Fellini Goes to the Beach
Published in CineAction 2008
Everything flows; nothing remains. Herakleitos
Characters in Fellini’s films often end up at the beach where they seem to arrive at some sort of self-realization that is highly charged, intuitive and physical as the relationship between them and the sea seems to act as a catalyst for a certain kind of knowledge. This knowledge seems to be both historical and a-historical, profoundly felt yet never articulated directly - which makes the work all the more powerful since this is how we actually experience it. The ocean - after so much art photography and film has come to symbolize “nature,” the “eternal,” the “origin of life.” The sea is always the same and never the same; it is beautiful and terrifying; it is sublime and banal; it is a place of play and of terror. Ripples that last a few seconds on film suggest a geologic time that stretches back beyond our common human history.
Yet paradoxically the sea is always absolutely physically present as a particular place in a particular time: St Tropez in the 1960’s is not the same as Liverpool in the 1930’s. Location and seasonal referents are not the only ways we read images of the sea. The camera and the film used as well as the chemical process used to produce the image figure in the equation of how an image feels and what time period it seems to belong to. It is impossible in that sense to see the sea – once it is represented we must also come to terms with the very specific qualities of this mediation and the cultural conventions and connotations associated with it. But what is the nature of this realization, this knowledge, that characters in Fellini’s films experience when they see the sea? What happens to Zampano at the end of La Strada? What is going on with Marcello as he gives a sardonic smile and shrugs his shoulders as he slouches away in La Dolce Vita? What does Leopoldo’s sexual panic in Il Vitelloni mean when it takes place by the sea? What is Saraghina’s wild dance on the sand in 8 1/2 all about and why do the priests prohibit it?
Fellini’s work was, as he said in an interview, very much informed from his reading of Jung that influenced much of his work in the studio from 8 1/2 to The Voice of the Moon, his final feature film. It was at that point that he started to consciously create archetypes in a set, rather than go to a location and film the passing moment. That is, he filmed "the Ocean” rather than a particular seashore at a particular place and time. This sense of the essential and the absolute, which is found in the archetype, is the opposite of a realist tendency in which a temporal material reality in the present tense is all there is. Both tendencies are to be found in Fellini throughout his work and he seems to favor one or the other depending on the material. Yet his body of work does have a trajectory as it moves from his beginnings in Neorealism up to La Strada then shifts to favoring archetypal studio creations, from Juliet of the Spirits onwards. La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2 straddle both worlds, and in part for that very reason may be his most interesting films. Yet the sea in The White Sheik, an early work, is totally theatrical despite the fact that it was shot on location, because of the context, while the sea at the end of Satyricon, a middle period work, is very real - in a documentary sense - and gives weight to the fantastic narrative.
So in effect there is no clearly system or method that one can use to understand Fellini’s use of the ocean in his work because he himself was antithetical to such an academic approach. This is something that is articulated most clearly - and comically - in Amarcord where during a brilliant series of school vignettes we see an older professor at the head of her class make inane statements about Giotto, that she has clearly repeated so often she is on auto-pilot, while casually eating breakfast during her lecture. In the same film we intermittently see an aristocratic town intellectual, who acts as a kind of tour guide or storyteller. He is the only character who addresses the camera directly as if making a traditional documentary film - a form that Fellini loved to parody in several films - and he does so again by having the intellectual always be overdressed for the reality around him, and speaking in well rounded articulate sentences that signify "educated" but that are so mannered as to be funny. While the storyteller's information is interesting or amusing it is clearly shown to be of secondary importance compared to what the townspeople give us - their emotional lives open out to us providing a personal portrait of Italy at mid-century. Let us then look at individual works to understand what's going when Fellini goes to the beach.
In The White Sheik actors are on a beach shooting the enormously popular photo-novels of the period, and the beach is photographed by Fellini as belonging to the contemporary mid-century Mediterranean world. The fantastic sight of the Sheik in full costume creates a dichotomy between his theatrical poses, his artificiality, his buffoonery and the naturalness of the landscape and the ocean. The landscape in effect puts into question the Sheik’s integrity, it creates a context that enables us to see through the façade of a pompous playboy in a way that the character of the young woman who lusts after him cannot. When we see the Sheik rocking on a gigantic swing - his sex prominently seen from below - we know we are seeing him through her eyes. At the same time the swing turns the Sheik into a boy playing with exotic costumes and children’s toys. Her lust becomes both comical – because it is based on a fantasy image that we can see through – and moving because the ocean turns her sexual need into an archetype of fertility. It is, in a sense, nature itself expressing itself through cultural conventions.
Her passion for the Sheik has definite historical roots in Western culture. In the early 20th century “eastern” looking males and females could be overtly sexualized – as was the case with Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri in the Hollywood of the twenties – in ways not available to westerners in the popular arts. Theirs was a mythical personae that was presumably free, sensual and given fully to the taking and the giving of pleasure without guilt. This fantasy was a powerful sexual stimulus to the imagination throughout western history, from Delacroix’s imaginative “Persia”- created in Paris - to Josef Von Sternberg’s “Shanghai” – created in the deserts of Los Angeles. The Sheik’s persona as cultural artifact, as sellable commodity - the Latin lover - is already dated by 1952, the year Fellini made his film and he finished his days in provincial variety shows and the photo-serials that are the subject of the film. Fellini would from the beginning show enormous sympathy for his characters and allow us to see the world through their eyes, while simultaneously using landscapes as a counterpoint to their cultural prejudices and their acceptance of social conventions. The film charts their passions and the role that fantasy, usually unbeknownst to them, plays in their search for love, success and fulfillment.
In La Strada the seashore at the end of the film into which Zampano sheds his tears is a particular ocean, although we see only a small segment of it because it is night. The waves that wash up behind Zampano’s body as he looks around helplessly on his knees are shot realistically using high contrast black and white film. The rhythm of this ocean, the sounds it makes, and the emotional exchange between this particular part of the ocean with this character create a whole world into which we may not only “read” but feel Zampano’s loss. Gelsomina, his ex-partner in their comedy/strongman variety show, is someone that he in a sense both liberates from poverty and emotionally devastates.
The only clue that she ever existed is the song that she sings throughout the film and that she has passed on to the woman that took care of her towards the end of her life. Recognizing that song is how Zampano begins the process of recognizing his own loss. Near the end of the film when he drunkenly screams to some men throwing him out of a bar that he doesn’t need anyone we know it is not true in large part because the ocean is there as a reminder of Gelsomina’s truth: in nature needing others is a biological necessity. The landscape at night makes Zampano’s isolation dramatically intense because it reiterates Gelsomina’s emotional needs without ever making them explicit. The ocean here functions not so much metaphorically – as in the sentence “an ocean of tears” but rather metonymically. The ocean is organic and fertile, as well as a void of black space - of nothingness. The two brilliantly fuse and we sense the interconnectedness of life and death, not in any obvious way, but as an inevitable conclusion to our understanding of Zampano’s temperament and how it led to his failure to connect with the one person in his life that cared for him.
At the end of La Dolce Vita there is a contrast between the seashore, which is as real as the one in La Strada, and the enormous stingray that is found washed up on the sand. Fellini brilliantly assembles what look like party-goers in a sixties pop art film that has gone on far too long, walking in a daze toward the beach as if to renew themselves. What they find instead is a dead fish the size of a human being that brings with it a sense of geological time, in which the brevity of human life is forcefully expressed; it is a memento mori from the depths of the ocean that has come back with a story to tell. The decaying stingray in this context becomes an archetype for our prehistoric origins - origins from which mankind is now far removed, as the overly dressed jet setters make clear simply with their presence, as they surround the dead animal with looks of horror, pity and fascination. The stingray is dead, yet as one of the party-goers points out, its one eye seems to still be looking at the guilty Marcello and his bored party of Moderns. The subtle interplay between the beach and the sound of the waves, that are real, and the sound of the wind, which was added in the studio, magnificently intertwines realism and archetypes into a seamless artistic reality.
The one moment in La Dolce Vita where we see Marcello working as a writer happens at the beach in an open cabana style restaurant. There is a jukebox playing contemporary pop music and there is a girl that looks to Marcello like “an angel in an Umbrian church.” While cleaning the girl expresses her modest aspirations to find a better job as a typist in Rome. Marcello looks sardonic and amused but also sympathetic. In a sense the “angel” wants to participate in the process of writing however modest – this modesty both distinguishes her from the other characters in the film and draws attention to their sense of entitlement divorced from any hard work. The restaurant is empty except for Marcello and the "angel" and it is radiant with natural light, beautifully photographed by Otello Martelli as the thatched roof creates a sense that light seems to cover the walls like a protective skin. While the sounds of the nearby beach, the pop music that suddenly starts and stops from the nearby jukebox all convey an atmosphere of radiant health, (physical and psychic) of youth, of promise.
It is the one moment where the film pauses as if to catch its breath as Marcello regards the profile of the “angel” as he works. The young girl is also at the beach at the end of the film separated from Marcello and his party by a shallow inlet. She seems to be invisible to all but Marcello; they make an attempt to communicate over the sound of the ocean but fail. Finally the girl uses her hands to signify “walking together." Marcello can’t or won’t understand her meaning – his body language suggests that he is exhausted and resigned – he doesn’t cross the small body of water between them to reach her and instead slumps to his knees and shrugs his shoulders – essentially throwing away that gift. The girl is associated with his talent, with his integrity, with the best part of him. His inability to communicate – the essential theme of the film – is also an inability to communicate with his own muse or his own voice. Fellini chooses one particularly banal moment - one that Marcello might not even remember in a few months - finding a girl on a beach and choosing not to go walking with her as the privileged moment where we see him throw his creative life away. His shrug says essentially “I don’t have it in me to be a writer, but it doesn’t matter, nothing does.”
Fellini is a moralist who understands that a choice is being made. Those choices – in an almost moral/religious sense - are at the heart of much of Fellini’s work and they are always small quiet moments not grandiose tableaus with a symphony orchestra guiding our emotions. For Marcello at that moment all is lost, and his loss is not only personal but belongs to a whole post-war generation who sold their promise – as we see also in Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte – for a place in the corporate technocracy that was then in the process of being formed. In the late 1950's and early 60's many were scrambling for a piece of the Italian "economic miracle" - as it was described at the time by the Italian press. La Dolce Vita (a title Fellini always insisted was never meant ironically) ends with a close-up of the girl waving goodbye – to Marcello and then to us. The sound of wind and surf fill the soundtrack because they belong together with that image, as much as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is linked to the ocean – and to fertility – so the “angel from an Umbrian church” is linked to the sea – and to renewal through faith. Her smile is forcefully innocent – asserting that innocence in a physically powerful way as a rejoinder to Marcello’ shrug. It is the yes to Marcello’s no.
Fellini also pushes archetypes to the point at which they are in dialogue with each other (in the Bakhtinian sense) as also happens in the films of the French New Wave – despite their obvious differences they have a playful self-reflexivity in common. Let’s see when Fellini also lays bare the technique and the artifice. And The Ship Sails On ends with a sequence where we see how the various sets, including the ship itself, have been built. We see the workers in overalls operating the hydraulics that control the machinery that creates the illusion of movement. We see behind the facades that are made of plywood and have nothing behind them but sand bags on the floor to keep them from toppling. We see artifice. Fellini shows us these devices not because he wishes to expose our foolishness (you thought the boat was real but you see it’s all fake!) for the obvious reason that the theatrical aspect of these archetypes was clear from the beginning.
Fellini emphasizes the sets by often shooting from some distance away, so the set itself becomes the primary player and the actors merely archetypes - often boy and girl - that play their roles and nothing more. Fellini understands that we are able to suspend disbelief and critically see through our own suspension at the same time - he does not infantilize his audience. Godard plays with our abilities in much the same way. For example in Un Femme Est UnFemme the characters slip into and out of the genre of the Hollywood musical while Godard uses various devices such as direct address to the audience, sudden shifts in lighting, sudden dropped sound after orchestral punctuation, to highlight the artificiality of the form. In effect the musical is reformulated - or deconstructed - and italicized or put in quotations. In Godard and in Fellini’s work the scenes in which we see the machinery of illusions is simply one more pleasure added to those already served, it is the dessert at the end of the meal.
In Il Vitelloni a young Leopoldo is horrified where he is propositioned by an older man of the theater. The scene takes place by the beach in a provincial Italian town, much like Rimini where Fellini grew up. The landscape in Il Vitelloni again acts as a counterpoint to Leopoldo’s panic as he confronts sexual feelings that he cannot understand and so he flees. His panic belies his professional aspirations to be a playwright – that is to in some way understand the human condition – as he is not able to come to terms with his lack of experience, his fears and doubts. The ocean acts as a sounding board to the scene suggesting the playing out of such scenarios throughout human history and gives a perspective that, for different reasons, the young man in a panic and the older man laughing, both lack. Leopoldo’s dream of success in the theater crumbles away as he runs from the one person who can help him. The older man’s laughter and the sound of the sea intermingle and follow Leopoldo back to his life as a layabout - dreaming of success and fame along with his friends - in Il Vitelloni.
In Amarcord the whole town seems to be on small boats as they go out to meet the American Ocean Liner “The Rex” as the sun sets. From the blind accordion player to Gradisca, the young woman searching for her “Gary Cooper;" from Aurelio the always put-upon head of the family that is central to the film to Volpina the nymphomaniac who is always pictured by the sea - they all carry their dreams of fulfillment to at least catch a glimpse of "The Rex." The scene is clearly shot in a studio and the ocean liner is obviously a prop making us conscious throughout the proceedings that we are seeing something constructed. “The Rex” finally makes an appearance at night after the townspeople have been waiting and expressing their dreams. The ocean liner is seen as a vast dark mass threatening and mysterious - a fantastic Symbolist dream floating through space. It is theatrically lit and magnified out of all proportion by the scope of the aspirations of the townspeople on dingles and small fishing boats. The American cruise ship, essentially a luxury hotel with an engine that moves it across the water, beautifully plays off the working skiffs and homemade boats that barely hold the dreamers in Amarcord.
The vast gulf between classes has never been more beautifully expressed – certainly not by any Marxist works. The reason Fellini is so successful is that his primary interest is the emotional content of the scene rather than the ideological ramifications of it - although this ideological sympathy for working people and the poor and unemployed is ever-present in his work. The variety of individual responses to the sheer overabundant wealth of “The Rex” is something that he orchestrates beautifully creating a kind of chamber work for voices – working people and their aspirations – with the counterpoint being the vast funnel like siren of “The Rex” – the sound of a triumphant machine. The two kinds of sounds intermingle with the sound of the water and the wind bringing the orchestration of sounds – the Wagnerian pomposity of “The Rex” and the Mozartian humor of the townspeople - towards the sublime. The massive ocean liner leaves a series of waves behind it causing the small boats to rock and bring the suddenly unsteady dreamers back to their reality - being in the ocean at night just outside of a small town to which they must return.
In City of Women the young woman strolling with feigned casualness to her cabana is obviously in an indoor set. The ocean behind her - as flat as a piece of board - and the polished props that signify "the beach," such as umbrellas and beach chairs, tell us that this ocean is not in any particular time or place – it is an archetype of the ocean. In a Jungian sense it is meant to stand in for all oceans and this woman is Woman standing in for all women throughout all times and all places, and the boys prowling around her are standing in for all boys who have just discovered their own sexual feelings as well as for all the myths associated with fertility and awakening sexuality. With archetypes the symbolic comes forward and the scene becomes immediately a metaphor, that is trapped within the conventions of its photographic mediation - in the case of City of Women that mediation is the superficial and banal fashion photography of the early/mid 20th Century. The characters, reduced to highly organized and symbolic tableaux vivants, become merely a part of the symbolic order being illustrated, and it is this that becomes the central focus of the work rather than the emotional content of the narrative.
Unfortunately archetypes more often than not reduce complex realities to the simplicity of an essence – a concept – that organizes the world for us and reduces it to a cliché. Albeit the archetypes in Fellini’s work are seen through the prism of early 20th century burlesque, with which Fellini grew up and to which he remained faithful throughout his career. The cultural weight of archetypes cannot be supported for long before becoming simply “the fantastic” or “the sublime” or “the grotesque.” In short they become illustration – the image is bound to the Idea or the concept - and never comes to life – its poetics are flattened out as in advertising or conceptual art. In City of Women the metaphorical images congeal the moment they are projected and not even Fellini’s sense of humor can save them.
in 8 1/2 Saraghina’s dance on the beach is awkward and amateurish - really full of ridiculous gestures, embarrassing mannerisms - yet also beautiful, erotic and very moving. The sea sparkles intensely behind her, refracting light as if we were seeing everything through a prism aimed directly at the sun. Her diaphanous scarf seems to absorb the rhythm of the waves and then envelop her - turning Saraghina into a modern Venus. We see a woman weighed down by flesh, by matter, playing at being a Goddess for her own pleasure and for the delight of the boys. Again we are reminded of classical allusions but now brought into the harsh unforgiving beach light that mocks the fantasy and reveals both its sordidness and its innocence. Unlike American works that carefully place these categories in carefully segregated environments, in European films - particularly those of Fellini and other Italian masters - the two can co-exist firmly not only in the same film but in the same frame. Only a child would fall for such a dance - so she performs for children - and, significantly, for us. The boys in tight constricting uniforms that make them look like little policemen with capes are the perfect foil for the barely dressed Saraghina.
The fact that she is comfortable with her body – with her mortality – with the awkwardness of the erotic – and that she takes pleasure in being in her own skin – that her attitude exudes psychic and physical well being - makes her friends with the boys and the enemy of the priests. Of course these alliances and rebellions are unspoken since there is no outlet for them in the society that they are in. Saraghina has discovered that the creative links between imagination and erotic play lead not only to pleasure but to a communion with fellow humans that is essential, but this sense of the communal is fundamentally pagan - it predates religious orthodoxy and usually easily supplants it. Inevitably for the priests such an acceptance of fleeting mortal pleasures and communal sharing, outside of their system, throws their very teleology into doubt.
The priests tell the boys directly that Saraghina is the Devil and they mean it. The priests are the ones that pull Marcello down at the beginning of 8 1/2 as he flies over the ocean – falling to earth - in a comical dream sequence that implies that Marcello is still tied emotionally to his school days. The whole film might be that fall with a redemptive coda at the end of reconciliation and acceptance. In that wild dance on the beach Edra Gale - who plays Saraghina - and Fellini - tell us more about our self delusions, our hopes, our mortal and moral limits than countless essays and philosophical tracts have ever accomplished. How we look when we dance (perhaps the defining essence of movement in film - or motion pictures) and are pulled down by gravity has never been more beautifully expressed. On the soundtrack during the screen tests near the end of 8 1/2 we hear Fellini whispering: “Saraghina...”calling to her as when he was a boy. Fellini in effect returns the favor - sexual pleasure linked to imaginative play - that Saraghina once gave him. That sense of freedom linked to an eroticized imagination is a gift Fellini is able to give back to us – in the film 8 1/2.