Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

#37: Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957)

I first came to appreciate Fellini as a result of an incident when I was working as an advertising copywriter for a cruise line and had reason to be present at the launch of a ship departing Seattle for the Inside Passage. The sun was blazing, the day soft and warm. An eight-piece brass band was playing. The air was thick with confetti strewn far and wide. Jovial passengers laughed in groups and embarked the ship. People bustled everywhere. But even after the confetti had fallen to the ground, and the passengers had boarded the ship, the band kept playing. And playing. Finally an ambulance arrived and medics boarded the ship to remove someone on a stretcher who had suffered a heart attack, and through all of that, for a departure delayed by more than an hour, the brass band kept playing.

Thus was the connection made: fragmented elliptical human drama + eccentric soundtrack = Felliniesque.

In Fellini's most critically hailed work, such as or La Dolce vita, where he is at his most determinedly Felliniesque, I am as often exasperated as charmed, ultimately appreciating them only in patches, such as the last sequence of (which is amazing), or for various intellectualized technical/aesthetic considerations, e.g., has any director working in black and white ever used so much white? The images and vignettes go wheeling by but there's altogether too little narrative momentum for me to feel anything but knocked off-balance and slightly wary of overall intentions.

For that reason, I much prefer Fellini's work from the '50s, when his circus-antics impulses were kept in check by his neorealist origins. He was never much of a neorealist, but it provided a kind of useful container to shape his work and throw his emotional texturing into better relief. Of those, I most appreciate the ones that feature his wife, Giulietta Masina, who is often compared to Charlie Chaplin. "Much of interest," says the Halliwell film guide of Cabiria, for example (in typical laconic fashion), "but the leading lady is too Chaplinesque."

They say that like it's a bad thing. It's precisely the aspect of Masina's performance most appealing to me here, as the fantastic events unfold that Fellini puts her through playing a prostitute struggling to survive in postwar Rome. In the scene at the clip—where, as so often with Fellini, Nino Rota's music is key and words like "diegesis" start to come into play—she has just suffered a devastating blow. That smudge of mascara may be altogether too stylized but everything else about her face, and the tilt of her head, communicates with brilliant economy her vitality and undiminished optimism.

Leaving the woods


Phil #37: Lost in America (Albert Brooks, 1985) (scroll down)
Steven #37: From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinneman, 1953)

Some foreshadowing here for my #1, among other things. I think that's one of the most fun parts about countdowns—or self-indulgent probably more accurate—being the only one who knows where you are headed and writing toward making the pieces fit together. More personalizing obviously, with the anecdote. Later I ran away from this screaming because it seemed so overwritten. One of my ongoing problems. Working on that.

Lost in America is another picture I'm pretty sure I've seen—I think I've seen most of the Brookses but somehow they don't stick with me. Defending Your Life is probably my favorite, probably for all the wrong reasons. As for the Zinneman, yeah yeah, getting to it. I confess to various Frank Sinatra, James Jones, and World War II hagiography problems, which has resulted in a perfect storm of avoiding From Here to Eternity in all its forms.

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