by Gideon Bachmann
The conversation which follows did not take place all at once. Although I had known Federico Fellini since 1956, when he came to New York to publicize Nights of Cabiria and appeared on my radio show, and although I had written about him extensively, made a documentary about him (Ciao, Federico!), and photographed him continually for 37 years, we had not actually sat down to discuss his filmmaking ideas and his life philosophy until a few years before his death.
This was not because I did not ask him. It was, I now think, his reluctance to sound definitive about anything, and especially about himself, which made him postpone again and again a long-promised, lengthy, and in-depth conversation on these topics. Even the simple telling of the facts of his life kept being postponed. And although once, in 1962, after I had worked with him on 8½ and was following him during the shooting of Juliet of the Spirits, he sat down with me on a rainy afternoon and allowed me to record his story on five hours of tape, he was beside himself when these tapes were lost and refused to do new ones. I think this is because the story would not have been the same if he had tried again. He would have invented another life, a risk he probably wished to avoid in case the first tapes ever showed up.
But after City of Women, on which my companion, Deborah Beer, was the set photographer (as she was on And the Ship Sails On and on Ginger and Fred), he became somewhat more open to the suggestion of talking about himself in what I told him would be a discussion in depth. He smiled at this definition but he did not refuse, although at the same time he practically stopped giving journalistic interviews. From today’s vantage point, I can’t help feeling that for Fellini, allowing this discussion was a small way of giving up a battle for continual renewal.
I hope to convey, with these excerpts from many hours of tape, an image of a man who has shaped our vision of the century.
GIDEON BACHMANN: You always say you are a storyteller. What kind of story fascinates you, and why?
FEDERICO FELLINI: The stories are born in me, in my memories, in my dreams, in my imagination. They come to me very spontaneously. I never sit down and decide to invent a story; it’s not a programmed activity. Often it’s a suggestion that comes from something read or from a personal experience. These things encounter a pretext; they meet in my mind with some triggering thing, like a face that suddenly looms up in front of me in the subway or a smell that reaches my nostrils, a sound that suddenly occurs, which somehow evokes my fantasy, and I create characters and situations that seem to organize themselves, to take shape in my mind without my active intervention. It then becomes my job to follow them, to stay with them for a bit, to make friends with them, and that’s how they turn into stories.
BACHMANN: What is it about those people you see, on the subway, for example, that starts the ball rolling?
FELLINI: Usually something that strikes me, moves me, surprises me, makes me smile. The expressions of the human creature in all its aspects, all its contradictions, all its elements. It can even be just something a man is wearing that tells you a story about him or makes you want to invent one. But there isn’t necessarily a direct connection between the person I see and the story this brings up in me. It may just contribute to an atmosphere.
A spark, a ray of sunshine reflected in a faraway window, attracts your attention, and as you come closer you realize that the window is part of a building in a street and in a city, and you follow this light like a thread that takes you through that city and through the lives of the people you encounter there, slowly and always deeper and deeper.
All I know about myself is that I seem to have an incurable tendency to go on imagining beyond that which I see concretely before me. I feel that my films are already there, ready to be met, one after the other, in the most natural way. It’s like a train that runs along its predetermined track and awaiting it are the stations. Looking back now on my films, they seem like stations which were waiting for me, and what I had to do—and this is my work—was not to deviate from that track. To follow this itinerary, to arrive punctually to meet them as planned, to make them as planned.
I am sorry this all sounds so profound. In conversations of this kind one always finds oneself trying to be more philosophical and romantic than necessary, because in reality things are very much simpler.
BACHMANN: How do you recognize the spark, that reflection in the window ? Are you attracted by something physical ?
FELLINI: I think the signal for recognizing that something has occurred, that a first contact has happened, or at least that you are close to that faraway city—invisible thus far—which will be the film, is a certain feeling of happiness. A happiness that seems to permeate your whole organism, an unexpected note of joy.
This note of joy is the greeting that this new thing addresses to me, and it usually includes some sense of what the new film will be about.
BACHMANN: Does it then become a matter of form and style? How do you put the fantasies into images, the faraway city onto the screen? What is the first thing you do?
FELLINI: You need to maintain a constant equilibrium— which is constantly endangered, of course—between that which you had wanted to do, in other words, the film as it presented itself in your imaginative sphere, and the one you are actually making. That’s why I hate going to look at rushes, for example, as most of my colleagues do and as I did when I started making films.
Of course this is not folklore; it’s not the usual: Oh, Fellini, he-never-looks-at-rushes thing; it’s because I’ve realized that watching rushes, you begin to see the film you are making, and not the one you had wanted to make. And you end up, slowly, correcting your intentions through that which you are actually producing. I, on the other hand, need to continue to pretend to myself that I am continuing to make the film I originally had in my head. This way I continue to make my ideal film, reserving my delusion to the end, when there is nothing more I can do.
BACHMANN: If you don’t want to become aware of the film you are making in order not to destroy your mind’s view of it, how do you then maintain your vision when confronted with the compromises which the film-making process inevitably entails ?
FELLINI: I think that the psychological type whom we tend to define as a creator, or an artist, always maintains an essential, vital component in his character—of adolescence, of childishness, of innocence—and thus he needs an extremely authoritarian manager, customer, or boss to pull him along, to actually make him turn his dreams into something concrete, essentially into a product, a transmittable object, a language. In Italy, in addition, we have the tradition of needing some other authority, sometimes spiritual like the Pope, sometimes earthly like an archduke, an emperor, a king, to give us the order to paint a ceiling for them, to create a fresco, to write a madrigal.
So what you call the inevitable compromises of the film-making process are actually useful to me, because they slightly curb my total liberty, even though I always complain that they want to take it from me. I think total liberty would be dangerous for those who claim that they want to tell things to others, that they want to recount the world, recreate it in a story, and of course especially to those who pretend to be giving an interpretation of reality. Fantasy offers you its images in a much more suggestive way, much more seductively, much shinier than the way you will eventually succeed in materializing them. Therefore it is a very strong temptation to leave things vague, flowing, unsharp, on the screen. To materialize all these undefined and loose notions into images is a heavy load of a job, so we need someone to oblige us to go through with it.
What you really need, I think, in the end, is a customer, one who wants the things you make, in order to bring off the creative act, to trigger this mediumlike interplay between your inclination—or let’s use this obscene word again: your inspiration—and the practical act of its materialization. And by mediumlike, I mean something that is felt rather than known, something the existence of which we suspect but cannot prove except through this very materialization, which may, in some cases, actually diminish it. In that case, we can’t even prove the existence of that thing which our intuition had conjured up, and it may forever remain a dream, something I might try to materialize in the next film, or never.
BACHMANN: What are your films to you when they are finished? Sons? Daughters? Fathers? Mothers? Lovers?
FELLINI: None of these; in fact, I don’t feel a real sense of being related to them. They rather appear to me as strangers, as unknown presences which for a series of mysterious reasons I find myself close to for a while, who pretend to have chosen me to give them form and character and to make it possible for them to recognize themselves, too. It’s like traveling together for a time under some common, soft roof, hanging from a loosely filled balloon, in a bubble which I am called upon to design, to fill, to limit, and to give character to.
Once I have done this, as far as I am concerned, our roads diverge completely. He—the film—goes along his road, with the features which I had thought he wanted me to give him, with the identity which it had seemed to me he had wanted me to define, and I go along my own road, looking for, or waiting for, another phantom presence, which inevitably I find edging toward me, invisibly tickling and pushing me to give to it, too, a face, a personality, a story.
BACHMANN: Does that mean that you really don’t care about your films’ later life, but only about creating them?
FELLINI: Making films, stopping at the stations along the track, seems to me like a series of relationships with unknown persons who live at these stations, who, once they have been realized, identified, materialized, “caught” as it were in their essence, move away again into the distance, without even saying good-bye. Or maybe it’s me who moves on towards the next stop, having, sort of, settled my accounts at the preceding one. Maybe that’s why I don’t usually see my films again. It seems to me that meeting again is not part of the process we have lived together; that the film’s job was to appear and mine to concretize it, that’s all.
BACHMANN: All these things which you say stimulate creativity in you are in essence things that are already part of you, and only the trigger is something that comes from the outside. Are you not ever stimulated to express something of the time in which you live? The male protagonists of your films often seem vaguely lost—is that because you, tooyfeel that way in modem society?
FELLINI: I think that the reason questions like that are often asked of me and that a topical interpretation is often given of my films lies in the fact that in the past, on occasion, a bit superficially, the central character in my films has been identified, to some extent, with its author—me. Like in 8½, for example. That seems to me somewhat bold but also limiting, because I feel that the author can be recognized in all the characters of his film, and not only in them but also in the sets, the objects, the music. One can feel a greater sympathy or a greater solidarity with one or another of the characters one is in the process of materializing, and one may pick them in order to say—or make them say—certain things which within one’s own illusion of the moment seem to be more of oneself than of others, but normally such a direct relation never happens.
Because you can’t just put into the mouth of one of your characters your own way of thinking or your own philosophy, and then hope that this will be the thing which will be the most expressive in that character, or that this might actually sound honest on the screen. I find, on the contrary, that the things which best express the author are the least conscious ones, the ones that have been the least subject to a process of realization and conceptualization. I think, in fact, that an author reveals himself most clearly exactly where he has had no consciousness at all of the thing that he was doing.
BACHMANN: Nevertheless, many of your films are set in a precise historical time and context. That can’t all be subconscious. And even if you don’t program it, you are saying things you feel about this time and this context.
FELLINI: Now that you make me reflect and seek the programmatic elements in what I am doing, maybe yes, because I hope to relate a more-or-less sincere, a more-or-less exhibited, a more-or-less hypocritical discomfort of my generation. Quite possibly I am giving, more-or-less consciously, to characters in my films— usually it is Marcello—something to say which gratifies me in this sense and expresses the discomfort and the melancholy—more-or-less conscious and more-or-less sincere—of a character finding himself on the edge of an age at which he has difficulty in remaining in step with the reality that surrounds him. And this is often interpreted as being my discomfort and my melancholy. But this linear way of looking at the character, if I did this on purpose, would be a simple trick, coldly calculated. I don’t think that what I do amounts to an identification with myself which I can no longer control.
BACHMANN: Is it possible that the discomfort which is there in you has to do with the film-making process itself?
FELLINI: I do feel discomfort when I am about to start a film, but not so much for this reason. I often arrive at the point of making a film in a state of mind which is almost antipathetic to it. I resent the film at this point; I begin to consider it a frivolous undertaking… I am invaded by a feeling of irritation that accompanies all things that one is forced to do. But I am used to these feelings and I know that in reality they are the sign of the film being ready in me. This antipathy, this hate, indicates to me that I must begin. I arrive at a point of such unease that I must make it in order to free myself of this feeling. I escape, I make the film as if I were escaping from something, as if I were in flight, to get rid of it, to get it off my back. Like getting rid of an illness.
I don’t want to exaggerate the pathological aspects of the creative act, but deep down, that’s what it is. This unknown one, the one I was talking about before, who is neither son nor father but a presence suddenly all too close to me, urging me to give him life, is a kind of infection.
Recently these unknown presences have become more and more disturbing because they force me into a relationship which is ever more disquieting and upsetting. I don’t know how it all started, this feeling of unease and bother and repulsion. To some extent it may have to do with the simple, external fact that in the last decades my films, before getting a chance to start production, have given me all the time in the world to allow me to lose my enthusiasm. This endless waiting in a parking zone while the details are being worked out is enough to dissolve my initial excitement. While the producers are making their deals, trying to establish an economic/financial platform for the film on the basis of their greed and their gluttony, I hang there like a diver on a high board, constantly poised for the jump, hands pointed in front of me, held back because they still have to build the pool, put water in it, and collect the spectators… In the end you are no longer doing a high jump but are throwing yourself off the board in order to get it over with.
BACHMANN: When you are working, I never have the feeling you are as depressed as you get in between films.
FELLINI: Something else intervenes. As soon as I get to the studio, despite all this neuroticism, I begin to feel again the fascination of the stage with all its attractions. I see the crew all ready, the sets all built, and then, when the lights are switched on, I submit to the romance of it all. I am back being a puppeteer, a marionettist, a storyteller, and it all suddenly becomes pleasant again. I recognize that this is my life, I recognize myself in it. And all that unease passes.
BACHMANN: An unease which you have explained on what you call the simple, external levelt but not on a deeper level, where I suspect much of it originates: that the public in the cinemas is ever less sensitive to art, that the quality of life is diminishing, and that much of this is caused by television, which you continue to ridicule but have also used as a medium.
FELLINI: One cannot take seriously the fact that the public no longer loves the cinema and wants a spectacle of a kaleidoscopic, sensational, and senseless nature. If I accepted this, I’d have to resign myself and change my profession. I can’t permit myself to think in that way.
I must be aware of what is happening around me. It is useless to hark back to generational nostalgia, to make Amarcords full of laments, or to make moralistic works, because, obviously, the generation after one’s own always abhors and disperses our values and goes pell-mell after its own.
BACHMANN: Are you saying that you will try and adjust your work methods, your creative style, to the new demands, to television’s voracity?
FELLINI: What I am trying to say is that it is almost impossible to allow for the wishes of a public bom of the television style, influenced by a constant bombardment of images in which man believes he recognizes himself. For 24 hours a day we are exposed to something we think is a mirror, and narcissistically we stay there, watching what “we” are doing the world over. We think that we see things that we ourselves are doing, the stories we think we are really living, while in reality we see all that in a form which robs things of their reality.
It’s a form caught halfway between shots of actuality and things written and performed, so that the TV viewer is constantly meandering between fantasy and publicity. This exposure has created a highly impatient kind of spectator, neurotic and hypnotized, of whom we, who create cinema, cannot claim to understand the needs. He just wants to see images that move with a sound track spewing forth clangors of various kinds which he can think are music.
When I say that a maker of cinema cannot afford to take into account the needs of a spectator who has undergone such a mutation, who has become alienated, diverse, impatient, and ill-informed, I cannot, either, disregard him. Television is a form that stands between us and reality instead of creating a bridge, a form against which of necessity we must measure ourselves, which we must count with, and with which we must confront ourselves. I sometimes say that I derive great stimulus from this problem, and I am in fact not one of those who say that the cinema is dead and that TV has killed it. We say things like “the remote-control unit has destroyed the viewer’s ability to follow a story line,” and “there is no more space on TV for developing character,” and so on. But of course these things are true.
Sometimes I am even able to see something positive in what TV has done. I think it has helped destroy a series of structures, schemes, panoramas, and ways of thinking which have kept human beings in a kind of prison composed of traditional ways of seeing, of perceiving existence. Television is a laser ray that is destroying all that, and it has not yet found something to replace these old values with. But I think out of all this destruction may grow anew relationship to reality. And thus a new way of being a man. I find it exciting to be part of this development, and or at least a witness to it, and to try and find, myself, a way of telling things that are within our tradition but are in the style and form given to them by new forms of perceiving existence.
BACHMANN: But television creates uniformity, something that you in your work have constantly fought.
FELLINI: Television is a big container. The fact that it expresses itself in a language which tends to replace content doesn’t necessarily mean that in its language it cannot also express something that goes beyond itself, or that the language really remains only a vehicle for a content, whatever that content may be and whatever that language may be. It’s a matter of how to do it.
What I think needs to be done—and what I have in a very modest way tried, within the limits of my ability—is to undertake a small, delicate reflection or rethinking of the television bombardment, to try and understand what this total inundation of millions and millions of homes all over the world means, and then to try, using the same means television employs, using its own language, using the infinite variety of its imagery and maybe its fleetingness, to convey to those who are the habitual inhabitants of that landscape, the habitual addressees of this inundation, that they, too, can make a small reflection, can undertake a rethinking of what it all means to them. To try and make them put themselves, for a moment, on the sidelines, away from the frontal exposure, so that they may see, from this position, what is actually happening. To try and give back to them some minute ability to judge. The real problem is to do this using the same material and language the viewer is used to and from which he normally does not expect to be stimulated into thought. I am not sure that I’ll ever manage to do it, but I think it is worth trying.
BACHMANN: In a sense the taking-over of the mind of the viewer by a visual medium is not new. You used to speak a lot about the influence that American cinema of the 1930s had upon you and your whole generation. This was a similar phenomenon, but today we tend to look back on it with nostalgia. What was the difference, for you?
FELLINI: My whole childhood was influenced by American cinema. For me and my friends, in those last days of Fascism in Italy, American movies represented an honesty and a freedom which we could never have dreamt of in our own lives. We were used to the lies of the Catholic Church and of the Fascist dictatorship, and our relationship with reality was completely falsified by these systems of thought. American films seemed to offer an alternative; they offered us a different form of life.
My whole generation was forever influenced by this picture of a country—and it was, of course, an idealized picture of America—which was so very different from our gray, sad, and only vaguely understood everyday existence. After all, what did we have? School, the family, Mass on Sundays, the military parades of Fascist Saturday, and this whole rubbish about being Romans, heirs of the great Caesars, and that our sense of honor demanded that we should march in goosestep. It was an entire childhood under the weight of these martial myths, under the load of a concept of history as a series of struggles, and thus under the conviction that war was something that made life possible. It became the dream of every boy in high school to die in the war.
On the personal level, we had the priest on Sunday, who promised that we would find ourselves in hell the very same evening if we dared to masturbate in the afternoon. And the family: Don’t do this, don’t do that, do it for mamma, do it for daddy, do it for uncle, do it for grandma—only for ourselves we were never allowed to do anything. Everything always had to be done for others.
And what kind of real thing existed, outside of school and Church, outside of chemistry and physics, the Greek myths and Fascism? The things of real life were all unclear, barely recognizable, and we had no instruments, no structures of the mind, to recognize them naturally and spontaneously. There were the seasons, the summer, the snow, the sea, and women, which the Church of course depicted not only as forbidden and unattainable, but which were not even meant to be attained. No wonder that we attributed to them the most unbelievable capacities and the most incredible lusts.
It was this dream world which we all wanted to find, to realize. Today I still need this feeling of being a guest in my invented dream world, a welcome guest in this dimension which I myself am able to program. What I need to maintain, however, is a feeling of curious surprise, a feeling of being a visitor, after all, an outsider, even when I am, at the same time, the mayor, the chief of police, and the alien registration office of this whole invented world, of this city that I have been led to by the shiny reflection in the faraway window and which I know so well in all its details that I can finally believe that I am in my own dream!
After all, it’s the dreamer who has made the dream. Nothing is so intrinsically true and corresponds so deeply to the psychic reality of the dreamer as the dream itself. Nothing is more honest than a dream.
BACHMANN: You are saying, then, that there is nothing more honest than a film?
FELLINI: It is true that I tend to use these two words, sometimes, as synonyms, but here I meant something else. We are talking about what is honest in artistic creation, and interpretation has never been the method I favored. In fact, I think there is a contradiction there. It is because the dreamer is so honest that he defends himself, that he refuses the simplified methods of interpretation. He provides, rather, a labyrinthine map, with a misleading set of instructions-for-use, with purposely concocted, false road-indicators, and he speaks the language of symbols, which is much truer than the language of concepts, of facts.
BACHMANN: Do you feel actively persecuted by attempts at interpretation ?
In dreams there is nothing without significance. Every image therefore also has a significance in film. There is no such thing as coincidence, there is nothing unwanted, extraneous in a dream. Nothing is without significance. Each color, each picture means something, nothing has been put there in order to resemble reality, or in order to copy something preexistent. This is the thing that gives film its heraldic, aristocratic identity, which puts it on a level with all other forms of art.
BACHMANN: You mean despite its technical dependencies ?
FELLINI: We have always looked upon cinema as a sort of bastard. With despair or haughtiness—as the case may be—we have called it a thing halfway between a technical novelty and a vaudeville number. No! I want to say it very clearly—inasmuch as clarity is possible—that film is a total, all-engulfing form of art.
Everything I do in film is made, produced, invented by me. That’s why my sea is made of plastic and my sounds are dubbed, postsynched. Postsynching gives the film an added dimension, an even greater range and intensity. It’s not only that I can have words pronounced more clearly, but I can actually change them even after the scene is shot: I can put a more accurate phrase into the mouth of a certain face; I can give a character a more fitting voice, a voice that will help him be more accurately that which I want him to be. Postsynching is an additional enrichment beyond the many other possible filmic forms of expression. My dream becomes more accurate.
BACHMANN: Is it then a major component of art that it should be “artificial”? Does it, in effect, become more real because it is less so?
FELLINI: Although I use it quite often myself, but always with some form of hesitation, the word “real” gives me great discomfort. I have to admit that I don’t actually know what that word means. And, frankly, I have never felt that it means a great deal to me. But in a more direct answer to your question, let’s take an example. When I sit with my friends in front of my house in Fregene, let’s say after a pleasant lunch in the shade, everybody is talking to his neighbor, the birds are twittering, the plates rattle as they are being stacked—it’s all one big confusion. I can make this scene much better, can shoot it better, observe the details better, and transmit its essence better, when I control and recreate every single element. In my film, the afternoon in my garden is much more accurate, much more expressive, much more musical than the real afternoon I have lived.
BACHMANN: The element of film-making which to me has always been least exposed to our temptation to compare what’s in the film to what we see outside in life, is music. I remember seeing, with you and Nino Rota, the first-ever projection of 8½, before Nino wrote the music which today is so emotionally linked to the film, and I have always regretted that this was an experience that can never be repeated. I remember feeling at the time that this was the “real” film.
FELLINI: As far as music is concerned, when it doesn’t have anything to do with a film of mine, I actually prefer not to hear it. Music seems to me to be so mysterious an art form, so fully engaging, so suggestive, so hypnotizing, that you must submit to it completely, you have to fully dedicate your soul to the feelings it provokes. And music always gives me a feeling of melancholy, of sadness and of darkness … of depression almost. This may be caused by the fact that music expresses itself with such accuracy, with such precision, that it transmits to me a feeling of exclusion, and also because it orchestrates time in accordance with its own intrinsic and often rigid rules. Music has such internal harmony that somehow you feel pushed aside, relegated to the edge of things.
It always evokes more perfect dimensions than the ones within which you live yourself. These are spiritual dimensions, and they are somewhat like admonitions, somehow you very quickly feel guilty. It’s a pity that I have these reticent views about music, and maybe they are only a fruit of my Catholic upbringing. Anyway, I don’t want to hear music; I don’t want to have this feeling of being pursued by some angel-like figure raising an admonishing finger, who wants to tell me that everything I do, I do wrongly.
BACHMANN: And when it is music for one of your films you don *t feel admonished and criticized?
FELLINI: When I work everything changes, as I told you. It’s a physical thing, too. Sometimes I get to the studio in the morning with a terrible headache and a fever, but when I have the lights turned on, when I sit down on the camera dolly and have myself pushed by the assistants along the track like a Chinese emperor or like an Egyptian pharaoh—in other words, when I am on my throne—these symptoms disappear. Suddenly I am healthy. This can only mean that when man is really in the center of his being, he finds eternal health there.
And so in this moment of beginning to work I also lose my fears, my melancholy, and the neurotic state which music usually causes in me. My work is like a kind of protective wall, like a diver’s suit, that keeps me safe from the onslaughts of the neurotic psyche. Then I can tell the film’s composer what I want, I can listen to his various attempts, and can follow the genesis of that which will become the music of the film. And so the music, too, becomes something I can fully control, something that will help my film to reach additional dimensions, but which at the same time is created totally out of myself.
BACHMANN: If the important thing is to make sure that everything is created out of you and under y our control, what space can the viewer possibly occupy? Does the imagined presence of a viewer who will take your film from you and make it his own enter into your dream while you are dreaming it, while you are making the film?
FELLINI: The screening, the release of the film, the event, the happening, actually have lost their value. I think we have reached the point where what counts is not the event but the information about the event. The interpretation of the event. The event itself could also not take place. In fact, it has already ceased to exist on the level of the private and personal emotions of each one of us. We are sitting there, in front of the TV screen, waiting for the reporter or the journalist to supply us with what in fact is not even information in the true sense, because it replaces the reality of which it speaks. We no longer believe the things we see ourselves. We are losing the habit of seeing things with our own eyes, with our own hearts, with our own emotional associations. We are waiting to see them represented in the terms and rhythms and styles of a spectacle, of an entertainment, in other words, in a form that robs them of their reality and us of the need to be responsible for our own reactions.
We see events—films, football games, news, disasters, joys, and commercials—all in the same key; always in the same angle of the room; always as part of that piece of furniture which we think we can completely control. We think the TV set is just a servile utensil, like the Frigidaire supplying us with food items which we think retain their original taste and freshness. We believe that the news items are served cleanly and without additional emotion, and as we get more used to this belief we cease to have a relationship of any kind with reality. So when you speak of a viewer who will take my film from me and make it his own you are already talking about a disappearing species.
BACHMANN: Yet you continue to make your dreams into recognizable elements of communication. For whom? Or do you apply a specific methodology in order to reach what is left of the species of cognizant spectator?
FELLINI: At one point, in my film And the Ship Sails On, I used a mediator to erect the barrier between reality and the viewer—between the story and the spectator—on purpose. I created the part of a journalist who tells the story to the spectators, so that when the characters appear vague, fluctuating, bodiless, it is because he paints them this way. He puts the real, the emotional, the passionate, the vital, contradictory, and sentimental reality under a veil, a diaphanous membrane, while he tells of the trip and of the people participating in it. These people thus assume the vagueness of shadows, the weightlessness of ghosts, and only when the story manages to rupture the protective surface created by the information and the presence of the journalist does it suddenly engulf the spectator in the feelings and contradictions and fears from which he had up to this point been shielded by the journalist’s exorcisms. But of course when the membrane bursts, it is too late.
Irrationally, the facts engulf everything and everyone, and we find ourselves in the middle of the inevitable, unstoppable disaster. Curiously, every time the film is shown, it is at this point that the audience bursts into applause. This happens precisely at the point when it is no longer possibile to keep the facts of the story from being confronted directly and brutally, when they can no longer be hidden under an interpretation or an ideology or a viewpoint.
BACHMANN: So you think that if properly approached, almost cheated into it, the spectator recovers his critical faculty?
FELLINI: No, this is not the applause of consent. I don’t even think it has a direct connection to the story that is being told or the facts that appear on the screen or the nice way in which I have managed to put them there. I think this is a liberating kind of applause for the audience. They start as soon as it becomes clear that the disaster is unavoidable, so in essence they are applauding an apocalypse. They are applauding the end of the world. The question is: Why do they applaud a disaster? What has happened in us that we clap our hands at the sight of an irreversible tragedy?
BACHMANN: Do you yourself have any answers to this question ?
FELLINI: The more superficial, psychological explanation could be that when the public sees the catastrophe reproduced, shown on a screen, they feel outside of the fact, they feel that they have been saved, have been spared the catastrophe in their own lives. Mors tua, vita mea, a banal old Latin saying full of wisdom. The mere fact that I can look in upon the catastrophe means I am myself still alive. Thus cinema, because it creates witnesses, also discharges responsibility.
But I think the applause means something more: it probably indicates a form of gratitude for someone who has brought about this exorcism, who has managed to make this long-feared event happen far away and on a screen only. In reality it is applause for having been allowed to live something feared without having really become involved. And thus to survive.
I think, in fact, that this is a phenomenon which we will see happening more and more. And that the more people are in the hall, in the cinema, together, the more this phenomenon will operate: that a collective subconscious applauds the liberation from a fear long felt, and that this will happen in ever more vast and uncontrollable proportions.
Then there is another thing, and maybe this is more particularly Italian and ties in with what I said before about the formative associations we all have with our childhood: in the film, when it becomes clear that the catastrophe is approaching, the people gather and face it singing. This is our tendency to see ourselves represented as accepting death with glory. It’s an operatic tradition maybe, a sort of self-pleasing view of our own ability to be moved by high emotions, almost a Niebelungen-ish sense of inner glory, when confronted with solemn death, and our need to throw ourselves into this stance, this composure, this bursting into song.
BACHMANN: To make death part of the opera of one’s own life, and thus to kick it in the teeth?
FELLINI: To change death, yes, into its own representation, and ourselves into respectable representatives of a courageous race. It’s a very suggestive picture. But it is something that could also be said for any work of art, any painting, musical partition, book, or poem: namely that they become autonomous like persons once they have been represented by the artist and thus introduced into our sensorial sphere and dug out, as it were, from the subconscious and most intimate personal soul of the creator. For me, the film becomes a person, and that is the magic, because this operation of pulling it out of myself and giving it an identity within which it is self-reliant is a magical operation. This is the ritual of creation. The inner voices, shadows, and phantoms are put within the sensorial reach of others, are made reachable (in order not to say “understandable”), and become, in my work, visible.
BACHMANN: Doesn’t all art create a distance, and isn’t it this distance which removes the possible future tragedy of the world from our consciousness, just like the example you gave from And the Ship Sails On?
FELLINI: I think this danger is even greater in film than in other arts because film has a certain verisimilitude, because of its photographic base, and this veristic element makes it appear even more alive, more vital, more similar to an agglomerate, a complex of components that are close to those which make up a human being; in other words, to a microcosm of memories, of feelings, of experiences, of sensations, and of fears.
BACHMANN: But human beings differ, sometimes even from moment to moment, whereas a film is always the same.
FELLINI: No, it isn’t. Just as a person, even a friend, can seem different to you in differing situations, in different cities, in different seasons of the year, your own film can seem different to you in another city, at another hour of the day, under another meridian, with other people present. It manages to absorb and reflect the emanations of changing psychological, environmental, meteorological, and neurotic configurations just like a living person would do.
BACHMANN: Maybe then reality is something we hate so much that we try to change it with every possible excuse ?
FELLINI: Reality? There are only images of it, after all. Man probably uses images in order to fix reality in an acceptable shape, to make it less dangerous and more familiar. It’s a psychic process against which we can do nothing. Even creating an image of God can’t help us.
We are enclosed, shuttered within this mystery which we call the psyche, beyond which we are not permitted to make any suppositions, any affirmations about our existence. Everything is what we call psychic, even the idea of transcendence is just another invention. Reality is really only an idea we have. Actually we know nothing about anything.
BACHMANN: And have you made your peace with this?
FELLINI: Let’s say it doesn’t terrorize me. I might even say that it comforts me. The fact of knowing nothing has provided me, over the years, with an extraordinary inner joy and excitement. Moreover, it gives me a sense of survival, because it underlines the fact that we are observers of our own fate, and observers by necessity survive because they are on the outside of the encroaching disasters. In And the Ship Sails On it is the journalist, the one who by definition is outside the events, who saves himself at the moment of catastrophe.
BACHMANN: I remember that when you were shooting 8½, you had a little note on the camera next to the viewer, saying, “Remember, this is a comic film. ” Was that another attempt to stay outside the event, because after all, in that film you are talking about yourself?
FELLINI: Yes. In that case I had put it there to distance myself from too smug a form of autobiographism, too self-satisfied a form of creating a self-portrait. I think you can only talk about yourself with that kind of detachment, especially when you talk about your phantoms and neuroses, because you must constantly remind yourself that the battle with phantoms and neuroses is a comic battle.
BACHMANN: At the time you didn’t admit so readily as you do now that 8½ was a film about you, so I assume that you are seeing even this film, now, under what you call a different meridian. Do you ever see one of your own films at another juncture of your life and discover things in it you didn’t know you had put there?
FELLINI: I very rarely see my films again. In any case, I don’t think I could discover things in them I had not meant to put there, but I could imagine being surprised that what I find in a film is not only what I had imagined but also that which it is. I discover the autonomy of the being I have created. I think this happens to sculptors when they have finished a statue and are finally dusting it off, removing all the marble dust or all the clay slag, and they find themselves confronted by the being they have brought to life.
It happens because making a film is more of an all-engulfing activity than, let’s say, writing, and so the relationship of a film author is more complex and more involved with his work than that of other artists—I think. After all, you are constantly surrounded by living persons even if you are inventing their form and content through the filmic means at your disposal. When the camera stops, these people go back to smoking a cigarette, to talking together in their local dialect; there is this human magma around you, this warmth of life, which makes the voyage, to which I always compare the making of a film, a much more engaging enterprise.
You can’t always see it while you are making it. For these reasons, and in that sense, I think, I may discover something in it when it is finished that I put there but not through fully conscious control. It’s like a miner who works all day in the dark and doesn’t know what he brings up until he returns to the surface.
BACHMANN: Don’t you begin to discover these elements earlier, when you are cutting the film ? Or is cutting still part of this enigmatic creative process where the subconscious participates ?
FELLINI: Cutting is a more delicate matter. While I can sustain all sorts of human interference during shooting, and am sometimes even stimulated by the groups of schoolchildren that are brought to the studio or by tourists snapping everything with their automatic cameras—because all this probably appeals to my secret nature of being a circus showman—I can’t have anybody around when I am cutting. This is where the film begins to breathe. It’s a bit like Frankenstein carrying the body that has been composed of various human bits to the top of the tower during a stormy night to expose it to the lightning which will give it life. The cutting table, the moviola, is like the catafalque upon which Frankenstein’s body is presented to the streaks of lightning, and there it lies, waiting to begin its respiration, its life.
But it is still not an overview of the film, because even on the cutting table you can’t look at more than 300 meters of film at any one time. So I just forge ahead, I keep on cutting [the Italian word for cutting, montare, is much more appropriate here, since it means a putting-together, a winding-up, rather than a cutting-away, a selection. GB], and I never look at the whole until I finish. And it is only when I have gone through the entire film and have put together a first cut that I allow myself to look at it in a projection room. That is the projection of 8½ you mentioned. You will remember how doubtful I was at the time—I remember asking you how you thought the film would be received in America—but my doubts then really mean that the answer to your question now is no, that I don’t discover all the subconscious things in the film until much later, and in any case later than in the cutting room:
That first projection, on the other hand, does signify the beginning of the film’s autonomy. It is here that it begins to free itself from my paternal tyranny and starts to cut its umbilical cord. It’s the most emotional moment of the whole process, because for the first time, at this moment, Frankenstein moves.
You are right in saying that this is the most beautiful projection of a film, and that it is an experience that cannot be repeated. Because you still have to dub the voices in, still have to write the music, still have to put all the finishing touches on and make the final cuts, you are looking at the film with great benevolence, knowing that it will be better, although it will never be as alive as in that projection.
The heart of the author is still in it, you hear his voice and the voices you hadn’t planned on, you feel the life of the crew on the set as a pulsating being, the constant chatter—I never stop talking on the set—and then, of course, the atmosphere is still all there, the excitement of shooting, the mood you were in when making the film can still be felt: a far-away church bell, the screech of a tram in a curve. It’s not only the life on the set which this projection evokes, but the life that surrounded the set, the studio—you can practically smell the area of town where you had shot. It’s extraordinarily fascinating.
This then is the moment—in order to finally answer your question—where the film suddenly reveals its completion, shows its character. And this then is the moment when the film takes on a personality which you may not have planned. And it’s out of your hands. All the finishing touches—everything that follows— tend to make the personality of the film more precise, but they also take away some of the charm of that initial recognition that your child is alive and independent. In the end, when all is in the can, I really no longer want to be involved. The film is on its way through its own life. To remain too long in the atmosphere and the pull of your creature is dangerous.
But I don’t feel that the film is leaving me. I am leaving the film. I’m not a good mother.
Gideon Bachmann is the Rome Editor of Film Quarterly.
Source: Film Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Spring, 1994), pp. 2-15