Blessay 34: Calvino, Fellini and Making Images

It’s just over thirty years since Italo Calvino died. He was a novelist, short story writer and essayist of the first rank who at the time of his death was a contender for the Nobel Prize. I discovered him in 1987 and fell totally under his spell. His work could be described as intellectual fantasy. But he was never an orthodox fantasy writer – more a philosophical fabulist of playful, witty and profoundly eloquent propositions. He wrote about, and re-wrote, the myths we employ attempting to explain an absurdly paradoxical universe.

Calvino started off with realistic novels like The Path to the Nest of Spiders (about wartime Italian partisan life). Finding it difficult to remain a realist he wrote The Cloven Viscount (about a 17th century viscount cloven in two by a cannonball). He did produce short story collections of a neo-realist tone, Adam, One Afternoon and Difficult Loves. But his fictional trajectory became fantasy with such works as The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Invisible Cities and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. His last two books were the remarkable novel Mr.Palomar (about a man trying to name and explain all the encountered things that make up his world) and Six Memos for a Millennium (a collection of six lectures).

In the 4th Memo, of Six Memos for the Next Millennium (written in 1985, published posthumously, in English in 1992) and titled Visibility Calvino’s concern is with the creation of images and the imaginative process. In a fascinating paragraph he turns from literature to the cinema. It’s worth quoting in full.

“In the cinema the image we see on screen has also passed through the stage of a written text, has been “visualised” in the mind of the director, then physically reconstructed on the set, and finally fixed in the frames of the film itself. A film is therefore the outcome of a succession of phases, both material and otherwise, in the course of which the images acquire form. During this process, the “mental cinema” of the imagination has a function no less important than that of the actual creation of the sequences as they will be recorded by the camera and then put together on the moviola. This mental cinema is always at work in each one of us, and it always has been, even before the invention of the cinema. Nor does it ever stop projecting images before our mind’s eye.”

Recently my commonplace “mental cinema” kept rehearsing a discussion I was hoping to have with a group of strangers. Inwardly I was imagining the kind of people who’d turn up, the social mingling, the drinks and snacks, books people might have brought along and the venue itself. I was simply fantasising: mentally directing my ‘movie’ of the meet up. I was hoping to attend a discussion of Fellini’s film, I Vitelloni. I’m very fond of I Vitelloni. It’s Fellini’s 2nd film and remains one of his very best. This story of drifting, layabout young men, in the seaside town of Liguria  of the 1950’s, set Fellini of on the road of cinematic autobiography.

I arrived at the BFI Southbank bookshop to discover that it had been closed early for a staff meeting. On asking the management they told me that they hadn’t heard of the event or its organiser. And there was no other group member outside the shop. I returned home to read on the site that someone else had turned up and then waited in the bar. An hour later an automatic message appeared online thanking myself, and the others, for having attended the event. Before going to bed I randomly chose a bedtime read. It was Calvino’s posthumously published essay collection The Road to San Giovanni. I’d read it before and remembered that one of the essays was A Cinema-Goers Autobiography that mentioned Fellini’s I Vitelloni. Films mattered to the very young Calvino during the years between 1936 and the war, the years of his adolescence. For him it was a time when the cinema became a world for him.

“A different world from the one around me, but my feeling was that only what I saw on the screen possessed the properties required of a world, the fullness, the necessity, the coherence, while away from the screen were only heterogeneous elements lumped together at random, the materials of a life, mine, which seemed to me utterly formless.”

American cinema appealed most to Calvino. He did not love Italian films but sometimes admired and appreciated them. And the director he felt an affinity with, because of his form of film autobiography, was Federico Fellini.Fellini was similar to Calvino in the sense that he was an artist who went from realism (The White Sheik, I Vitteloni) through to a sort of post-neo -realism bordering on fantasy Il Bidone, Cabiria and La Strada) paused at the satire of La Dolce Vita and then dived into the fabulous and fantastic (Juilet of the Spirits and so on). Even late, ‘straight’ films like Amarcord, Satyricon and Casanova are coloured by Fellini’s need to delve into his unconscious for dramatic imagery.

Calvino’s youthful pleasure at watching movies created a distancing effect. As an adult this continued to fascinate him (Though as far as I know he never wrote any specific film criticism.)

“That is, either I go looking for old films that tell me about my own pre-history, or those that are so new as perhaps to suggest what the world will be like after me.”

And it was the old and new American films, in preference to Italian cinema that engaged him.

“…always that novelty has to do with the highways, the drugstores, young faces or old, the way one moves through spaces, the way one passes one’s life.”

Yet the aesthetic distance that captivated Calvino, and also myself, was once provided by Classical Hollywood Cinema. A form that placed characters in a scene within a meaningful context. Here a density of action, within the frame, sometimes irrespective of cutting and camera movement, and sometimes accompanying it, conveyed through choreographed staging of actors, a rich dramatic texture. It moved the cinematic action on whilst suggesting all kinds of interesting subtleties and tensions along the journey of the story.

“But it isn’t distance that the cinema gives us now: it is the irreversible impression that everything is nearby, is hemming us in, is on top of us.”

That’s Calvino talking not just about eighties cinema but Fellini’s films getting ever closer and closer. Yet I think Calvino’s remarks can be applicable for a lot of contemporary mainstream cinema. That it is over-emphatic, overladen and over the top.Often a show – off cinema obsessed by the toys of film technology. Of course Fellini’s own progress appears to be travel towards a narcissistic closeness, not driven by technology, but a hellish need to caricature his established mise en scene. For Hollywood and Fellini this has meant a a terrible drift away from a meaningful context. More artistic loss and doubtful gains.

“Thus Fellini can go far indeed along the road of visual repugnance, but along that of moral repugnance he stops short, he recuperates the monstrous into the human, into the indulgent complicity of the flesh. Both the well-fed province and the movie-making world of Rome are circles of hell, but at the same time enjoyable lands of Cockaigne as well. That is why Fellini manages to disturb us to the core: because he forces us to admit that what we would most like to distance ourselves from is what is intrinsically close to us.”

I’d agree with Calvino that Fellini does stop short of moral repugnance. But my problem is a bombardment of style, of such aesthetic repugnance, that distances me too much from Fellini’s characters, so I no longer care about their fate. I would love to be shaken to the core by most of that late Fellini output, but I just recoil (the dark Satyricon and even darker Casanova being notable exceptions to his self-indulgence.)

“The cinema of distance which nourished our youth is turned forever on its head in the cinema of absolute proximity.”

So does Calvino’s “absolute proximity” or closeness mean a negation of cinema? On the level of spectacle it can be an experience that’s too much in your face. What I have come to dread is a roller coaster ride of emotion that robs cinema of its power of pictorial composition, nuanced acting, subtle direction and narrative force. That a new sentimentality, coupled with old dystopian attitudes, dominates commercial cinema and even dilutes independent and art cinema.

I don’t have to speak of the new Star Wars or Bond film. That they are regarded as major cinema events is depressing enough. But that a semi-independent film like Inarritu’s Birdman can be so critically lauded. Birdman’s off Broadway actors, in and out of rehearsing a play, based on a short story by Raymond Carver, self-indulgently moan about their lot. So much so that it just about sinks a film admittedly displaying a long take technical bravura, but also a predictable ‘magic realism.’ Birdman’s effects and the other two films CGI almost obliterate any intelligent distance, so it feels like a manipulative circus. You get closer and closer to the circus performers, and whether they  pull off their masks or not, you enjoy them less and less. The circus, both as real event or metaphor, was a childhood memory that Fellini incorporated into his films with great charm. But soon after his masterpiece becoming so mockingly close-up and grotesque that you wanted to push away the clowns!

And what of Calvino who also got very (but not over) close-up with Mr.Palomar? I feel he successfully wrought a wise and very entertaining post-modernist novel (as did Georges Perec with his Life: a User’s Manual) without closing down our interest in the structure of his personal world. And without making a case for some dry theory of what a novel might be. Calvino’s Mr.Palomar searches for a close understanding, a meaningful proximity to images and ideas. Yet Calvino maintains a distance because you can’t grasp everything, shouldn’t feel the need to show it all and anyway you can’t because you are mortal.

“This is how birds think, or at least this is how Mr.Palomar thinks, imagining himself a bird.” It is only after you have come to know the surface of things,” he concludes,” that you venture to seek what is underneath. But the surface is inexhaustible.”

“If time has to end, it can be described, instant by instant” Palomar thinks, “and each instant, when described, expands so that its end can no longer be seen.” He decides that he will set himself to describing every instant of his life, and until he has described them all he will no longer think of being dead. At that moment he dies.”

You could describe Fellini, as Calvino does in The Road to San Giovanni, as an anti -intellectual film director. An artist cunningly childlike and open to an unlimited multiplicity of images. Whilst Calvino appears the disciplined intellectual who understood his limits better. He probed and played with sufficient literary images, which like older cinematic forms, managed to suggest, rather than forcibly present, so much.

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