Wednesday, October 24, 2007

La Dolce Vita (1960, reviewed in 2007)

Midlife Crisis: La Dolce Vita

I was standing inline in the local post office when the two people in back of me began to sing along with the music playing over the loudspeaker. I suddenly realized it was Bob Marley. I wonder whether this icon of rebellion from my youth would welcome the ultimate in conventional acceptance: Not only to be recognized by a random group of Americans of various ages but sanctioned as entertainment by the hallmark government institution. This in turn made me think about the DVD I’d seen the night before: Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

I’m two years younger than this Fellini classic. The tagline for the film was: “The world's most talked about movie today!” Four decades later they’ve stopped talking. The work would be recognizable to people interested in film. I’m sure even Blockbuster Video has a copy on hand for that odd-ball who wanders into the foreign film section. But I don’t think the Bob Marley fans on line at the post office would have anything to say. They would, however, know the term “Paparazzi” a bastardization of the name of a minor character in the film: Paparazzo. It would be interesting to know if during the Hurley-Burley of production Fellini would have guessed that this word would be his legacy and not the film itself. Given the themes he was wrestling with it probably would not have come as a surprise.

With so many people living “la vida loca” it is ironic that this masterpiece has lost its currency. It begs the question: How does a director capture the height of fashion without falling victim to it? I remember black and white TV’s and commercials that ran over a minute. “La Dolce Vita”, despite reflecting on the timeless battle between progress and tradition, is rooted in the specific period of post WW II Europe. Marcello Rubini’s (Mastroianni’s character) struggle must be seen through the eyes of an audience that had witnessed the devastation their land in a conflict that ended only a decade and a half prior to this film’s release. In this prism the characters’ behavior in this new-found land of plenty was profoundly disturbing evoking questions of morality. The work was banned in Spain and the Catholic Church and right wing elements in the motherland tried to prevent its distribution. Others were enthralled by Fellini’s circus/gallows humor. Here was a ringmaster who knew how to present the decline of Western civilization with a smile. (None of Antoniono’s starkness – it is interesting to note that his L’Aventura premiered the same year). But to a contemporary audience it all seems quaint: The well-fed, stylishly quaffed moderns always with cigarettes or clunky phones, float along in landscape of 1950’s kitsch buildings in their classic sport cars. The struggles with fidelity, artistic integrity and loneness have the ring of Everly Brothers’ songs about teenage angst. Instead of shock and repulsion there is a sense of nostalgia.

That Fellini’s world of misery and decadence would strike cords of longing for a simpler time is a harsh comment on the present. A decade BEFORE 9/11 Hunter Thompson was commenting: "What is there left to a generation that has been told that there is poison in the rain and sex is death? Nothing but TV and relentless masturbation.” Now we have the additional layers of terrorism, never-ending category 5 storms, rising sea levels and continuous Hieronymus Bosch carnage. It is as if the horrors of World War II are no longer freakish but enmeshed in the landscape. Imagine Marcello viewing the smoldering World Trade Center, wandering through a post-Katrina New Orleans or traveling a few hundred miles south to the genocide in Darfur? After the trip Marcello would be smiling and saying without a hint of irony: “I’m very lucky… I live in Rome and I’m a hack writer for tabloids… it’s a good life”.

There is a scene in La Dolce Vita in which a young sickly child is trampled to death by a mob. This horrifying accident is sparked by a sensationalist press who prime a hysterical crowd to follow the directions of a group of farm children who claim to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary. I heard the following on the radio as I write: 73 people were trampled to death in the Philippines while lining up to be contestants on a game show. The grand prize that these unfortunates died for: less than $20,000 US. The following day in NYC a young father of three, who was hired to guard the jewelry of a rap star, was gunned down during the taping of a music video when the performers squared off over who could be in the recording studio. How can Fellini compete? Reality seems to trump even his most decedent creations: Paris Hilton is exponentially more ridiculous and obscene than anyone who appears in this film. The aristocrats in Fellini’s world, although idle and moldy, possess taste and a measure of dignity. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis might be filled with drugs, depression, incest and suicide but they stand apart from mall rats and porno stars.

If Fellini’s Infero lacks the ability to burn our post-modern sensibilities there are two characters who strike a cord: Paola, the innocent, and Steiner, the doomed intellectual. Steiner famous quip “Salvation doesn’t lie within four walls” squares with Paolo’s association with the beach. In the closing scene of the film Marcello is viewing the dead fish while Paolo shouts from across the water. Marcello smiles knowingly but chooses not to hear her. The sound of the ocean drowns her out but it is really Marcello’s desperate, decadent life that makes Paolo unapproachable. It’s been another night of ridiculous people partying till they cry – what could he say to this innocent? Marcello’s plight is with the lifeless, grotesque sea monster not with the salt-of-the-earth hardworking people who hauled it to the beach. Paolo could be one of their daughters for all he knows – she certainly isn’t familiar with anyone at the party. This harkens back to the scene in which Marcello tries to seduce the movie-star by driving her into the countryside. They are out of place in the land of Eden. The dog starts barking and Marcello worries that the hardworking farmers might start to gather. They are intruders from the city. They flee back to Rome where Marcello is greeted by a drunken boyfriend who, prompted by the Paporizzi, punches Marcello in the face. A cartoon fight over nothing only to be equaled by Marcello’s pathetic attack on the woman in the party with a feather-filled throw-pillow. How could any of this be explained to Paolo, the farmers, the fisherman? Marcello’s fate is to know that he has become as absurd as the people who fill his stories; more so in fact because there is the hint that he possessed the ability to rise above it all.

And speaking of being above it all – there is Steiner. He plays Bach beautifully, knows everything and everyone that really matters… and yet. The play “Amadeus” is a meditation on the perils of being a brilliant hack in the face of genius. Steiner has the same murderous reaction but unlike Saliari he turns on his children and himself. Marcello responds to his mentor’s rampage/suicide by abandoning any pretense of being “a writer”. The scene in which he accompanies the police chief to break the news to the unsuspecting wife is particularly gruesome. The paparazzi gouge on the startled mother/wife turned grieving widow with a ferociousness that foreshadows the standard operating practices of our present day tabloid press. (note: California passed a law against “stalkerazzi” who slam their cars into celebrity’s vehicles in order to take photos of their anger). Marcello’s retreat into being a Press Agent, a godfather of hack writers, is a sad coda to his friend’s demise. The tragedy of this film is that these two character fail to connect. Steiner possessed gravity while Marcello wallowed in levity. Somewhere they might have found balance in each other; instead both these men set our to destroy themselves and those around with guns and pillows.

What to say in the present? Where is Paolo? The sad fact is that our Beatrice has left us in the Inferno. In fact the idea of a “Beatrice” has become quaint. We stopped waiting for Godot. The hope is that we can regain Paolo’s innocence amidst all the rubble. We must take heart in the fates of Steiner and Marcello. The motto of our current age was spoken by a contemporary of Fellini’s: Winston Churchill said “Success is going from one failure to the next failure without loss of enthusiasm”. That Paolo’s secret: “enthusiasm”. And if Marcello and Steiner thought it was hard in post-war Rome they might want to join me online in the post office. Marcello would like the Bob Marley music while Steiner studied the harried people in their mis-matched outfits. The two foreigners would exchange a knowing glance - “we need to get back home”. Marcello would ask Steiner in aristocratic Italian “maybe we could get the singer will come with us to Rome”. Steiner would say “the singer is not of this place”. Meanwhile a teenager would carry his package to the counter and say “There are these two middle-Eastern guys talking in Arabic, smokin’ cigarettes and pointing at people”. The clerk behind the counter would nod “I’ll get security”.

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