Sam Mendes, Revolutionary Road, 2008, production still from a color film in 35 mm, 119 minutes.* April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) and Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio).
AS DILIGENT A PORTRAIT of 1950s marital despair as forty-five million dollars can buy, Revolutionary Road (2008) reconstructs the stultifying suburbia of Richard Yates’s 1961 novel with tender, loving art direction, fastidious location scouting, phalanxes of extras uniformed as gray-flannel commuters, pinpoint casting of supporting roles, and the high-wattage domestic nuances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as the unhappiest couple in those living-dead-end ’burbs. Despite the custom period detailing and root-canal intensity, it is undermined by a single crucial sound: piano notes plinking like a leaky faucet in a deluxe sink. Thomas Newman’s anachronistic, New Age–y score is the embodiment of “refined artistry,” aural Novocain injected into the movie at ever-increasing doses to both italicize raw emotions and stifle them in a choke hold of tastefulness.
Director Sam Mendes gave us American Beauty (1999), that classic phony critique of pure phoniness, and his faith in the power of prettification over tragedy hasn’t diminished. Revolutionary Road is ostensibly about how the illusions of Frank (DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Winslet)—a couple of erstwhile bright young things who are now thirty-ish and not nearly so bright as they once imagined—are stripped mortifyingly bare. They cling to denial and puerile let’s-move-to-Paris fantasies as their lives corkscrew into disaster; they're unhinged by the realization they’re neither different nor “special.” Yet the movie keeps seesawing between strict fidelity to the book’s delusion busting and Mendes’s innate desire to pose his actors as startlingly lifelike mannequins in a Macy’s display window or find the most beautiful possible way of shooting brute ugliness. When the time comes to stage April’s big hemorrhage scene, every shaky footfall is microscopically choreographed, the blood looks to have been measured out with a sterilized eyedropper, and the symbolic stain on her dress is bathed in radiant picture-window sunlight.
If there were an Academy Award for Best Surrealist Feminine Hygiene Commercial, this sequence would be a shoo-in—as marvelously poetic as it is subtly evasive. But as with the self-deceiving/defeating Wheelers, Revolutionary Road is always finding creative ways to euphemize unpleasant knowledge and erect buffer zones around duplicity. The film only sporadically utilizes DiCaprio’s sagging, stricken expression, which suggests reservoirs of loathing and recognition; Winslet’s great bitter cigarette-puffing face and strangely neutral voice tend to cancel each other out—the more frantic her character is, the more carefully regimented her acting becomes. Two eccentric minor players do stand out: Zoe Kazan as a Kewpie-doll secretary on her own secret wavelength and Michael Shannon as the archetypal truth-telling madman, his squinty-twitchy spiel performed like a mildly unhinged David Letterman rant.
While Frank dejectedly works for an entity called Knox Business Machines, the film hums along with a chipper sense of purpose, with everyone involved in its making convinced they’re doing deep, meaningful work: ripping off the veil of stultifying mediocrity instead of replacing it with the latest upgrade. At Mendes Bone Machines, “Production Control” is their proud motto: processing “the hopeless emptiness” of social constriction by recycling death's-head masks into all-American greeting cards.
Revolutionary Road opens in select theaters on December 26.
IN 1963, KEN JACOBS received a postcard requesting his presence as a guest on a daytime NBC television show. The honorarium—a “much-needed” twenty dollars—along with the chance to present his films to a broad national audience, seemed like an appealing, if unusual, arrangement, and Jacobs accepted. He decided to bring along Saturday Blood Sacrifice (1956), his black-and-white slapstick comedy featuring his friend Jack Smith.
Arriving at the studio, Jacobs learned that he was to appear alongside Carolee Schneemann on . . . a quiz show. Broke and game for practically anything, the artist and auteur agreed to appear on Play Your Hunch, even though the studio replaced the sound track of Jacobs’s film with their own music. Hunch Your Back (1963), Jacobs’s grainy 16-mm short, captures the affair from a TV set; jumping and flickering lines distort the fish-eyed appearances of the artists, contestants, and the host as well as the film-within-the-film in true Jacobs fashion. Following the disorienting jump cuts and meandering shots, a final intertitle provides comic relief: It took a month for the check to arrive.
Continuing to play off tragicomic themes, the two aforementioned films, along with Little Cobra Dance (1956) and Death of P’Town (1961)—four shorts Jacobs collectively dubs “The Whirled”—portray Smith as an enigmatic and transfixing subject. However, it is Blonde Cobra (1959–63), one of Jacobs’s most influential films, that most intimately follows the feverish luminary. Smoking pot, drinking, eating, and wearing garish dresses and heavy makeup, Smith seems never to leave his apartment. “God is not dead, he’s just marvelously sick!” he screams while black leader rolls. A sense of uneasy camaraderie emerges in the film through Jacobs’s erratic and intense edits. In 1964, their intermittent friendship was put to the test: Jacobs was arrested at a screening of Smith’s audacious (at the time) Flaming Creatures and sentenced to sixty days in a New York City workhouse. As J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum note in their book Midnight Movies (1991), “the underground nearly went under.”
LAST YEAR IN VISUAL ART could have been a good one for Scott Walker. The atmosphere in his songs would, superficially at least, have been appropriate for the various melancholy biennials in New York, Berlin, and elsewhere. The Francesca Woodman installation in the former Jewish girls’ school at the Berlin Biennial might have been inspired by Walker’s music: yawning abysses, multiple light sources, peeling wall paint, and disappearing bodies. Then there were all the debates about “romantic conceptualism,” and the ongoing and seemingly never-ending rediscovery of Yves Klein and Bas Jan Ader, both artists who thematized the idea of falling. Walker’s songwriting aesthetic may be seen as sharing common ground, his songs, too, enacting a long, drawn-out fall—from the securities of conventional musical forms, as well as from the securities of subjective existence—though it is a fall often broken before its end by the conventions, both musical and emotional, of Romanticism.
Now and again Walker has tried to address the political condition of the world, but only where some personal fates and histories from the sphere of politics resonated with his poetic universe. Eastern European evildoers especially seem to hit a nerve—Stalin, Miloševic, and the like. Walker’s biographer, Lewis Williams, describes the songwriter’s politics as “humanitarian” rather than “sloganeering,” but what this often means—as in “The Old Man’s Back Again” (1969), Walker’s outstanding song about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which takes the perspective of a confused Soviet soldier under orders to attack—is that Walker’s politics is not, in fact, political at all. Politics as such, he may think, brings too many familiar concepts into an obdurately unfamiliar world. Analysis is, at any rate, too grounded for his taste. The individual words in his lyrics often don’t connect in any conventional sense; instead—as Walker says—they are “springboards” that allow you to get from one place to another.
Springboards and abysses provide the very finest material for the construction of a Künstlerlegende of the type described by Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz in their 1933 classic, Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist. The artistic legends in Kris and Kurz’s book were created by biographers, critics, and the like; most pop legends, by contrast, are self-made. Walker’s own take on his artistic persona is evident in his songs, with their homages to Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean Genet and their evocations of physical violence and primal distress, but his legend is one of involuntary periods of silence, of losing his first audience and never finding another, of the clash of avant-garde ambitions with the world of pop music, and of the soul of Xenakis trapped in a boy-group body. This legend was surely not willed, let alone deliberately constructed, by Walker himself—which makes it all the more powerful.
Stephen Kijak’s documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (2006) is a return to the old model, however: As it begins, a voice-over outlines the classical myth of Orpheus, set to images of a statue; we then hear a fragment of Walker’s 1967 song “Orpheus.” This was one of the first songs that the star of the boy group the Walker Brothers—then known as Scott Engel—wrote for the band, and it helped lay the foundations of his self-invention as a singer-songwriter after the teenage fame he had won with the trio of singers, who had moved two years previously from California to London, where, with “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” (1966), they had successfully introduced a brilliantly polished and ambivalent ice-cream-parlor tristesse into the sexualized, upbeat atmosphere of mid-’60s pop.
The story of Orpheus is always the most proximate myth for pop musicians. On the one hand, he is the artist who has truly lived what he sings; on the other, he is the artist who went down, as far away as possible, and returned. Orpheus invented the comeback. In Walker’s “Orpheus,” however, the underworld was the frivolity and so-called sexual liberation of the ’60s, in which he already recognized the bittersweet melancholy that would find its clearest social expression in the swinger clubs of the following decade.
With his extremely eccentric singing style—characterized by extremes of pitch, sharp transitions, and flamboyant vibratos—Walker contributed to the idea that highly pronounced individuality was the only permissible legitimation for singer-songwriters to reject the band format and tell only of themselves: Around the same time, Tim Buckley, Van Dyke Parks, Roy Harper, David Ackles, and Biff Rose similarly explored uncharted territory in their solo careers. Only by around 1970 had the singer-songwriter became a standardized Californian model, in the détente that followed the cultural revolution of the late ’60s. By that time, Walker had already made four successively more idiosyncratic solo albums, which, taken together, make up his first strong artistic statement, which was followed by the first long period of critical and public neglect—caused by the usual problems eccentric musicians face with the narrow-mindedness of their audiences, of their record companies, and of the culture industry in general.
Walker may be a man of pathos, given to oversize feelings and aware of the impossibility of expressing them, but he has always taken the details in his songs from the real world, sometimes making very accurate observations about contemporary social reality in the process. We do not find out anything about Walker’s view of the world or what drives him in Kijak’s film, however. What we are dealing with here is a fan dedicated to presenting his hero as a visionary genius. When there is something resembling interpretation, it is almost always about the process of creating a masterpiece. So we see footage of enormous slabs of meat and sheets of plywood being used as percussion instruments, and find out what tricks Walker used to force a string orchestra to sound like a horde of bombers. But the distance necessary for any critical assessment that goes beyond hagiography is avoided at all costs.
While no mere mortals get to discuss Walker, a host of illustrious musicians talk at length about their relationships to his work. Among them is a very cheerful David Bowie—the film’s executive producer, who looks like the fresh-faced owner of a minigolf course at a British seaside resort—and a few stars from the past decade such as Alison Goldfrapp and Jarvis Cocker (who do little to contribute to the investigative endeavor). Damon Albarn of Blur proposes, not unreasonably, that Walker’s “adopted Englishness” is the key to his generation’s fascination with the songwriter. Johnny Marr of the Smiths, who has matured into a thoughtful social historian, is interviewed in what looks like a pub—a fitting place for his ruminations. I should also mention Cathal Coughlan, formerly half of the excellent band Microdisney, who comes across as intelligent, and Gavin Friday, formerly a Virgin Prune and one of the musicians who ensured that Walker was recognized by the New Wave generation as the path-breaker for their discovery of a glorious infinity of artistic passions and illicit paradises. (Julian Cope, who did the most to bring about Walker’s comeback, with the 1981 compilation album Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker, did not want to participate in the film.)
Marc Almond touches on a crucial point—namely, how much Walker shared the attitudes of Kitchen Sink Realism: the chasms and pitfalls on all sides, the sense of being deeply disturbed, thrown for a loop. It’s not that John Osborne’s plays or the social-realist black-and-white films of early- and mid-’60s Britain directly inspired Walker, but that this was the world he was looking for when he arrived in London, a world he knew from television. For a while, the colorful hubbub of Swinging London obstructed his view, but Walker realized that he needed only to take a few steps away from the scene to find his beloved black-and-white world: bleakness, poetic dereliction, housing projects, bad weather. The irony of such a situation, in which a grim and depressing social reality was the almost cherished fulfillment of the promises of television, is perhaps something like the formula for Walker’s art as a whole. His music is not in fact about estrangement at all, but about all-too-familiar aspects of the world and its horrors.
Insightful and illuminating comments such as Almond’s are rare in this film. The most beautiful scenes are perhaps those featuring Walker’s acquaintances from the older generation, such as the improv artist and composer Evan Parker and Walker’s musical mentors Peter Olliff and Angela Morley. Old-timers from a disappearing world—musical arrangers, orchestra leaders, and the like—describe working with Walker and attest to his great talent. When these people speak, it gives the documentary more atmosphere than is achieved by all the talking heads of contemporary pop. Indeed, it is certainly a mystery why someone aiming to canonize Walker would solicit an opinion from Sting—a musician whose songs are good for nothing, and who of course utters exactly the banalities about darkness and existentialism that one would expect of him.
As this well-intentioned, often informative film conscientiously works through documents of a life’s work, another problem soon becomes apparent. When we hear Walker’s early songs, the camera roves circuitously over old press photos, lingering on printed lyrics, covers, and entrance tickets before scooting back to newspaper reports, then pausing over a poster of Walker, whence it zooms into a top-forty chart or a clipping from New Musical Express. When Walker’s more erratic compositions start playing, the camera dances through towers of typography, made from Walker’s lyrics, which float toward us in three dimensions. It is a painfully misguided attempt to make sound and image correspond (since music is, in a sense, continually moving, the images must move incessantly, too). Elsewhere, there are grainy black-and-white images, layered and interwoven; nature photographs bringing to mind both Anton Corbijn and ECM record covers; symbols, tools, and objects; and textured surfaces that recall the typically slick handmade look of the 4AD label’s covers, like the one for Walker’s most recent album, The Drift (2006). In other sequences, Andrei Tarkovsky is pimped up to the speed of MTV, Windows Media Player visualizations are wheeled out, and someone was evidently even sweet enough to find a copy of the Luzerner Zeitung mentioned in one song.
That said, however, Walker himself does appear on the screen regularly, in excerpts from two recent interviews for this film. He comes across as reserved, interested only in discussing his work—an unpretentious technician of his specialized art, ready to explain anything that pertains to its production. He is silent about almost everything else. He looks at the same time very alive and deeply troubled, a bit like a recently shorn animal. Or like someone whose reward for having escaped from pop music and its celebrity culture was, in fact, a punishment: his very own, far more resolutely obsessive fans.
Translated from German by Alexander Scrimgeour.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of Artforum. Stephen Kijak’s Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (2006) shows at the IFC Center in New York December 17–23. For more details, click here.
Jason Reitman, Juno, 2007, still from a color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes. Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) and Leah (Olivia Thirlby).
THE BIG BUZZ FILM last year when I left Toronto was Juno (2007), the Academy Award–winning tale of a teenage girl who accidentally becomes pregnant. “I won’t be seeing that in Abu Dhabi,” I remember joking.
When I moved to the United Arab Emirates, I thought I knew what censorship meant: no nudity or sex (or unmarried, pregnant teenagers) on-screen. This is a Muslim country, after all. What I did not anticipate was that government-mandated edits would impact my critical competence.
Censors do not edit films—they hack them. “Editing” implies sensitivity to narrative, to an artist’s intent and an audience’s needs. Government snippers make cuts that would make Godard jumpy. You will be watching one scene, the screen will go black, and suddenly you will be watching an entirely different scene. Under the right circumstances, it can be a compelling experiment in metonymic thinking. After experiencing a few “hacks,” an instinct develops for deducing the missing material. (“Oh, Steve Carell’s pants were ripped as he was dragged behind the train, so that was his butt,” say, in Get Smart .) But the resultant anxiety leaves one prone to distraction; instead of experiencing the story, the viewer becomes lost in anticipating the next cut or piecing together the deleted material. The bond between filmmaker and audience is interrupted; it seems disingenuous to even critique a film. What is Quantum of Solace (2008), for instance, without 007’s womanizing?
Occasionally, a scene’s removal renders a movie incoherent. One of the first films I saw in a theater in Abu Dhabi was Charlie Wilson’s War (2007). Tom Hanks plays an American senator who convinces Egyptians and Pakistanis to support the mujahideen in Afghanistan in their fight against the Soviets. At one point, a shady older man named Zvi shows up in a café. He begins to talk—cut. He never appears again. After a bit of Internet research, I discovered the reason: Zvi is an Israeli arms dealer. Emiratis will never know that this is one of few films to depict Arab-Israeli cooperation. (That said, at least I was able to see the movie. Persepolis  played for one weekend before it was pulled after complaints about its depiction of Islam.)
On the flip side, films that otherwise might not have commanded serious consideration back home seem edgy here. Not only did Juno play in the UAE, it was released in theaters unedited. Elsewhere, the dialogue (“honest to blog”) would have been cloying. But in a country where girls are regularly encouraged to marry their cousins and begin procreating immediately after high school, the film seemed downright subversive.
“Naughty” material thrills. Watching Tropic Thunder (2008), I felt like a teenager sneaking a peek at porn while my parents were asleep. And like a teenager, I laughed a little too hard when Jack Black’s half-naked, heroin-addicted protagonist pleads with a gay character to untie him from a tree. “I will cradle the balls, stroke the shaft, work the pipes, and swallow the gravy,” he says. How did this make it past the censors? Such behavior could get a person thrown in prison. (As could drug use. Last year, one British tourist was sentenced to four years for having .003 grams of marijuana on the bottom of his shoe. Yet I recently saw a “Coming Soon” poster for Pineapple Express .)
These films had a licentious air, but the sex was merely implied. Actual nudity made me into the most banal kind of pervert. This year, for the first time, I attended the Cannes Film Festival. It should have been an opportunity to reconnect with art in all its glorious integrity. The first screening I attended was Fernando Meirelles’s Blindness (2008). In one scene, women in a prison sell sex to their captors in exchange for food; it devolves into a gang rape, a terrifying depiction of bare human nature. But all I saw were “boobies.” This after only four months in Abu Dhabi.
Accessing unedited films in the UAE is not all that difficult; I have watched numerous DVDs featuring nudity and sex, including a bootleg copy of Sex and the City (2008)—which I might have preferred censored. At the second Middle East International Film Festival in October, I even took in The Wackness (2008), about a teenage pot dealer who loses his virginity to his psychiatrist’s stepdaughter. Officials allowed it to screen unedited because it was part of a government “cultural” initiative, and thus not subject to the same restrictions as public entertainment. The irony, of course, is that censorship is framed as an effort to protect audiences from “adult” material, but the effect is to infantilize its subjects.
Lars von Trier, Europa, 1991, still from a black-and-white and color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes.
FLASHY AND DELIBERATELY UNREAL, Europa exemplifies a stylistic path quickly abandoned by its director, Lars von Trier. Four years after the film’s 1991 release, he coauthored the Dogme manifesto. Although von Trier wouldn’t make an official Dogme film until 1998, the manifesto’s influence, its emphasis on technical austerity and attention to narrative, was already apparent in Breaking the Waves (1996) and the television series The Kingdom (1994–97).
Europa takes place in Germany in 1945. Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), a German-American pacifist, has arrived in the country to work as a sleeping-car-train conductor. He soon becomes entangled in the Werewolves, a neo-Nazi terrorist group, who force him to carry out their bomb threats.
The film is full of complex camera movements, conspicuous rear projection, and actors shot in color posed against black-and-white backgrounds. Von Trier would soon leave such stylistic touches behind, but the main innovation of The Kingdom and Breaking the Waves was his usage of realist conventions to tell outlandish stories. Europa criticizes American do-gooder naïveté (in this regard, it’s a precursor to Manderlay  and, to a lesser extent, Dogville ), but one gets the sense that in von Trier’s world, grappling with history comes second to exploring the possibilities of camera movement and editing.
For all its devotion to directorial style, Europa is also impressive for the way it continually juggles narrative threads. The film’s final half hour is a nightmare that should strike a chord with anyone who has spent an afternoon at the DMV; von Trier seems as appalled by the persistence of Nazi ideology as he is by the German dedication to meaningless bureaucracy. One can see why von Trier found the antirealism of Europa—and its allusions to Fassbinder, Godard, Bergman, and American film noir—a dead end. What could he have accomplished if he’d continued to plumb this vein instead of devoting himself to tales of female martyrdom drawn from Carl Theodor Dreyer and Roberto Rossellini? Despite its frequent evocations of the Holocaust, Europa is astonishingly playful, an exciting quality—and one missing from most of von Trier’s subsequent work.
Wang Bing, Fengming: A Chinese Memoir, 2007, stills from a color video, 186 minutes. Left: He Fengming. Right: He Fengming with her husband and child.
WANG BING HAS a predilection for the documentary as an epic form. His film Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2003) spends over nine hours with laborers at a declining mining concern in northeastern China, and his latest project, Crude Oil (2008), a visit inside the everyday grind of workers on an Inner Mongolian oil field, clocks in at a daunting fourteen hours. These video monuments, which he has presented both theatrically and as installations, speak to the colossal scale required to envision even a fragment of China’s millennia-deep history, its imperial geography, or its billion-plus people.
At a mere 184 minutes, Wang’s Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007) is brief in comparison but nonetheless communicates its own sweeping saga—though it records just a few hours in the life of one elderly woman in her cramped apartment. The film begins with its subject, He Fengming, shuffling across icy pavement to her modest flat, as Wang’s camera hovers patiently behind her. Once settled inside, He narrates a harrowing testimony spanning five decades, from her idealistic youth as an eager Communist Party journalist to the drawn-out hell of starvation in labor camps, where she spent years being “rehabilitated” after she and her husband were spuriously denounced for right-wing tendencies, accused in Maoist “struggle sessions” of fronting a “little black clique” of counterrevolutionaries that never existed. During the first hour of her account, the sun slowly sets outside, gradually bathing the interior of her home in darkness.
He’s body barely moves as she recounts her tale within a static fixed frame, but her storytelling proves gripping; Fengming stands alongside first-person precedents like Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967) and Errol Morris’s The Fog of War (2004) in its ability to wrest powerful effects from the deceptively simple setup of a lone raconteur. Filled with paranoia, thought-policing, and opportunistic struggles for power, the world that He describes could have been lifted from Orwell or Kafka, burning with a tragic romance at its center. In the face of forced collectivity, the love between He and her husband, she says, “was all the more precious because it belonged only to us.” The same consequence applies to He’s life story, which she has evidently honed over the years into a finely wrought autobiography, retaining memories a new China would rather forget.
THE DUTCH ARTIST Bas Jan Ader arrived in California in the late 1960s, created a small, potent body of lyric artworks, and then was lost at sea in 1975. He has received increasing attention in recent years, yet he remains a mystery. Rene Daalder’s documentary, Here Is Always Somewhere Else: The Disappearance of Bas Jan Ader (2007), is a useful if pedestrian addition to the spate of exhibitions and publications honoring the artist, and its flaws highlight why we may never come close to understanding Ader’s fateful decision to sail across the Atlantic in the Ocean Wave (a twelve-and-a-half-foot sailboat).
First and foremost, the romance of Ader’s disappearance has seduced Daalder into inserting himself more forcefully into the narrative than his association with Ader would seem to invite. (The already brief sixty-six-minute documentary would be half as long if it focused solely on its ostensible subject.) Second, most of the interviewees—Mary Sue Ader-Anderson, the artist’s widow; Ader’s classmates and students; younger artists influenced by his work—offer little insight into his practice or legacy; only artist Tacita Dean, who made a film about the amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst, who also died at sea, speaks eloquently about Ader’s importance to younger practitioners. The film likewise neglects to situate Ader fully within his artistic context, references to Chris Burden and “macho” American artists notwithstanding.
The documentary, created at the behest of Ader-Andersen, dutifully traces the artist’s early life in the Netherlands, his passage to the United States as the only crew member on a sailboat from Morocco, his student days and marriage (and, irritatingly, Daalder’s simultaneous B-movie work in Hollywood), the travails of his short career, and, of course, In Search of the Miraculous, the three-part artwork of which his solo voyage across the sea was one part. With only this biographical material as ballast, it seems inevitable that Daalder would posit Ader’s early life as the greatest influence on his art, and indeed a children’s book written by his mother and an impromptu bicycle journey to Jerusalem taken by his pastor father are, to the filmmaker, what animated Ader’s practice and ill-fated final adventure.
It is no doubt difficult to see past Ader’s untimely disappearance to the milieu in which he worked while alive, and the temptation to see Ader’s entire career as inexorably leading to In Search of the Miraculous must be great. But working with the full support of Ader-Andersen and the artist’s estate, one would expect that Daalder could have come up with more. He presents some previously unseen footage, and the DVD edition possesses the unequivocal benefit of including several of Ader’s film works on a second disc. As it stands, though, should another filmmaker ever gain equal access to the artist’s archives, colleagues, and artistic inheritors, much remains to be explored.
Federico Fellini, Amarcord, 1973, stills from a black-and-white and color film in 35 mm, 123 minutes. Left: Titta Biondi (Bruno Zanin) and Gradisca (Magali Noël).
FEDERICO FELLINI HAD A TOUGH TIME choosing a title for Amarcord, his splendid satire of provincial Italy in the 1930s. He considered a sarcastic one, Viva l’Italia!, and nearly went with Il borgo (The Village), which, as he later explained, would have captured the sense of “medieval enclosure” in the town depicted in the film, his native Rimini—and suggested that the country was full of equally unevolved burgs. The neologism he eventually settled on (a play on “I remember” in Romagnese dialect) carries an appropriate perfume of the unfamiliar and the untranslatable. But it also brings problems—mainly, the implication that this 1973 film is a nostalgia trip. And so Fellini found himself griping to interviewers: “Amarcord doesn’t mean ‘I remember’ at all.”
Instead, he insisted that it is a “cabalistic word” that evokes the prevailing atmosphere of the film: “a funereal feeling, one of isolation, dream, torpor, and of ignorance.” Fellini’s loose narrative of classroom pranks, curvaceous women, swearing old men, gleefully narrated tall tales, and colorful community rituals mostly adds up to an empty romp—and that’s the point. Rimini is stuck in a rut of childishness and spectacle-fed delusion that leads straight to fascism. But many of the town’s routines come across as ribald good fun, and it is easy to misinterpret Fellini’s familiarity with his caricatures—namely Gradisca (Magali Noël), the village belle—as affection.
Fellini is torn here: As one of the twentieth century’s most autobiographical filmmakers, he’s attempting to renounce his birthplace without effacing himself. Unlike I vitelloni, the director’s 1953 exploration of his childhood home, this film offers no truly sympathetic characters. But Fellini is Fellini: While he disowns, he mythologizes. As with the choice of title, he can’t help giving the whole thing a whiff of richness and mystery. This is understandable, in a way: “While you detach yourself from all this absurdity, you know very well that you are cutting the ground from under your own feet,” Fellini said. “This thing from which you wish to detach yourself, and which you judge without pity, is the only life you have had.”