Showing posts with label CED Videodisc. Show all posts
Showing posts with label CED Videodisc. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wednesday, January 20, 1960: Fellini Insolite

In French, the word is insolite; the Italian cognate I do not know, but I do know insolite is a difficult French word to translate into English. The best translation of the word is offered by Richard Schechner (“The Bald Soprano and The Lesson: An Inquiry into Play Structure,” Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1973), who defines the word as “the astonishing, the unmaskingness of experience—as when the side of a building falls down to reveal your wife (or husband) in the arms of her (his) lover.”

The films of Federico Fellini—who, on January 20, 1960, celebrated his fortieth birthday—revel in the unmasking of the insolite in the commonplace and quotidian. On this date, the Italian premiere of La dolce vita—the movie that introduced the world to the word “paparazzi”--was two weeks away. Knowing quite well that lists are always provocative, I’ll nonetheless go ahead and assert that La dolce vita is one of “Ten Best” films of the 1960s. The film is as compelling now as it was then. (My formal review of La dolce vita will appear on my blog on the date corresponding to its Italian premiere: February 3, 1960.)

I subscribe to the view expressed by those critics who see La dolce vita as a transitional film in Fellini’s oeuvre: its shift from location to studio shooting corresponds to films that begin to explore the interaction of fantasy and reality. And with his subsequent feature, (1963)—a film which can be considered analogous to what Harold Bloom calls “the crisis lyric” in High Romantic poetry (the pattern of loss and compensation)—Fellini the canonical Modernist emerged: Art is always compensation for the loss of (something). The atmosphere of crisis is made more explicit in Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits, 1965), his next feature, but it is commonly acknowledged that the protagonist of Juliet of the Spirits, Giulietta (Giulietta Masina), is a sort of female version of Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), the male protagonist of .

The films made during the period of fifteen years commencing with Le Notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria, 1957), completed when Fellini was 37, and ending with Amarcord, made when he was 52, have to represent one of the major creative achievements in twentieth-century cinema. Remove Nights of Cabiria, La dolce vita, , and Fellini Satyricon, and there still remains the “Toby Dammit” episode from Histoires extraordinaires [1968], widely recognized as one of the cinema’s great achievements.

Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), commonly interpreted as meaning “I remember” in the Italian regional dialect spoken in the area of Fellini’s birthplace of Rimini, should not lead one to conclude that the events depicted in the film are actual reconstructions of events from Fellini’s childhood, that is, referentially true. Fellini’s love of the comics and comic books is well known; in Amarcord, this means that the people and events from his past are not historically accurate but have been transformed into caricatures of themselves, reductively condensed into a single defining characteristic or feature. Hence Gradisca (Magali Noël), whom all the local boys fantasize about, is reduced to her voluptuous derriere. Titta’s (Bruno Zanin’s) grandfather (Guiseppe Ianigro) is reduced to the rhythmic thrust of his arm and his accompanying whistle that suggests his once active sex life. The Tobacconist (Maria Antonietta Beluzzi) is caricatured by her prodigious breasts, which in one memorable scene (“Felliniesque”?) she laboriously unpacks in order to allow Titta to suck them, nearly suffocating him. Volpina (meaning “female fox,” played by Josiane Tanzilli), the town nymphomaniac, is reduced to her insatiable sexual appetite.

Amarcord’s structure is mythic, using the passage of the seasons to place all the various vignettes that comprise the film in chronological time. The film begins with the arrival of the puffballs—spring—and the town’s ritual celebration of the end of winter; it concludes with the following year’s coming of spring. In between, there is death, mystery, cruelty, and absurdity—the unconcealing of the insolite--but the film concludes happily, in comedic fashion, with Gradisca’s marriage celebration and the promise of life and love, and the continuation of traditional values from one generation to the next.

Once sequence in Amarcord reveals, for me at least, Fellini at his very best. One summer day, Titta’s family retrieves Uncle Teo (Ciccio Ingrassia), incarcerated in an insane asylum, in order to take him with them on a picnic. He seems genuinely happy to see his family—his simile doesn’t seem to want to go away, so genuinely delighted he is—and ostensibly seems both content and calm, although everyone is puzzled by the fact that his coat pockets are filled with large, smooth stones. After the picnic lunch and after everyone has grown tired and sleepy from the meal, Uncle Teo disappears. After a frantic search, he is eventually found at the top of a high tree, where he is shouting as loud as he can, “I want a woman!” A few attempts are made to get him down; a ladder is brought and one of the farm hands climbs the ladder to get him; Uncle Teo drops one of the heavy stones on his head. A similar fate meets the next volunteer. Eventually, someone is sent to get reinforcements from the asylum. A dwarf nun arrives from the asylum, climbs the ladder, and orders Uncle Teo down from the tree. He immediately obeys. The sequence is at once very funny, warm, absurd, sad, and wistful, revealing how strong memories are always tied to deep yearning for an idyllic past.

A comparison the 2006 Criterion two-disc DVD reissue of Amarcord to my old RCA CED Selectavision VideoDisc of the film (issued January 1984) yielded some interesting results. (I am compelled to point out that there is a widespread, but mistaken, assumption that Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) was, in 1984, the first film released for home video in “letterboxed” format. In fact, the first movie issued in letterboxed format was Amarcord. Interestingly, “widescreen” or “letterbox” mastering was not introduced to home video by the laser disc, but rather by RCA on its now long-defunct Capacitance Electronic Disc (CED) Selectavision VideoDisc system, a grooved disc similar in appearance to a vinyl record--but tremendously more intricate--and contained in a hard plastic shell referred to as a “caddy.”) I found that the subtitles on the VideoDisc compared with those on Criterion’s 2006 DVD re-issue reveals the changed cultural conditions of the thirty years or so. For instance, soon after the nymphomaniac Volpina is introduced, on the VideoDisc (which used a theatrical print from the 1970s, as it credits Roger Corman’s New World Pictures as the distributor) a character refers to her with the subtitle reading, “She even makes love for breakfast.” In contrast, on the Criterion DVD reissue a character mocks her by saying to her, in a more accurately translated line, “I bet you even dip a cock in your morning coffee.” Other such amusing discrepancies in subtitle translations exist.

At the very least, one could say that Fellini had an affection for the fablieaux, bawdy tales that were sophisticated but were not intended to be didactic, that is, their purpose was to entertain, not “instruct.” It is difficult to tell ribald tales and be politically correct while doing so.