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Monday, January 24, 2011


italian futurist photograph of betty vornbrock & kirk sutphin

By no design of mine, the colors in this picture represent well the movie I've just finished watching, Federico Fellini's And The Ship Sails On, 1984. It's a ship of fools theme, a ship in the Mediterranean on its way to a small island where the world's most renowned opera singer was from. The island looked like only insects and birds could be born there, but this is Fellini, whose films are of dream reality. A cast of opera singers, a monarch, a pianist, a composer, various odd society people of Rome 1915 at the beginning of WWI. The outfits were late 19th century, the state of mind like wealth of any time, this a time of grandness, a look into another time that is not only foreign in language, but conception in the way the people thought then so different from how we think now.

This was Italy where opera singers were their rock stars. They were taking the ashes of this great opera singer who died to spread on the water around the island where she was born. It was a 3 day one-way trip. Enough time for liaisons to begin and people to get tired of each other, stuck together on a fancy raft at sea. All was splendor and magnificence. The opera singers among the passengers let go a caterwaul from time to time, never a complete aria. As in a Fellini film, they were a bunch of truly off the wall kinds of people. A journalist takes us around to each one for a brief introduction to who this character is. All Fellini's characters have a creepy edge, even the beauties, and a humor in the creepiness. I see the circus dance of the film's characters at the end of his film 8 1/2 where he parades the strangest faces he could find in Rome.

In this film, when the people don't look strange at first and we later get to know them better, they're really strange. Two old boys in their 80s with long white hair looking like composers, wearing black, appeared from time to time with a nun wearing white. Once, they were found in the ship's kitchen playing glass armonica (rubbing a finger around the rim of a crystal glass) on champagne glasses, so rhythmically they had everybody in the kitchen swaying to the music. A pianist played the beginning notes of Claire de Lune every now and again in the background, sometimes the foreground, a tall thin man in black with long white hair and wind blowing in it all the time. Fellini, whose early films portrayed post WW2 Roman decadence, does pre WW1 decadence in this one.

The colors in the above picture go with the colors in the Fellini film. I hadn't seen a Fellini film in so many years it's a long time. The ones I like to see several times are La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. La Dolce Vita was the first art film I saw. Age maybe 21. It was incredible. I didn't understand anything about it. It was scenes going by and I couldn't find connections between them, just watched it as something amazing. It was playing at the auditorium of Wichita State U one night, 1963 maybe. It was rumored to be the coolest film ever made. This was in the time of existentialists and beatniks, jazz and the beginnings of the Brit invasion, Dave Clark Five, Spencer Davis Group coming in to save rock & roll that was just about down and out defeated by the adults, Dick Clark wearing the gloves.

La Dolce Vita was in black & white when color was new and necessary for box office success, extreme black & white. Like the rest of Fellini's films, it was put together like a dream that shares our outer reality with our inner reality, mixing them up so they become the same reality. Marcelo Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale and Anouk Aimee, who later made her name in A Man And A Woman with Jean-Louis Trintignant. La Dolce Vita is the story of a womanizing director in Rome, his issues with his wife and mistresses, how the headache eventually takes all the fun out of it for him and he needs to get away. Of course, I didn't get that until about the 3rd or 4th time I saw it. When I see something like that I can't make heads nor tails of, I'm drawn to it like a magnet to a refrigerator. I have to study it until I find what it's saying, like Jean Anouilh's play, Dear Antoine, which I came away from more confused the second time than the first time. To this day, it's one of my favorites ever.

Fellini's films are from the right brain. Like at the end of And The Ship Sails On, he withdrew the focus from the right brain and brought in the left brain, the construction mind. The beginning was b&w photographs of Roman people in the pre WW1 time, first still photographs, then moving b&w films of street life in Rome, odd looking people popping up from time to time, telling me he filmed it to make it look like b&w filmed back then. He gradually moved our attention from a light sepia film that becomes a ballroom decorated in sepia colors, changing to color like a slow focus of the camera and we're in the story when the first people appear. Fellini playing with the mind is not just intellectual mind, but the whole mind, the outer and inner, the social and private, the confusion of traditions breaking down from one generation to the next, people unable to get out of their own heads enough to communicate with each other.

Fellini's films stretched my mind, showed me a whole new way of seeing in my early 20s. I felt like his vision pulled my comprehension to a new level, which I needed. His films have a visual flow to them that carries the viewer from scene to scene, not caring that sometimes it doesn't make any sense, glad for those moments, like, really, every moment in the film, watching it as one would listen to an orchestra, not requiring it to have meaning. Like a dream adrift on its own. Perhaps my favorite moment was the end when the camera withdrew from the scene and showed the set and the crew working on making the film. Walked right out of a mental fantasy into the construction of props, the scaffolding, eliminating any sense of what we call reality having to do with what I'd just seen. Waking up, the end of one kind of fantasy and beginning of another.


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