Degradation in Feathers: A Processional Reaction to La Dolce Vita (1960)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Is it possible to get a coherent sense of this film?  Not for me, or not on a first viewing.  It might be more appropriate to give you a series of episodes or fragments from my viewing: fractured thoughts in response to Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita.  Not a review, but a processional, a ritual progress towards the Shrine of Our Lady of the Fragments.

I saw my first Fellini (8 ½) when I was about 20, and I hated it.  Or perhaps not “hated” - rebelled against it.  More than anything else, I wanted coherence at that point in my life.  The world was vast, and I wanted to know it.  I was reluctant to cede control in the face of what already seemed overwhelming complexity. What purpose did art serve if not to be a handhold on the unscalable mountain of life?  If I couldn’t grapple with a text, it rankled. I didn’t watch another Fellini for about a decade.  Alas for a misspent youth; those years I’ll never get back.

Of course, if I were a character in this film, I’d spend those years in indolent driving, excruciating self-consciousness, and the purchase of infinite pairs of elliptical sunglasses. I’d be paying a prostitute not for her body, but for a frame that lends my life the meaning of taboo, of the illicit.

Poor Marcello. He’s on assignment puppying after a “big doll” of an American actress, all impulse and no innards. We begin almost to pity his exhaustion in the face of rapacious nymphishness of his manic pixie dream girl Sylvia, who has the same attention span and selfish absorption in sensation as the kitten she adopts and abandons in a matter of minutes.  She makes the Trevi fountain look small, a trick of scale played by her vast solipsism. (And her breasts.)

These paparazzi (a term this film spawned), hovering and clinging and crawling into the cracks of these lives like so many fruit flies, ever multiplying as their subjects grow more and more ripe. Sweeter, more openly rotten. Marcello can barely bring himself to swat them away, so humid with boredom is the air of Rome.
And of course everyone is always acting (out) for them.  Spontaneity becomes pose.

"Miracles are born in silence, not out of this confusion!" -a priest interviewed by Marcello at his next assignment: the “field of miracles.”  In this long and longing scene, we get the confusion, not the miracle.

Ah, here come children in oddly nuptial attire leading Bacchic, ecstatic crowds from spot to spot in an empty field, pointing at nothing, crying 'the Madonna!" and falling to their knees, eery giggles creeping out the corners of their mouths.  It’s Euripidean, the vengeance of being led down the path of your own arrogant desire.

Oh good, it’s time for a cocktail party blowhard - no, not Marcello, who confines himself at this boho do to caressing the hands of women who speak no Italian and admire his work (no, wait, his decorative qualities).  No, in fact it’s this man, late into middle age, who to annoy his wife responds to an Indian singer’s performance with the comment, “The only real woman is the Oriental woman. […] The Oriental woman huddles at your feet like a little tiger in love!”

I hoped too soon.  Marcelo’s now holding forth to the blowhard about the bouquet of children, all of different colors, he’d like to have. I think his attention was caught by the idea of a little tiger in love.

“You have two loves: journalism and literature.  Beware of prison.” - The eccentric poet Iris at the party.  (A messenger from the gods.)

Jesus.  They’re recording all the cocktail party conversation, wiping out the sounds of natural Sturm und Drang their host (Steiner) has recorded before. I’m largely pro-artifice, and even I find this unbearably bleak.

Children are here, again, puncturing the artificiality of it all. This film has the tragic structure of ancient Athens.  No sooner do these angelic tots arrive then I begin looking over my shoulder for Medea.

But Marcello is mistaken in his envy for Steiner’s boho-domestic bliss: his host is the first to tell him that this is too civilized, too organized, too deadened an existence.  Better to be more miserable, more free.  And then he goes off to kiss his perfect children in their swathes of protective, diaphanous curtaining. “An enchanted order,” Steiner calls the feeling of an artwork completed. The ideal of love as detachment.

The thirteenth station of this cross. The fear of tomorrow in a nuclear world.  Better to destroy the world than to live with this … waiting?  Longing?  Passing the time?

Marcello’s the kind of guy who wears a dark suit to work at a beachside restaurant whose busboy is a little boy wearing a speedo and a captain’s cap.  He’s the kind of guy who then yells at the teenaged waitress to turn off the music and let him get some work done.  (This reminds me of something my best friend said to me while visiting us in Hawaii: “You’re the only person I know who rocks a smoky eye at the beach.”  It’s true: every time.  It’s time to come to terms with it: I’m a Fellini sort of girl.)

Degradation.  In feathers.  And out of them.