Mid-Century Italian Culture
Guido Anselmi; the protagonist of Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece 8 ½ and a struggling filmmaker, should know better than to ask a Fellini clown for a straightforward answer. “Tell me, what’s the trick?” he begs his old friend, the white clown telepath Maurice. “How do you transmit thoughts?” This is a weighted question for Guido. He is trying to regain his talent for creating fantasy, a lost telepathic crafting of metaphor that he once had as an artist. But if there is one “trick” in the Fellini clown, it is that nothing they do can be explained by intellect. Maurice replies truthfully “I don’t know how it happens, but it happens.” Fellini uses clowns throughout his cinematic canon to explore his obsession with and championing of irrationality, the essentially visual, emotional aspects of life and cinema that can be felt but not understood. “The clown is the incarnation of a fantastic creature who expresses the irrational aspect of man” Fellini trumpeted in his essay Why Clowns? published in Fellini on Fellini and written in 1970, after the release of his made-for-TV short pseudo-documentary about the circus and his relationship to it called The Clowns. “He stands for the instinct, for whatever is rebellious in each one of us and whatever stands up to the established order of things.”
It is fitting that the clown Maurice should play such a vital role in 8 ½, of all Fellini’s movies, because 8 ½ is Fellini’s first battle cry for the irrational fantastic in art his definitive rejection of mimetic representation of “real life” in favor of a personal, self-reflexive and subjective truth. In Peter Bondanella’s essay 8 ½, A Celebration of Artistic Creativity, he writes that if La dolce vita was Fellini grappling with the relationship between subjective and objective views of the world, then in 8 ½ Fellini “turns toward the expression of a personal fantasy world that often…deals with the representation of cinema itself.” Even more than just representing cinema, Fellini uses 8 ½ as a fiercely personal argument for the move away from the coldly intellectual, logical mimesis of traditional filmmaking (and even traditional art filmmaking). He makes this argument through the audience’s experience of Guido’s artistic crisis, and poses the character of Maurice as an example of a purer method of creation, an answer to Guido’s (and Fellini’s, and the audience’s, and cinema itself’s) problems. Maurice embodies the irrational, celebratory relationship between love and storytelling, and the circus Maurice creates is a microcosm of the world through the lens of that relationship, which is Fellini’s ideal of cinema itself.
After the moral scandal of La dolce vita, Fellini was asked in an interview if he thought his films contained any Christian ideals. Fellini found this to be a very simple question, because his Christianity was based in the ultimate irrational clown emotion, unconditional love. “Yes,” he answered, “all my films turn upon this idea. There’s an effort to show a world without love, characters full of selfishness, people exploiting one another, and, in the midst of it all, there is always…a little creature who wants to give love and who lives for love.” (Fellini on Fellini, 56) The first and finest of these characters were all played by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina. An impishly charming Low Status Clown and Fellini’s favorite performer and muse, Masina radiates innocent love onscreen even when playing a hard-boiled prostitute in 1957’s La notti di Cabiria.
Masina’s purest clown, however, is found in the main character of Fellini’s 1954 melodrama La strada, which chronicles the tribulations of Gelsomina, a simple, girl sold by her impoverished family to the brutal strongman Trompano. Trompano teaches Gelsomina a little clowning so as to make her useful in his traveling show. Despite his abuse, her innocence takes to clowning, and she even finds joy in the work, in the midst of her misery. She alternates trying in vain to please Trompano with trying to escape from him, until a half-serious secret conversation with the tightrope-walker Il Matto transforms her struggle into an existential answer. Trompano has been jailed for assault, and Il Matto takes advantage of his absence to have a joking conversation with Gelsomina about the meaning of life. He tells her, “Everything has a purpose, even this pebble, even you,” and suggests that perhaps her purpose is to love the unlovable Trompano. Il Matto is joking, but Gelsomina takes this as a new gospel. From then on she loves Trompano unconditionally, as only a clown (or a Christian allegory) can, simply and beyond reason. Although her story does not end well, her love and her death pushes Trompano to an eventual cathartic emotional breakdown, and a revelation of the error of his ways. When Trompano is released from jail he finds her waiting for him in their caravan. He gruffly asks her why she stuck around and missed this opportunity to be rid of him. Her reply is simple. “If I don’t stay with you, who will?”
Although Maurice is not constantly physically present in 8 ½, there is a great deal of Gelsomina’s unconditional love and acceptance in his relationship with Guido. Maurice is the one character who doesn’t use Guido for his own selfish ends. He doesn’t want a job or a role or a relationship from him, he doesn’t want to change anything about him, he accepts him the way he is. They understand each other. They know each other from before. In a film populated with people unable to communicate or see each other honestly, their meeting is striking in its candor and ease. Their conversation is one of old comrades, with immediate rekindled understanding and respect.
Maurice’s very entrance is one of the first delightful moments of magic in the film, the first hint of the magical intrusion of Fellini’s fantasy world on reality that dominates the end of the film. He appears at a party to the swell of thrilling music, back lit and white-faced. He bows, grins, and calls out to his companion “Maya, let’s see if we can entertain these people!” And off he goes bounding through the crowd, the ideal storyteller, the ideal lover, the mind-reader, the clown.
Maurice and Maya’s act consists of reading the inner contents of their audience’s lives. It begins with the banal, a lady’s purse. Maurice gently rifles through it, grinning welcomingly at its elderly owner, who sits beaming at the attention, as a blindfolded, off screen Maya calls out the contents; “A white handkerchief, a red handkerchief, some aspirin.” At this last item Maurice winks to the purse’s owner, “No narcotics, I hope?” She laughs, and Maya’s voice of truth corrects the joke from off screen. By giving this sequence the frame of Guido’s gaze, the gaze of a blocked storyteller, Fellini transforms this classic parlor trick into a metaphysical act. Maurice gazes into the interiors of the banalities of your life, and delights you with the revelation of your own contents.
Maurice and Maya’s telepathy becomes all the more dazzling and dramaturgically significant, as well as dangerous, when they turn to the interior contents of people’s minds. This starts off benignly, transmitting yet another old lady’s thought of happiness about her evening, and then Maurice innocently begins probing the minds of the major characters of the film. This intrusion of honesty into a cast of ingenuous characters causes great turmoil. Guido’s lover, Carla, sitting at the other end of the room from him, is at first titillated at the idea of having her forbidden longing publicly expressed, but quickly becomes embarrassed and backs out. Maurice tries to get her (and the rest of us) to be comfortable with expressing our deepest thoughts, but to no avail. His experience with Gloria, the much younger and possibly manipulative girlfriend of Guido’s friend, Mario, is even more auspicious. Gloria starts shaking like a frightened animal when Maurice first comes towards her, putting her hands over her head and protesting violently. In a film full of self-interest and dishonesty, the prospect of having your inner psyche revealed and transmitted is a frightening one.
Ironically, it is Guido who most readily submits to this examination, not because he is a man lacking in guile, but because it is this skill of telepathy that he is so desperately trying to regain. Guido, the blocked creator of fantasy and story, spends the entire film trying to regain the telepathic art of storytelling, transmitting his thoughts and fantasies to an audience. Telepathy, the transfer and broadcasting of the inside of your head to another person’s, is Fellini’s best metaphor for what the cinema is, and he finds it in the circus. The clown in Fellini will teach you storytelling.
But of course storytelling, too, is an irrational venture, that Guido cannot think his way back into. He asks Maurice what his trick is for reading minds. Maurice answers “There are some tricks, but there’s also something true about it. I don’t know how it happens, but it happens.” Maurice can’t explain how he transmits thoughts (8 ½ is largely a film about things that can’t be explained, but can be experienced). However, Maurice can set Guido free – by transmitting Guido’s memory of a magic word from his childhood, “Asa Nisi Masa,” which sparks the first flashback sequence to Guido’s childhood in the film, and one of the only flashbacks that isn’t fraught with guilt. Guido’s psyche has received from Maurice a dose of understanding, acceptance, and Clown/Christ unconditional love.
The final lesson that Maurice teaches Guido in 8 ½ is about the relationship between these two things. Guido needs to accept and love the parts of his life that are imperfect in order to tell stories of them, and in telling their stories, “transmitting their thoughts”, he will love them. Since this is an irrational, instinctual (read: “clown ”) equation of irrational, instinctual things, Maurice cannot tell Guido this outright. The film must simply wait until Guido has lost everything, failed miserably in his relationships and his creative work, and is free to realize the beauty and perfection of the imperfection of his own life. The much celebrated last scene of the film shows this revelation, aided and cued by the clown Maurice. Guido sits in the driver’s seat of a static car, being slowly talked to death by the hyper-rationally pompous French critic Daumier. Daumier is praising Guido’s failure to make a film, claiming that an artist’s greatest gift is that of inactivity, since it is better to make nothing at all than to make a piece of art that is not perfectly, rationally necessary.
The camera pans to find Maurice scampering up to the car, interrupting Daumier’s monologue to rescue Guido from artistic self-immolation. “Wait, Guido, wait. We’re ready to begin.” Maurice stands up, looks out towards the audience and smiles, and waves his hand. The camera responds to the cue, and cuts to a shot of Guido’s muse, Claudia entering as her idealized character from the film that was never made. She is all in white and radiant, the epitome of the “woman who could have saved him” that Guido talks about. She is replaced, and then joined onscreen, by other white-clad, newly beloved figures from Guido’s life; his family with him as a young boy, Seraghina, the erotic giant woman from his childhood, his elderly parents, Carla, his hometown’s shaming priests, all of the women he has ever loved and not known how to love, all of the people he has ever loved and not known how to love, all of the characters he has ever loved and not known how to love. Daumier’s rationalist nihilism is replaced by Guido’s internal monologue, him attempting to explain his revelation to these characters from his life. “Forgive me, sweet creatures. I didn’t understand, I didn’t know. I do accept you, I do love you. How simple it is!”
The camera cuts to Guido’s estranged wife Luisa and Rossella, her best friend, and we realize who this monologue is directed to. “Luisa, I feel I’ve been freed,” Guido whispers in voice over. Luisa walks towards the camera and listens to him, her eyes downcast and quiet. Guido goes on, discovering that the secret to art and life is in telling the “truth, what I do not yet know, what I seek and have not yet found.” She smiles. His voice rises. “Only with this in mind can I feel alive, and look into your faithful eyes without shame. Life is a holiday! Let’s live it together. That is all I can say, Luisa, to you and the others. Accept me as I am, if you can. It’s the only way we can meet one another.” Guido, a man who for the entire film has been drowning in personal dishonesty and artistic blockage, has finally discovered the value of unleashed sincerity, that his personal experiences are valid subjects for art if he loves and cares for them properly.
Maurice raises the circus tent over the ruins of Guido’s failed set to the tune of the 8 ½ theme, played by a clown band headed up by the figure of Guido as a young boy, whom we recognize from flashback sequences, wearing his school uniform in purified white. Now we have earned one of the most irrationally, emotionally joyous sequences in modern film, in which the circus can officially invade Fellini’s world and transform it. The figures in white begin a procession around the ring of the circus tent, and Guido, megaphone in hand, directs the movie he always wanted to direct. “Open the curtain!” he shouts, and the curtains open, and every character from the entire movie has a grand procession down the epic staircase of the set, guided by shouted directions from Guido and accompanied by the clown music. They all join hands, led by Guido, Maurice, and finally joined by Luisa, in a gleeful dance around the circle. Fellini’s film ends in the celebration of Guido’s new artistic life beginning, due to this meta-artistic, unconditionally loving, fantastic world Fellini has created through the inspiration of the circus.
Fellini found the perfect metaphor for his understanding of art and cinema in the archetype of the circus. In a lengthy essay in Fellini on Fellini, he describes the dual focus of a circus performance. “While the rehearsed and much-repeated show is going on, risks are being taken – that is, life is going on, too…That way of creating and living at one and the same time, without the fixed rules which a writer or painter must observe, the fact of being plunged into the action itself: that’s what the circus is…and I feel the cinema is exactly the same thing.” It was in 8 ½ that Fellini began to truly embrace this circus-like aspect of the cinema, in which the audience is constantly watching the fantasy that the filmmaker is creating and the creative act itself. It is this self-reflexive gaze that begins to move Fellini past the simple modernist trend of having cinema comment on other kinds of modernist art, or a piece of cinema comment on another, into an almost proto-postmodern idea of the cinema that comments on, celebrates, and critiques itself, in a narrative track running parallel to that of the story, unfolding in the real time of the creative process. And yet, because it comes from the resolutely irrational circus, this trend in Fellini is not the cold ironic distance of a piece of Postmodernist culture, but instead a ridiculous, fantastic, anarchic, emotional celebration of the human act of storytelling and the creator’s consciousness, with roots in a tradition hundreds of years old. The clown sees into the purse of your outer life, and the thoughts of your inner life, and from that transmission you make art. “In other words,” Fellini said, “I find the circus congenial. Immediately I saw it, I felt ecstatic, totally committed to that noise and music, to those monstrous apparitions, to those threats of death. In short, I can say that this type of show, based on wonder and fantasy, on jokes and nonsense, on fables and on the lack of any coldly intellectual meaning, is just the thing for me.” And in the breathtaking final act of 8 ½, the circus is just the thing for us, too.
8 1/2. Dir. Federico Fellini. Perf. Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée and Claudia Cardinale. Cineriz, 1963. DVD.
Bondanella, Peter E. “8 1/2: The Celebration of Artistic Creativity.” The Films of Federico Fellini.Cambridge,UK:Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.
Fellini, Federico. Fellini on Fellini. [New York]: Delacorte/S.Lawrence, 1976. Print.
Nights of Cabiria Le Notti Di Cabiria. Dir. Federico Fellini. Perf. Giuletta Masina. An Italo-French Co-production by Dino De Laurentiis Cinematografica and Les Films Marceau, 1957. DVD.