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From Federico Fellini'sThe Clowns (1970)
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We welcome a new DVD company, RaroVideo USA, and offer a not-so-silent prayer for the success of its mission. In fact it’s not a totally new company, since RaroVideo has existed in Italy for some time. What’s new is that the company opened an American label to capture the Region 1 market. According to its press release, RaroVideo made this decision after hooking up with the owner of Cult Epics (a label that’s been releasing the output of Italian eroticist Tinto Brass) and distribution company Entertainment One.


The PR declares that directors featured in the RaroVideo catalog include Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luchino Visconti, Derek Jarman, Roberto Rosselllini, Shinya Tsukamoto, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jean-Luc Godard, Werner Herzog, Lars von Trier, Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava, Francesco Barilli, Tinto Brass, Jean Cocteau, Pedro Almodovar and Martin Scorsese. Bear in mind that this doesn’t mean they’ll be distributing all these folks in the US. It says, “Raro Video was also the first company in the world to release on DVD Andy Warhol’s: The Chelsea Girls, My Hustler, The Nude Restaurant and Lonesome Cowboys. RaroVideo will continue to spotlight the works of major Italian directors next year with plans to release Antonioni’s The Vanguished (I Vinti), Pasolini’s The Anger (La Rabbia) and Carmelo Bene’s Our Lady of the Turks (Nostra signora dei Turchi).


From this I conclude that RaroVideo US will emphasize Italian films, as well it should. At least one other label this century, an outfit called NoShame, flourished briefly with an excellent and ambitious slate of Italian items ranging from horror to crime to sex comedies to highbrow titles. Alas, NoShame went belly up. Another label, Blue Underground, still reissues Italian horror titles now and then, and of course Criterion often puts out deluxe versions of Italian classics. There’s plenty more where these came from, and RaroVido is coming out of the gate with two lavish Criterion-worthy releases. One is nominally “arty” and the other “lowdown”, but the lines deserve to be blurred and they are.


A Rare Fellini
Made for TV in 1970, The Clowns is an act of prestidigitation posing as a documentary. In this it resembles another TV project of the era, Orson Welles’ F for Fake, and The Clowns is as much a distillation of Fellini as the other distills Welles.


As historian Adriano Aprà observes in a very good visual essay on the film, the opening sequence seems to owe as much to the comic strip “Little Nemo” as to autobiography. Roused by noises in the night, a boy in a nightshirt goes to the window and witnesses a tent being raised next to his house. Unlike the nomads who supposedly steal away silently under cover of darkness, these people are arriving in the wee hours with some clatter. This whole sequence tends to present the boy from the back or with his face in shadow.


cover art

The Clowns

Director: Federico Fellini
Cast: Federico Fellini, Anita Ekberg

(US DVD: 1 Mar 2011)

The next morning, the camera follows him out the door into the new world of wonder, and we witness a lengthy montage of circus acts. Crucially, we never witness any act all the way through. It’s a series of jump cuts—acrobats to wrestling ladies to tigers—as though these are the highlights in a fragmentary memory. The proceedings are dominated by many clowns of extravagant violence. There are more axes and hammers to the head than dreamed of by the Three Stooges, and it all happens at once all over the scene in pairs and trios. The boy is dragged home crying. Instead of laughing at the clowns, he finds them frightening and sad.


Fellini’s voiceover tells us that despite their exaggerations, they don’t seem so unreal because any small town has characters like that. The rest of the sequence is series of memories of local oddballs, drunks, petty tyrants, and otherwise vivid faces that populate Fellini’s memories and films. This segment feels like a dry run for Amarcord, except that where that film was a more generalized series of childhood memories, this one is thematically linked to the clownish grotesqueries of human behavior.


This has been the first third of the film. Then we are in the modern day, and Fellini introduces us to his alleged film crew. They’re certainly a motley crew—not literally, though that would be appropriate for a clown picture. Although we seem to have transitioned from fiction to documentary, it’s a lie because these people who will accompany him throughout the following scenes, “filming” as he interviews many retired clowns in France and Italy, clearly aren’t his real crew. They’re his own private circus, there for flavor and perhaps to remind us that there really is a crew following him around, only not this one. Just as surely, all the interviews and lunches and visits are elaborately staged, even if some of the ex-clowns are saying more or less what they might really say in a straight documentary. Really they don’t give us many facts, just their faces.


When we visit a working circus, whom does Fellini discover wandering by the tiger cages but Anita Ekberg, his star from La Dolce Vita, and many edits compare Anita to the tigers. One of the people we visit is fellow film director Pierre Etaix, whose output includes clown material and who married into an illustrious clown family. He’s supposedly going to show us a rare film but things don’t go as planned. Another tour-de-force involves viewing a rare film in a TV station, and this sequence is all elaborate tracking shots. At one point we’re told that a woman is Charlie Chaplin’s daughter; she resembles Geraldine Chaplin but it’s not her. Aprà identifies her as sister Victoria Chaplin, married to the magician in the scene.


The raucous final part of the movie (dream? reconstruction?) is a long big-top performance centered on a clown’s funeral to convey the idea that a certain type of clown is dead. After this melée comes a haunting coda of beauty and mystery about death and time in the form of another clown skit. At various points in the film, the movie had interrupted itself to illustrate anecdotes, and this final digression is our fade-out. Naturally, we’re exposed to Nino Rota’s music throughout, and in the final moments the jauntiness segues to trumpetary melancholy.


Aprà‘s essay clarifies several things besides Chaplin’s daughter. By reading aloud from Fellini’s concurrent book on clowns, he tells us Fellini’s ideas on the social meaning of the clowns that have peopled his circus-like output. Europe’s clowns traditionally worked in duet with one as the “White Clown”, an authoritarian figure, and the other as the hapless “Augusto”, a victim and childlike anarchist. Fellini extends this to explain which categories his fellow directors fall into (Visconti and Pasolini are White Clowns while Antonioni is Augusto), or that Freud is a White Clown while Einstein is Augusto.


A bonus short is Fellini’s segment from the 1953 Love in the City, an important film. The influential screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, one of the guiding forces behind neo-realism, produced this as a showcase for that movement as employed by himself, Fellini, Alberto Lattuada, the young Michelangelo Antonioni, Dino Risi, and Carlo Lizzani. At the request of Italian censors, Lizzani’s segment about prostitution wasn’t shown abroad. It kicked off what proved a hardy Italian genre, the anthology or survey film, of which there were dozens through the next two decades. This movie, available on DVD in Europe, deserves its own Region 1 release.

Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.


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