Saturday, March 21, 2015

In Defense Of Fellini's Satyricon

That there is still controversy nearly fifty years later as to the genius or preposterousness of Fellini's Satyricon is testament to il maestro's enduring relevance. It is fashionable is some intellectual circles to dismiss Fellini's late works as victims of his artistic excesses. On that notion I would like to now call bullshit.

This blogger never thought he would have to defend Fredrico Fellini's magnum opus Satyricon from the slings and arrows of an outrageous Onion AV review, but there it is and here we are. Gore Vidal used to call the United States the United States of Amnesia because we often forget. Fellini was once considered a genius -- on the other end of the visual genius continuum of the introverted, painstaking craftsmanship of  Ingmar Bergman -- but no more. The Onion AV Club -- a respected institution -- said, in February, of Satyricon, "the movie that most aggressively embodies this aesthetic, for better and (much more often) worse, is 1969’s Fellini Satyricon, a nonstop parade of garish decadence that’s being released this week as part of the Criterion collection." What the fuck?

I could not disagree more. "Frequently marvelous to look at, the film is nevertheless something of a trial to endure, " the writer continues, absurdly. "It feels dispiritingly like the work of a director who was reading way too much of his own press."

Visually, every critic agrees that Fellini's Satyricon is an astonishing piece of film ass. Satyricon is like a sort of Victoria's Secret model of films -- delicious, ripe, sumptuous and more than a little intimidating. The Corsair would argue, beyond that established fact, that the film is one of the great masterpieces of Western civilization. "A free adaptation of the Petronius Classic" is how the film is billed at the outset. It is; but it also preserves the Menippian satire that is at the core of the fragments. I would argue that Petronius' Satyricon is actually the world's first bildungsroman, on the misadventures of a former Roman gladiator.

I mention "fragments" because the work -- Petronius' Satyricon -- has not been found complete. It is a fragment, survived from ancient times in incomplete longform. Fellini was so intrigued by the fact that this most interesting ancient text -- a protonovel -- had survived the millennia in pieces that he inserted his own genius into the missing elements, hence the science fiction/fantasy aspect of the film. Fellini's Satyricon is a conversation, across the millennia, between Petronius -- one of the most decadent, stylish bastards in the history of the world -- and Fredrico Fellini, the mad genius of wold cinema. That is how one should begin to approach the work, not, like the Onion AV critic, on the shallow basis of whether or not Fellini is being "overindulgent," or "visually excessive."

Two questions should impose themselves on the film critic ion reviewing this film. One: Why did Fellini approach the Satyricon? John Simon once famously asked: Why did Kubrick chose Barry Lyndon to direct and not, say, Vanity Fair or another more popular Thackeray novel. The answer lay in the personality of Stanley Kubrick; and the answer to that question lies in Fellini. Fellini's other subjects -- Casanova, the fantasy life of a movie star (8 1/2) -- involve ultimates, themes which allow for maximum visual pageantry, the Fellini hallmark. My guess would be that a fragmentary classical novel allows Fellini to assert his artistry into a conversation with an established ancient work. That was his challenge. The second question: Was Fellini ultimately successful? Obviously my answer to that is a resounding yes.

A few more words about Fellini's Satyricon. It is one of the most visually astonishing films ever.  That much is not under debate. Even Fellini's harshest critics agree on that. A sort of sci-fi fantasy adaptation of an ancient Roman classic written by Petronius Arbiter, the arbiter elegantiae of Emperor Nero of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, one of the most decadent vocations in the history of the West. Petronius eventually opened his veins after a falling out with Nero, but then, in those pagan days, a stunning career usually ended in bloody, pagan death. Such was the cruelty of pre-Christian fate.

This film really has no disenable beginning or end. "The earth has not managed to swallow me into the abyss, nor has the sea engulfed me with its raging storms," rages Enclopius, the protagonist and the narrator, as much against the God of the West and the audience as against Ascyltus, his lover and best friend in the beginning. "I have fled from the law and escaped the arena. I've even stained my hands with blood, only to end up here, destitute, exiled from my country, abandoned! And who condemned me to be alone?"

Abandonado is the Italian word that rings out from beyond the subtitles. And it does so because the theme of this masterpiece is friendship and abandonment -- the sudden absence of friendship. It is also about the vast brutality of the cosmos. Star Wars -- a comparable science fiction movie with similar themes -- pales in comparison story-wise because it is childishly Manichian, of Good and Evil. Fellini's Satyricon is for grown ups in that it deals colorfully in the world of grays. Cruelty, embodied in the percussive pagan laughter that is heard in all quadrants throughout this film, is the pervasive mood. Fortuna, the Roman God often invoked by Niccolo Machiavelli, is also quite present in this film, invisible, propelling the action forward. Machiavellian smiles, gazes disturbingly turned against the viewer in a form of diabolic sneer, are also hallmarks of this film. The filmmaker appears to be calling attention to this visual spectacle, to his representation of the pagan pageant of human existence, not asking us to suspend our disbelief. Quite the contrary.

A word about Fellini's sonic pallete here. Fellini's Satyricon explores the outer limits of sound. Everything from bodily sounds -- farts, belches -- to mysterious flutes, to the bark of abandoned hounds in the distance as well as the roars of prehistoric reptiles and the endless rhythmic crashing of the sea all play a part. I have never, ever, experienced a film with more diverse sonic alchemy than Fellini's Satyricon. I suspect there isn't any film out there who can remotely compete in that arena with this film.

And what are we to make of Trimalchio's Feast? The Great Gatsby was almost called Trimalchio in East Egg. That was the original title that Fitzgerald had in mind, but begged off because it would have sounded to snobby. The meal -- roughly one third into the film -- is the greatest depiction of the vast gap between the tremendous wealth of Rome at the height of its Empire, and the poor plebians who made it possible for the rich to do what the fuck they wanted whenever they wanted. In fact, the entire film is about the cruelty of fate against the poor. Another Italian -- Machiavelli, and I'm greatly oversimplifying here -- argued that the art of statecraft is human action building a fortress against the whimsy of Fortune. One could argue, further, that the accumulation of wealth is a fortress against existential insecurity. Within the framework of that argument, it is the poor that are the most vulnerable to he cruelties of life. Enter: a visual bildungsroman by Fellini of the life of the born low in the bowels of the most decadent stages of the Roman empire.

The hero of the Satyricon, Encolpius, is a former gladiator -- of the underclass -- navigating the world at the mercy of the whimsy of Fortuna. Fellini's sumptuous, visual representation of the difference between the rich and the poor in an imperial society at the height of imperial burlesque has incredible resonance in this day and age. Alas: who reads Petronius nowadays? Who watches Fellini?

Certainly not the author of that stupid ass Onion AV review. Basta!

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