Fellini: I'm a Born Liar (2003)

Jonathan Kiefer

The right way to make a documentary on Fellini is to fantasize a little about the persona, rather than to seek the 'truth' of the man.

Fellini: I'm a Born Liar

Director: Damien Pettigrew
Cast: Federico Fellini, Donald Sutherland, Terence Stamp
MPAA rating: Not rated
Studio: First Look Pictures
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-04-11 (Limited release)

It is easy to revere Federico Fellini, who died 10 years ago and will be accordingly lionized with a huge retrospective at Cannes this year. The event should also demonstrate that it is easy to watch his films, which flow like dreams, with their own internal logic.

The right way to make a documentary on Fellini, therefore, is to fantasize a little about the persona, rather than to seek the "truth" of the man. A well-proportioned mixture of "truth" and "fantasy" occurs in Fellini's films, so much so that it soon becomes obvious that a documentary can't contain him, or entirely capture him, considering Fellini's own resistance to "truths" about himself. Damien Pettigrew was wise not to try; with Fellini: I'm a Born Liar, he delivers an attentive appreciation of the old ringmaster, whom he's perfectly willing to remain opaque.

Pettigrew dutifully collects comments from people who knew and worked with the director, and returns to a few of his films' most iconic locations for a then-and-now comparison -- rather a clever technique, as it passes off a romantic pilgrimage in the guise of clinical examination. As accent, Pettigrew adds sensual close-ups of film stock being manipulated, an exhibition of stunning and iconic images from Fellini's finished works, and just the appropriate aural flourishes: a gust of wind and a few bars of inimitable music by Nino Rota, Fellini's longtime composer.

But Pettigrew's approach seems to proceed from the theory that it would have been a shame not to build something from the long interview Fellini granted him shortly before the maestro died. Pettigrew places this interview at the core of his documentary, with the understanding that any Fellini interview is at best a web of yarns. The director's digressions about his background and techniques, while vivid and loquacious, are notoriously unreliable.

Fellini: I'm a Born Liar is lyrical and visceral; it serves the lore of Fellini, not the scholarly research. It glimpses his soul and style. Fellini was as famous for his leg pulling as he was for his filmmaking, and this tendency gave life and joy to his best work, which, as he describes it, is "a quest for the most authentic part of oneself." Part of what made the director a genius and a bane to his usually jealous dissenters was his rare gift for making movies that were both interesting and entirely about himself. Many read like stylishly narrated memories, deeply lived in, embellished at will, cherished.

Regardless of his cinematic skill, this capacity for relentless self-exploration alone qualifies Fellini for inclusion in the canon of great modern artists. So it's no surprise when, with a strangely plausible hybrid of humility and vanity, he recounts the story of a dream in which Picasso made him an omelet. What a great image -- the abstract artwork of food preparation, the nourishment, and service, taken from the master. Portent and iconic and amusingly weird, it lodges itself in your imagination so firmly that the fact of having been dreamed doesn't make it any less authentic.

Pettigrew assumes an audience of people who would similarly dream of brunching with Fellini. On our behalf, he assumes more than familiarity with the films. Clips are neither identified nor, in several cases, given any context. The result, almost certainly not intended as a survey or a deconstruction, is a kind of internal dialogue of a movie, which poses a series of affectionately rhetorical questions for those already in the know. Like: "Remember the dreamed opening of 8 1/2 -- the cutting, the selection of shots, the precise balance of clarity and mystery -- could it be more perfect?"

That film, about the impotent agony a movie director endures while conceiving and birthing his film, covers some of the same ground as Pettigrew's project, and its inclusion here only reinforces the vital relationship between memory and creativity. "You come into this life with the unique goal of narrating it to others," Fellini intones. For many that would seem like an audacious claim, but Fellini put it into recurrent practice.

For all the headiness, of course, it helps to include some of the humdrum. So what of Fellini's specific work habits? Famously, the maestro was often a cranky taskmaster with actors. "Puppets are happy to be puppets if the puppeteer is good," he says, not at all defensively. For perspective on this, Pettigrew supplies liberal doses of interviews with Donald Sutherland and Terrence Stamp; Sutherland, who played the title role in Fellini's Casanova, displays by turns admiration for and hostility toward the director's methods. And he delivers his comments with perfect, actorly diction. It's such an eerily exaggerated tone -- the extemporaneous thoughts so carefully enunciated -- that it evokes listening to the dubbed dialogue in Fellini's films: a controlled, unreal reality, a "truth" apart from facts.

When he gets rolling, Stamp is a marvelous raconteur in his own right -- particularly when recalling the English stage actor's first foray into Fellini's rather ribald world. It's hard to know how much Stamp exaggerates, but it's easy to see that exaggeration is the real fun of his story, and that seems like the central lesson learned from the director himself.

Given this emergent portrait, it doesn't seem so hard to believe that Fellini was, as he says, "unable to cope with what they call a normal existence," or that he knew he'd never be a doctor or a cardinal. To a certain breed of young artist, that must seem as reassuring as having Picasso make you an omelet.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.