Books: Cultural Amnesia — Federico Fellini |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]


Federico Fellini (1920–1993) was born in Rimini but dreamed of Rome, where he arrived in time to see the Fascist regime launch itself on the final adventure that ensured its ruin. His gift for drawing caricatures was his ticket to the big smoke. Mussolini banned American comic books in 1938 but for Fellini’s generation the damage was already done. Fellini’s early work in the comic-strip medium was heavily influenced by American models: he drew bootleg versions of Flash Gordon and Mandrake. After the war the American comic strip, no longer officially frowned upon, became more powerful in Italy than ever, to the extent that not even Communist intellectuals, in the 1960s, saw anything incongruous about poring over the monthly comic-strip anthology called Linus, after the Peanuts character. It remains a safe bet, however, that Fellini’s ability, in his formative period, to fight off the siren call of the revolutionary left, had something to do with his mental immersion in an imaginary America. All of Fellini’s movies, whether sooner or later, culminate in his masterpiece , and the hallucinatory imagery of begins in the comics: one of the most conspicuous examples of how, in the twentieth century, the popular and high arts established an intimate connection. Other low-life forms that Fellini scraped a living from early on were vaudeville and radio drama. The story of the great director’s unsophisticated origins is told well by John Baxter in his Fellini (1993). My own essay “Mondo Fellini,” collected in Even as We Speak (2001) and As of This Writing (2003), is an attempt to record the formative impact that a man accustomed to pleasing millions of people at a time could have on a single life.

* * *
When I was a little boy I believed I looked a little bit like Harold Lloyd. I put on my father’s spectacles
and to make the resemblance even closer I took out the lenses.

ONE WOULD LIKE to have seen Fellini’s Harold Lloyd impersonation. Did he do stunts on the dizzying cornice of a palazzo? Most of Harold Lloyd’s apparently death-defying stuff was done with camera angles and false perspectives, and at least once he used a double; but it is easy to imagine the young Fellini trying it for real, not yet having figured out that cinema is an illusion. On a similar impulse, at the age of eleven I almost killed myself imitating Batman leaping from the roof of a building site into a sand-pit. If I hadn’t landed flat on my back I might have been worse than winded, but at least the world would have been deprived of no more than a writer, a species of which there are always many. A world deprived of Fellini would have had something more rare to mourn: a true director, il regista, the master of the revels. “è una festa, la mia vita,” says Guido in : my life is a party. It was true, and he invited everybody.

Fred and Ginger is merely the most obvious case of Fellini’s debt to American popular culture. Even when they don’t look it, his works are saturated with its influence, right down to their visual style. After Italy pulled out of World War II, Fellini had his beginnings in Italy’s teeming subculture of comic strips and fumetti, which were essentially comic strips made up from posed photographs. Before the war that whole subculture had been inspired by America’s example, and not even the Fascist regime, when it put an end to the syndication of American comic strips, felt it had the power to cancel Mickey Mouse. Under his Italian name Topolino, Mickey continued his adventures. (After the war, his name was given to Fiat’s most popular small car.) Near the end of his career, Fellini cooperated with the brilliantly accomplished pornographic cartoonist Marinara to produce a bande dessinée called Voyage à Tulum, a sort of free-form sequel to and La Città delle Donne. Marinara’s phantasmagoric style took a lot from the American comic-strip tradition that started with Little Nemo and ran right through the parodic Mad magazine period in the 1950s to its self-consuming apotheosis in the extravagant layouts of the head comix in the 1960s. But in Voyage à Tulum, when he celebrated Fellini’s big-screen extravaganzas, you can see how well Marinara found a match between the initial purity and the culminating sophistication. He found it by getting back to their common ancestor. Fellini, too, started with the American visionary tradition that grew from the restless mind of Little Nemo. The big pictures of Fellini’s mature period, from La Dolce Vita through to E la Nave Va, all look like something that Winsor McCay’s little boy Nemo dreamed of, and could wake from only by falling out of bed. In his introduction to the published script of , Fellini said that the Marcello Mastroianni character, vis-à-vis the same actor’s character in La Dolce Vita, had to grow in stature because his enemies were more dangerous. But the enemies were all in his mind: his obsessional neuroses.

When Fellini said that in he found a pretext for putting in everything that had been tormenting him for years, he meant everything that had been tormenting him all his life. Critics have searched in vain for literary precursors of Fellini’s grandiose Freudian dreams. Proust? Joyce? The answer lies much closer to hand. In , Mastroianni is dressed like that because his director is remembering Mandrake the Magician. The American comic strip was the first art-form to exploit the image-generating possibilities of a sleeping mind on its endless journey through the caves and hallways of dreamland. (Tenniel had merely illustrated Lewis Carroll: he didn’t take off on his own.) Fascism was a kind of dreamland too, as Fellini emphasized in Amarcord. But the dreamland turned to a nightmare while he was growing up. Nazism and Soviet communism combined to drown the ceremony of innocence. Fellini kept his innocence, but it was bound to look like childishness. It was Italy’s fate to have its social fabric poisoned first by the Fascists, then by the Nazis and finally by the Communists, whose propaganda campaign against the liberating allies, and especially against the Americans, attained a level of virulence hard to imagine from this distance: reading what the Communist newspapers said about the bombing of Cassino, you would have thought that Guernica had been bombed again, and never have dreamed that the war against Germany was not yet over. Post-war Italian cinema was left-wing because the left was almost all there was: under the pressure of Communist ambitions, the intelligentsia as a whole was polarized between party-line orthodoxy and the independent left, but further to the right there was next to nothing except the wilfully eccentric. Nominally an alumnus of neo-realism, Fellini looked as if he had gone to school in a party frock. Even among those who lauded him for the richness of his imagination, it occurred to nobody that he was the director with the most penetrating social vision. Such an estimation became possible only in retrospect, after it became apparent that no universal plan for society could be compatible with the autonomy of art. The artist who made it most apparent was Fellini himself. The advantage of those lensless spectacles was that he could see an untinted reality. He might have looked like a clown, but from his side of the empty frames he could see the world as it was, and so transform it into fantasies that would last.