Fellini: Often imitated, but never duplicated

If an artist’s singularity can be judged by how perilous it is to imitate him , then Federico Fellini must stand as one of the two or three most individual and stylistically unmistakable directors in film history.

Many filmmakers create their own worlds, but Fellini’s — with its poetic clowning, haunting images, amply rounded women, small-town perspective regardless of setting, inward-looking nostalgia and signature Nino Rota music — is perhaps more instantly recognizable than anyone else’s.

Certainly no one defined what it means to be a film director more than did Fellini. He was the first to cross the line from “filmmaker” to “maestro,” to elevate and glamorize the image of making films to a personally instinctive, intuitive, inspirational process on a level with the other arts. He represented what it means to be an unfettered genius with a crazy personal life, but a pure creative one.

Pushing boundaries

To those who were not around to experience Fellini’s key films when they were first released, it isn’t easy to convey his impact upon serious filmgoers and other directors in the late 1950s and 1960s.

For a while, he did everything a filmmaker can hope to do, and did it all at once; he created consummate film drama and poetry that established him as a great artist; he pushed the boundaries of sexuality, social commentary and even politics in terms of content; he won four Oscars, and he was a box-office champion.

He was also probably the first (or was it Russ Meyer?) whose name meant so much that it was included in the titles of his films (as in “Fellini Satyricon” and “Fellini Roma”).

There were three basic, but not entirely sequential, stages to Fellini’s career. Up to the time of “La Dolce Vita” in 1960, Fellini was firmly identified as a charter member of the neo-realist movement, having contributed to the scripts of “Open City” and other Rossellini films.

His early masterpieces “I Vitelloni,””La Strada” and “The Nights Of Cabiria,” studies of urchins, outcasts and the dispossessed, fit snugly under the banner of poetic realism.

But all the filmmakers who made their names as neo-realists moved on to other styles and aesthetic priorities, and Fellini stunned everybody with “La Dolce Vita.” This fabulous three-hour exploration of the amoral “sweet life” among Roman society as seen by a journalist created a sensation on every level and became the most successful foreign-language film in the U.S. up to that time.

Social analyst

“La Dolce Vita” was the first of several periodic epic commentaries on social mores. “Fellini Satyricon” was a ripely imaginative look at the lasciviousness of ancient Rome, “Fellini Roma” dealt probingly with the Eternal City circa 1972 , and “Casanova,” quite possibly his most underrated work, cast a startlingly frigid and analytical gaze upon the activities of literature’s most compulsive libertine.

“8 1/2” was paradoxically Fellini’s most blatantly autobiographical film, as well as his most influential. Before that, films about filmmaking tended to center upon actors, but this dizzying 1962 piece of self-analysis was one of the first since “Sullivan’s Travels” to place the director, his creative dilemma and his neuroses at the center of the action.

As such, it had a profound impact on many other filmmakers, some of whom did not bother to hide their debt to Fellini (Paul Mazursky’s “Alex In Wonderland” and “The Pickle,” Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories,” Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz”) and others that assumed a different format (Truffaut’s “Day For Night,” Fassbinder’s “Beware Of A Holy Whore,” Blake Edwards’ “S.O.B.” the Coens’ “Barton Fink”).

There are undoubtedly countless direct “8 1/2” influences and citations in subsequent films, which is curious coming from a film that so specifically summons up the inner state of one very idiosyncratic man.

Director as star

“8 1/2” was the first and deepest of Fellini’s self-reflections. His initial appearance as himself — director-as-star — came in his 1968 TV special “A Director’s Notebook.” Through the 1980s, he was increasingly accused of naval-gazing and recycling old ideas up to “Intervista,” the last of his pictures to have been released in the U.S., in which Fellini depicted himself as the subject of a film crew’s documentary.

As with the latter stages of so many other great directors’ careers, Fellini found the going rather difficult in recent years, his budgets having become too high for anyone in the ailing Italian industry to easily take on one of his projects.

But he could still remain the envy of other directors, having enjoyed a relatively free creative hand for the better part of four decades, during which time he turned out 20 films and three episodes that evoked an imaginative world like no other.

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