Federico Fellini: His Life On Film?

What is it that defines visually a Fellini film?

When attempting to describe a particularly chaotic scene he had witnessed, a friend once said to me, ‘It was like a Fellini film!’ Now this friend was far from being a cineaste, only visited the cinema occasionally and hadn’t even been to Italy, but he instinctively knew what a Fellini film looked like. This is true of many people who would never admit to being familiar with Italian Neo-Realism or any other style associated with cinema from that part of the world. So how do so many people know what a Fellini film looks like?

Fellini would have been 100 years old this year and, in celebration, digitally restored versions of his films have been released and are being shown at cinemas all over the world. As I watched Fellini’s Roma and La Strada as part of this centenary retrospective, my friend’s comment all those years ago came back to me. It made me realise that Fellini is one of the few directors in cinematic history whose body is work is so distinctive that a single scene or even a single frame from any of his films could be displayed and it would be immediately obvious who created it. One could also say the same thing about Picasso, Dali or Velasquez, for example, but these artists created static images. To talk about a film director in such illustrious company is rare.

So what is it about Fellini’s work that is so visually distinctive? How do people, whose interest in cinema is merely superficial, know what a typical Fellini scene looks like? To state the bleeding obvious, it’s the meticulous staging of his films, but how is this extraordinary, idiosyncratic ‘look’ created? There’s more to that than meets the eye…

Needless to say, there is no one element that, above all, creates the Fellini ‘look’ and, in no particular order, I am going to consider some the ingredients that coalesce to construct what we describe as ‘Fellini-esque.’ The scope of this article, however, is not an attempt to explain or decipher what these images necessarily mean, many critics have done this in extensive studies, although certain elements are briefly considered. But this is about the ‘look’ of a Fellini film and it is the ‘look’ that provides so much excitement and pleasure for the viewer. And it is this ‘look’ that raises Fellini above so many other artists and why so many other directors and auteurs cite him as a major influence.

Fellini began working in films with that giant of neo-realist cinema, Roberto Rossellini, and this, inevitably, influenced his earlier films profoundly. One of the tenets of neo-realism was the use of non-professional actors, a principle that Fellini stuck with throughout his career. Although he worked regularly with his principle actors, the brilliant Marcello Mastroianni and his muse (and wife) Giulietta Masina, the bulk of his cast were just ordinary people. Fellini was known to hang out in Piazza del Popolo in his adopted Rome where he would find ‘interesting’ looking people and ask them to be in his film. Who in Rome would turn down Italy’s greatest director? Fellini loved ‘grotesques’. Not grotesque in the sense of ‘ugly’ but as ‘fantastic in the shaping and combination of forms.’ Fellini’s characters were rarely the chiselled, beautiful people that usually populate films but ordinary people whose faces told a story, people who had lived through difficult times, people who Fellini saw as being uniquely Italian.

This use of compelling and engaging characters influenced a whole raft of American and European directors including Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Nicolas Roeg and Pier Paulo Pasolini.

The way Fellini brought these characters together in scenes and introduced them to the viewing audience was also characteristic, large, long, sometimes round, often white-powdered faces suddenly lurching from the bottom or side of the frame to take up the whole screen.

His crowd scenes were often protracted and meticulously staged with a moving camera weaving and darting between the characters, often families, as they shout, bawl, eat, drink, fight, argue, dance, romance and perform. In these scenes the seething mass of humanity is the star, this is Italian life as Fellini sees it, the common denominator by which Italy is defined.

Fellini grew up in the 1920s in Rimini on the north east coast of Italy. Like most children at this time he was, of course, brought up catholic and this inevitably had an effect on him as nuns and priests feature in most Fellini films. His treatment of them is usually comedic and often surreal. The ecclesiastical fashion show in Roma is a classic satirical moment within his body of work. But pretty much any street or crowd scene will feature a bespectacled, grim looking priest or a gaggle of bewimpled nuns, for no other reason than they were ubiquitous in Italy at the time and had a profound influence on his early life, like all Italian children from this era.. Deliberate or not, they always added an element of comedy to any scene.

Fellini’s films are clearly autobiographical, but which elements of them are fact and which are fiction has been an ongoing source of debate. Fellini was always only too happy to muddy the waters on this subject and his treatment of the clergy is no different. Whether he was being critical about religion generally or just the Catholic Church is anybody’s guess. But it certainly made for hilarious cinema when a nun or priest suddenly darted into the shot in a typically Felliniesque scene for no apparent narrative reason. in a strange sort of way it has become comic because being a Fellini film, the viewer expects a nun or priest to suddenly appear unannounced.

Fellini claims to have run away to the circus when he was a child. Whether this actually happened, no one except Fellini himself really knows, but circuses and particularly clowns appear randomly and frequently in his films in a similar way to priests and nuns. He even made one of the first ‘mockumentaries’ about his obsession with clowns for Italian TV in 1970. Any Fellini film that failed to feature clowns in some way would be disappointing. But it’s Fellini. He doesn’t need a reason to feature them.

As so much of Fellini’s output is autobiographical, there are certain settings which feature in most of his films. Growing up in the coastal town of Rimini, beaches are a recurring setting in most of his films, particularly his early ones. In La Strada, for example, the film begins and ends on a beach. 81/2, La Dolce Vita and Amaracord all include scenes on beaches.

Empty night time Italian streets and piazzas are given prominence in many of his films. Often after a street has been heaving with action, humanity and life the central character is left alone to deal with their troubles, their melancholy, their dark night of the soul. With only stray dogs, a whistling wind and the harsh moonlight for company, the character reflects on their life as Gelsomina does in La Strada having run away from her harsh ‘keeper’, Zampano. The atmospheric nature of such a setting clearly struck a chord with Fellini whose tragic characters counterpointed the lively and animated nature of the crowd in the street earlier.

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Strange marching brass bands, sometimes of sad looking clowns, appear unheralded and disappear again, almost punctuating important moments. In La Strada they appear in the middle of nowhere as Gelsomina sits feeling sad and sorry for herself but the musicians motivate her to return to Zampano’s act. In 81/2 they march up and down Guido’s huge white elephant of a set, partly referencing Fellini’s love of the circus and partly motivating Guido to try and move forward with his film.

Although not a visual element Fellini’s random manipulation of time is characteristic of his narratives. He may spend half an hour of a film relating the events of a few days and then jump three years ahead, for no obvious reason. Similarly, flashbacks are common and sometimes not always made obvious to the viewer. Fellini’s Roma, for example, jumps around with time, from the autobiographical past to the fictional present, and vice-versa, and back again. One might think Fellini is deliberately trying to blur the edges of time and place to create a Roma that is the one in his head, which is, of course, what the film is all about.

Fellini’s narratives can also be erratic, disordered, uneven and most certainly episodic. In Roma the young Fellini (or who we are led to believe is the young Fellini) has an encounter with a prostitute who fascinates him and he asks our out on a date and she agrees. How the date went or their relationship developed, if at all, is left unanswered. Throughout this film we jump back and forward from the main character’s (Fellini’s?) childhood to his adolescence then to the present and rarely making any sort of narrative sense. But isn’t memory just a series of disordered snapshots in our mind? His films are like this sporadic stream of consciousness and fascinating for it.

Stylistically, Fellini uses the camera to assault the viewer in the most exciting way. Extreme close-ups, aerial shots, POV shots, hand held cameras weaving their way through heaving crowds, jump cuts, long , long takes, deep focus and sweeping dolly shots pepper his films. A Fellini film can be an exhausting experience and often one viewing is nothing like enough. The meticulous mise en scene, scattergun dialogue and ultra-fast editing does not always allow the eye and brain to take in what exactly is happening in each scene. Also taking into account a Fellini film can be over two hours long, this is a mind-blowing amount of material to try and deal with in one sitting. A writer described Fellini’s films as ‘..a luxuriance of ..images‘ and, as mentioned at the start of this article, a single freeze-frame could be seen to encapsulate Fellini’s ouvre.

Fellini has been described by some commentators as ‘self-indulgent‘ and even ‘complacent‘ but in many ways, with a true auteur such as he is, these are desirable qualities and his films have never look dated or ‘uncool’. Quite the contrary. Whether their context and ideas are still relevant is, for me, irrelevant, but they look amazing and never slow down for a second. They are a visual carnival and at a time when we are being bombarded with super heroes weekly, what’s not to like?

Three years ago I was on holiday in New York and stayed at a fashionable hotel in the ultra-hip Lower East Side. In the lift (or elevator as they would say) a screen showed Fellini’s masterpiece 8 1/2 on a loop 24/7. As old films go, it doesn’t come much cooler than that.

Fellini would have approved.

A Clockwork Orange

..after 50 years, a film that is still way ahead of its time.

It’s hard to convey how irresistible the desire to see Kubrick’s film of Anthony Burgess’ novel ‘A Clockwork Orange’ was for an 11 year old boy just becoming aware of grown-up literature. The only problem: it wasn’t possible to see it. Even at 15 you had an outside chance of being allowed into the cinema if the lighting was poor and your parka hood was pulled up over your head far enough. Video and DVD was a long, long way off so at 11 there were two chances. Fat and slim. 

Of course the media obsession with the film, as it was with any film that skirted with the term ‘controversial’, meant plenty information to entice a pre-teenager who had just graduated on to reading the tabloids on a Sunday. Tabloids just loved ‘controversial’ films. It allowed them to take a moralistic high ground while salaciously giving every lurid detail of the sex, drug-taking, horror or violence of even the most mild of adult flicks at the local flea-pit. The Exorcist, Carrie and The Devils were three examples of films released in the early 1970s on which the tabloids poured opprobrium, described every ‘depraved’ scene and, obviously, increased the numbers of people at the box office massively. The Scottish Sunday Mail ran a double-page spread listing, helpfully, in painstaking detail, every ‘gut-wrenching’ (its words) scene for the delectation of Sunday readers. No such thing as a ‘spoiler alert’ in those days. And I particularly remember the Scottish Sunday Mail wiring Alan ‘Roughie’ Rough and his lovely catwalk model wife to a heart monitor and logged their reactions to the various shock scenes in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. The purpose, I would assume, was to show that even a Scottish international goalkeeper with supposed nerves of steel could nearly shit himself at certain scary moments in a film, so decent, god-fearing presbyterians could steer clear. In theory.  In reality it just made people flock to see the film, of course. Well, that was the science bit, for what it’s worth, but it does demonstrate tabloid newspapers’ love of and obsession with ‘controversial’ films of the era. 

To be fair, A Clockwork Orange actually comes across today as more disturbing because of its violence. As a society we have recognised certain types of violence, particularly towards women, as unacceptable but in 1971 references and depictions of rape, though not commonplace, were certainly more visible. Jokes about it would even be used in sitcoms. However, in the context of Burgess’ novel the violence represented in the film was intended to be shocking and to watch it now renders it probably even more disturbing than at the time of its release. Exactly what the author intended. Belonging to the Science Fiction genre, it’s set in a futuristic Britain where drugs are legal, people rarely leave their homes and violence within society has escalated. Like most Science Fiction stories it is a warning for the future. 

One of the few aspects of Kubrick’s film which fails, mainly because there was no way it could have succeeded in relation to the novel, is in the character of Alex, played by 20-something Malcolm McDowell. The first half of Burgess’ novel tells the story of ultra-violent Alex and his gang of droogs on a rampage of sex and violence. At the end of this section of the book the reader is shocked with the sudden revelation that Alex’s orgy of violence has resulted in the death of one of his victims, an old lady, and he has been arrested. It is at this point he confesses to the reader the horrifying truth, ‘And me still only fifteen.’ Here is Burgess’ warning, his reason for writing the novel and justification for the repulsive rampage of violence the reader has been subjected to. But in practical terms, this fictional narrative device could not really be depicted in the film, Malcolm MacDowell does not look anything like a fifteen year old, and social commentators did not have the intelligence to discern this.

In the early 70s there were many so called ‘controversial’ films released. It was a time of experimentation and a loosening of censorship rules. In fact, ‘censorship’ became ‘classification’ as films were seen as art and not just cheap flicks to excite the lower, uneducated classes for a couple of hours in a members-only fleapit. Therefore, films which dealt with more disturbing issues, such as violence within our automated society became a popular theme and depicted violence and sex in a brutally realistic way which the general public and ‘the authorities’, at first, found difficult to cope with. Some thought it was still there only to titilate and thereby hung the tale of A Clockwork Orange.

The violence, even though I hadn’t seen it, certainly didn’t excite me. What excited me, from what I could make out, was the futuristic look of the film, the representation of a dystopian society (something I still love) and, of course, the controversy. I still, obviously, am drawn to things the tabloids hate.

The film had been out for a few weeks before I’d even heard of it. Bizarrely, the first time I read anything about A Clockwork Orange was in the pages of Shoot, the adolescent football magazine, more precisely in Everton and England footballer Alan Ball’s weekly column. The content of this column was unstintingly dull. After he had given his ghost-writer details of Everton’s most recent match it was a desperate struggle to find anything else to say to reach the required 500 words. Often the interviewer will have asked Alan, so what else did you do this week? The terminally boring life of a professional footballer was laid bare in these columns but one week in 1971 Al and his lovely wife, Lesley, went to see A Clockwork Orange. His critical conclusion, summed up in a sentence, was that he ‘slept through it.’ The moral question of whether a top footballer should have been discussing, no matter how curtly, a film he had seen about teenage ultra-violence, drug-adulterated milk bars, under-age sex, gang warfare and rape is by the by, it was the 70s after all. But I do have Alan Ball to thank for alerting me to this cult classic. I immediately decided to find out about this film, why would Alan Ball be referring to it if it wasn’t culturally important? 

I began to notice the iconic film poster with a cartoonesque Alex brandishing a knife through a triangle, a naked woman kneeling below the apex (always irresistible to an 11 year old), an eyeball sitting on his outstretched arm and, most intriguingly, the bowler hat and false eyelash on one eye! The futuristic typeface added a further appealing element to the whole package. This was seriously alluring. 

My fascination was further enhanced (if that was possible) when I actually managed to see an extract from the film. STV, at this time, had a film review programme which was broadcast at 10.30pm once a week called Cinema. Presenters of this programme included Michael Parkinson, Clive James and Robert Kee, and I think it was Parkie who showed a clip of A Clockwork Orange much to my excitement. In those days, obviously, there was no video recording so the 20 second black and white extract featured Alex and his Droogs racing through country lanes in a stolen sports car, this absolutely classic Kubrickian moment is indelibly stamped on my memory. This moment only cemented my fascination with the film and my frustration of not being able to see it. 

I only have vague memories of the media outrage about the copycat violence which they claim broke out as result of young people having their minds ‘warped’ by the movie. It was certainly a particularly strong defence in cases of extreme violence at the time, irrespective of whether there was any truth in it. Buttoned-up Establishment British judges were only too happy to accept the possibility that some depraved modern film might be the reason for our kids’ aggression. Clearly society couldn’t be to blame.

 The ‘look’ of the film certainly did influence young people. I do remember Crombie coats, Doc Marten’s boots and even the occasional false eyelash manifesting themselves in our high streets. Most of them daft wee laddies (and a few lassies) who just thought they looked cool but would have run a mile if anyone challenged them to a ‘bitva’! The media shitstorm, however, was enough for Kubrick to withdraw the film in the UK in 1973 and it remained unshown publicly in the UK until the director’s death in 1999. Rumour had it that a cinema in Paris showed it throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s.

The film’s iconic resonance has been enshrined by the fact that so many images are as well-known now as they were then. Certain words from Nadsat have found their way into common usage, for example ‘horrorshow’, ‘ultraviolence and ’droog’. ‘Moloko’ which was based on the Russian word for milk, and in the film is a narcotic-filled milk drink, became the name of a successful 90s band, as did Heaven 17, whose name is mentioned and shown in the record shop scene when Alex meets two girls whilst browsing in the store. Echo and the Bunnymen’s record label was entitled ‘Korova’ after the milk bar frequented by Alex and his droogs and let’s not forget about Glasgow’s underground transport system punningly named ‘The Clockwork Orange’. 

As Kubrick preferred to work in the UK, many of the actors in his films were familiar faces to British TV viewers as well as film-goers. Philip Stone, who appeared in three Kubrick masterpieces (more than any other actor apart from Joe Turkel), a fine jobbing actor who had appeared in countless TV productions since the early sixties, played Alex’s dad. Stone’s performance clearly resonated with Kubrick as he went on to appear in Barry Lyndon and, in his crowning achievement, as the Overlook Hotel’s former caretaker, a role in which he excelled as the courteous but terrifying Delbert Grady. A Clockwork Orange was also a huge break for the young Warren Clarke as one of Alex’s droogs, Dim. Like Malcolm McDowall and Philip Stone, Clarke went on to work in a range of prestigious productions not least with Lindsay Anderson in O’ Lucky Man. The lovely Adrienne Corri, like Stone a stalwart of quality TV productions, played the brutally assaulted wife of the writer, Patrick Magee. It was the writer, Mr Alexander, who, in the novel, told of the idea of a clockwork orange, a speech which, oddly, failed to make it into the completed film. Magee was a favourite actor of the great Samuel Beckett who wrote one of his greatest plays, Krapp’s Last Tape, specifically for Magee. Also popping up in the film was John Savident, another prolific British actor who ended his professional life as Foghorn Leghorn-like butcher Fred Elliott in Coronation Street. Having played in Shakespeare productions, many Wednesday plays and, of course, in A Clockwork Orange, it is Corrie, sadly, he will be remembered for by most people. That said, he did appear in 714 episodes, I say, 714 episodes! Michael Bates, best known as Blamire, one of the original characters on Last of the Summer Wine, is excellent as the sadistic prison officer (‘Shut your bleeding’ hole!’). He also appeared in every episode of It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum but the less said about that… Miriam Karlin as the cat lady, who comes to a nasty end at the hands of Alex, was well known for The Rag Trade (with a young Reg Varney!) and a fledgeling Steven Berkoff as a copper are just a few of the familiar faces, many of whom possibly didn’t realise just how much their parts were going to cement their reputations in the years to come.

Why does A Clockwork Orange still fascinate nearly 50 years later? Because, like so many Kubrick films, it looks ageless but futuristic, depicting a parallel universe which hasn’t been defined by the fashions of the time but clearly showed a world that is still ‘ours.’ The electronic Wendy Carlos soundtrack, the meticulous whiteness of the sets, the flowing strangeness of the typefaces, the sweeping camera shots, Alex’s direct looks into the camera (unusual for the time), Burgess’ ‘Nadsat’ argot as spoken on the voiceover by Alex, all come together to create a representation of such stunning originality that only an auteur like Kubrick could have had such vision.

And above all, to the curious teenager, it was an ‘X’. That most fascinating of all letters whose cultural cache is so much heftier than the dull old literal ’18.’ Here was a tantalising world almost within touching distance that held secrets open only to adults, who we were to assume had the intellect and maturity to cope with such esoteric and supposedly disturbing subject matter. Kubrick’s dystopian vision proved too much, however, for an adult population weaned on the hypocritical outrage of the tabloids, Mary Whitehouse and so-called public-decency. But for a short time in the early 70s A Clockwork Orange was the most state-of-the-art, modern, challenging and iconic artefact of its age. 

Despite the fact the concept of a clockwork orange is never even mentioned in the film.