Thursday, November 25, 2010

Clive James study #3: Back to Italy

Back to Italy, in a way. But more accurately, perhaps, to Italian film. My next Clive James study takes me first to Florence in 1963, when Clive James is sitting next to his future wife, watching Fellini's film  for the first time. "Long before the lights went up on the stunned audience, everyone in it knew that this was a work to grow old with" (131). James, now writing in 1994 for the New Yorker, is bringing us up-to-date with the ageing process (reference below).

More specifically, though, he is revisiting the film's central theme of marital fidelity, and, at the end of the fifth of seven introductory paragraphs, ends with this: "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."

1) The introduction closes with two paragraphs explaining Fellini's initial desire to make a film not about a film director but rather about l'homme moyen sensuel and the process by which the setting became the mondo del cinema "right up front working its charm" (133). A section break (a classic New Yorker section break) announces that we are about to learn more about the world of Italian cinema.

2) The world of Italian cinema in five paragraphs: Italy as the centre of film-making in the fifties and sixties; Italian cinema as being as important as Italian masters; the close world of collaboration; the comedies, which gave us "an education in just how comprehensive and satisfying a popular art form could be without ceasing to be either popular or artistic" (135); the postwar neo-realist cinema.
  • James ends the second introductory section with this observation: "In short, the Italian cinema of those years was a lush field for someone to stand out from. Fellini did, head and shoulders." (135)
  • I love the phrase "childishly hipped on their own anger", which to me stands out (head and shoulders).
  • Note that by the end of the tenth paragraph we have two strands established: firstly, that Fellini's concerns about affairs are universal; secondly, that Fellini stood out, and did so in a period of intense artistic activity.

3) The film: as being at the core of Fellini's output; Fellini's use of the camera; improvisation and the use of amateur actors; Fellini's childhood and Saraghina; the "primitive" imagination - "The mind is the house of the Lord, and in the house of the Lord there are many mansions, and one of them is a honky-tonk" (139). 
  • Note how the fourth paragraph in this section, beginning with "In a TV interview", marks a transition from film form to the content of the film, with James' observations about about Sandra Milo (who plays the mistress) leading to this: "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." (137)
  • It is this development towards psychodrama that allows James to relate the movie to the early impressions on Fellini's mind, and a light psychological analysis of the movie itself. (In terms of the last part of the essay, establishing the inner subject of the film will be used as evidence of the film's enduring importance.)

4) The film (part 2): the "interior imbroglio" is the real subject of : all that Guido wants is "all the women in the world" (139), including Claudia Cardinale, who "triggers Guido's mixed vision of carnal purity" (140); Guido's poor-taste mind. 
  • More memorable phrases. Of Cardinale: "Dante's Beatrice on the cover of Vogue. Petrarch's Laura with an agent" (140). 
  • The section ends with Guido being recast as a monster: "It is a clear confession, on Guido's part, that his sexual imagination is an unrealizable, incurably adolescent fantasy of banal variety and impotent control." (141) This is a central sentence in developing the point made by the essay as a whole, and a key transition point in its shift from film to film-maker (and from film-maker to audience).

5) I.e., "Just as clearly, it is Fellini's confession too" (141): Fellini's marriage to Giulietta Masina; Fellini and feminism; feminism in Italy; Fellini "was saying that men should be held responsible for what they did, not for how they felt" (143), as actions can be given their proper name; the role of Guido's wife, Luisa, in .
  • By now, the transition points between film and the world "around" the film are so well established that James can move back and forward between without much sign-posting: he can write about Luisa/Masina and Guido/Fellini as thought they are all real and all part of the same textual universe, one which we as viewers are able to join.

6) Fellini's oeuvre and standing as a director: in the order that James discusses them, Juliet of the Spirits, SatyriconRoma, La Dolce Vita, Amarcord, Casanova, La Città delle Donne, E la Nave Va, and Ginger and Fred.
  • It seems an unusual move to put this fairly long exposition at the end of the essay, and one could debate whether it really carries the theme of the essay or merely allows James to enjoy his (admittedly very analytical) viewing history in detail. In favour of the section is the fact that it brings us closer to James, which in this case is important given James' arguments about the universality (or, male universality) of the inner drama of  and what that means for the standing of the film. 

7) The relative lack of depth in Hollywood, and the problem in forgetting about the directors of the fifties and sixties: "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." (150)
  • Again, I'm not sure the essay doesn't become a little too wide-ranging at this point. I first read the essay in 2003, and it's the link that James established between Fellini, Guido, and himself that has remained in my memory. Re-reading, I am surprised to find that discussion "hipped" on a slight grumpiness about modern films.

But this, after all, is an essay called "Mondo Fellini" and not "Fellini, Fidelity, and Fantasy", and my doubts about the structure of the closing sections probably misses the point, which is that a New Yorker article is always more than a study: it is an angle. In this case, the angle has been widened because of the time that has passed between the essay and its subject matter. Perhaps essays, like girths, stretch with the years.

James, Clive. "Mondo Fellini." In Even As We Speak: New Essays 1993-2001. London: Picador, 2003. 130-151. (First published in The New Yorker 21 March 1994, 154 - available here.)