeemer as smart-ass.
And what is Guido if not an impotent god? Both of these men are open-topped. They communicate directly with—what?
Happiness, Guido says, is being able to tell the truth without hurting anybody. His sensuality is all that interests him. He's not a Christian, saints be praised, but he’s Catholic, and confession is part of his style. The screen tests in 8 ½ are confessions to his wife. Everything he does is a confession. When he goes down into the Dante-esque steam room to interview the Cardinal all he can do is confess. “Father, I am not happy.” “You’re not here to be happy,” says the Cardinal with some justice, but then he quotes Origen, the Church Father who castrated himself: “There is no salvation outside the Church.” And there is Guido, outside the Church.
Ah, he’s down. But at the end, the uplift! “What is this flash of joy that’s giving me new life?” I have mentioned elsewhere that the Protestant inclines to schizophrenia, and the Catholic to manic-depression. Guido’s spirits simply lift, and we have his vision of a latter-day Communion of Saints.
But humility, charity—don’t look for them in Hamlet. Don’t look for them in Guido. “He never gives, nor lends, nor trusts,” the feminist judges say of Snaporaz. Early on Fellini worked under the yoke of Neo-Realism, which he subverted at every opportunity. Social reality interested him not even slightly, but it was the only game in town.
In Il Bidone Broderick Crawford plays a con man disguised as a priest. There’s a touching moment when he’s asked to comfort a wheelchair-bound teenager, who tells a sad story. He shrugs—at her, at the whole movement: “You don’t need me. You’re much better off than a lot of other people.” When he and Richard Basehart are milking a village Basehart smiles at an urchin, a perfect Neo-Realist poster, but “You look like a little devil,” he says. Devils are what we seem to be in Fellini. “And the bravest of the devils said ‘I’m going to get into the labyrinth!’” Giulietta tells the kids in Juliet of the Spirits.
Not that he took evil seriously. When the Fascists fill his father full of castor oil, which in fact was their practice, to humiliate him by making him shit himself, the young Fellini, and the older Fellini, think it’s a big joke. An American bombing raid forces him and his Roman hosts from their dining tables in the street into an air-raid shelter; but you can meet some good-looking women down there.
“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,” Snaporaz quotes in City of Women. I don’t know how deeply the Maestro read in Hamlet—he didn’t like to be thought of as an intellectual. And Toby Dammit, the Englishman in Rome, gives us just enough of Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow” to let us know that he’s a tragic Nordic. These schizos; if you want to get where you’re going you can’t take your head.
In his first solo-directed feature The White Sheik Fellini did give us a unified plot: provincial newlyweds come to Rome to meet his family and she gets lost and winds up with a photo-roman hero she's always adored, played by the superb Alberto Sordi. (Woody Allen took this for one of the strands of To Rome with Love, and has a Sordi look-alike for the star. So fond was Allen of the piece that, though it’s only a day-long thing, he edits it in with other strands that carry us through weeks, as if they were happening simultaneously.)
Apart from that one, in Fellini’s work, only 8 ½ is all of a piece.
Of course Guido’s Catholic upbringing has repressed him. Enter Freud. To clog the intelligence with an idea is un-Shakespearean, so here ends the resemblance to Hamlet, which may be construed as a systematic flushing of ideas. We enjoy them as we evacuate, but this is nothing to the postpartum levity; Hamlet, like Guido, feels lighter in act five. Ideas, to change the metaphor, or perhaps not, are fireworks displays, illuminating the terrain for a moment, existing for their own glory, then vanishing. (I like the Irish-accent pun in Finnegans Wake: “when they were jung and easily freudened.”)
Hamlet renounces all precedent, but Fellini is a classicist. The art historian Kenneth Clark said that one of the aspects of classicism is smoothness of transition. Few films are as smooth as 8 ½.
Classicism is Fellini's moral touchstone. At the end of La Dolce Vita Marcello and his cronies invade a friend’s beach house for an orgy, and when the owner returns he is amused, tolerant; but when they start breaking things he throws them out. He is a balanced man, a classical man, and we meet him again in Satyricon, the aristocrat who, now that everything is falling apart, frees his slaves, sends his children away to safety and commits suicide with his wife. Do with the house now what you want. Does Fellini approve of Marcello's orgy, of Encolpio's ambisexualism, of Casanova's exploits? Yes and no.
People who argue that Shakespeare wasn't pornographic cannot have read “Venus and Adonis.” “Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seeme to say so.” Sounds like he's been there, though.
Fellini's sensuality is all-consuming, and in this he and his compagni are fixed entities. “Change!” says Snaporaz to the feminists; “Into what?” A journalist shouts to Guido, “Is pornography the most intense form of entertainment?” Sylva Koscina's performance as the sexy sister in Juliet of the Spirits removes, for the moment, doubt.
Hamlet by contrast is a master of change. The purity of total change is hypnotic in him, as long as it isn’t moral.
What a pair of rapscallions!
Of course art is not moral. Morality is intention. In Roman Catholic sin-ology the intention makes or unmakes the sin. In art intention counts for nothing. You make a film, Jean Renoir said, to find out what it will look like. In Hollywood movies intention counts for everything.
The only other filmmaker we can compare to Fellini is Luis Bunuel, and both are Freud guys. For both it comes down to the sexual impulse. Both do fantasy and dream, and blur their borders with reality.
Bunuel is a great poet. In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie a boy’s dead mother calls to him from the closet where her clothes sway. As a kid I never had such a strong sense of my mother’s presence as when I went to her closet, opened the door and smelt the perfume.
Bunuel made for me what is the ultimate horror film. Most people find The Phantom of Liberty funny. (This is the one where people sit on toilets at the dinner table, and escape to the bathroom to eat.) But he so accurately gets the entrapment of dreaming, which leads us by association from this to that in a way entirely beyond our control, that it frightens me.
But superb as he is, he is as cold as Velázquez. Fellini, as I don’t have to tell you, is warm warm warm. He mocks himself over his own nostalgia, but it’s no less compelling for that.
Guido is tender. Hamlet is sensitive, but he’s not tender. Falstaff is tender. Lear, at the end, is tender. Not Hamlet. (“Think yourself a baby That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay, Which are not sterling.”)
To Giulietta’s dismay Federico was active in the field of love, but he didn’t see himself as a man of action: “I am the only one I know,” he once said, “who can admit that it’s all fantasy.” The man of action he satirized in Casanova.
To his fantasies Fellini gave the classical form of goddess-worship. The labyrinth is where you don’t know what’s going on. As the Goddess tells Roberto Benigni’s holy fool in Fellini’s last film, The Voice of the Moon, he’s not supposed to know what’s going on. “You do not have to understand. Woe to him who understands,” she says, and she has the last word. I don't know if that would satisfy Hamlet, but he does, in the fifth act, seem at peace with the divinity who directs him.
The holy fool is a figure Fellini had cultivated in the Neo-Realist days, possibly because Giulietta—indomitable, wide-eyed with wonder—was so adept at playing it. Does Zampanò abuse her? All people have value, Il Matto tells her, one holy fool to another.
When Fellini lost interest in his fantasies his films, for me, flattened out. We want the refugees saved in And the Ship Sails On, but I can’t sit through it, or Ginger and Fred, or Intervista, not again anyway. In The Voice of the Moon he returns to the holy fool, and it does have moments of charm, but as Rabelais said, “Now my innocence begins to weigh me down.”
Then again, at the end of his life Shakespeare is supposed to have collaborated on Henry VIII. I can’t get through that either.
I know that when I discuss these things I’ll lose them, and that’s partly why I do it, to exorcise them and free my own voice.
At his best Fellini was the most exuberant, the most generous, the most gorgeous of filmmakers. And where would we be without gorgeousness?