Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Fellini, Doris Day, and Making Babies

Digital video recorders (already Kleenexed into the world as Tivo, no matter what brand you may have) are the greatest things in the world, except when they aren’t. I don’t blame the technology so much as the damn TV networks looking to regain control by running shows just a couple minutes longer than they say they will. And that’s the reason I missed the ending of “I Vitelloni,” the 1953 masterwork by Federico Fellini. I set up to record the movie as scheduled, and it ran long. How much longer it had to go, I can’t say, though I know for a fact that I missed the final scene.

Here’s the capsule summary as found on the otherwise incredibly useful Internet Movie Database site (www.imdb.com): “A sensitive character study of five young men trapped in a small town on the Adriatic. Their discontentment and restlessness lead them into a variety of activities, not all of them admirable.” That’s remarkably like summarizing “Julius Caesar” as “Emperor and his subjects don’t always agree, and ultimately there is war.” Yeah, that’s what happens, but so much is left out.

I’m not at all familiar with Fellini’s pre-“La Dolce Vita” output (though I think I saw “La Strada” once, but I don’t remember). This is a much more naturalistic movie than I usually expect from him, but there are plenty of trademark wild crowd scenes thrown in. The opening ten minute sequence is full of herky-jerky cuts, tight close-ups as people move rapidly around the central figure, long shots of frantic dancing, and plenty of overlapping dialogue. And, then, there’s the Carnivale sequence a little more than half-way through, when the same sort of thing happens with costumes and masks and giant papier mache heads. Nobody can capture frenzied party scenes like Fellini.

Today, we easily recognize these young (at least young as defined in 1953 Italy; at least one character states his age to be 30) main characters as prototypical slackers. Nobody works hard, save Leopoldo, the playwrite dreamer. Instead, these guys drink a lot, wander the streets, flirt with girls when they see some, and occasionally dream of leaving their small town for the glories of Rome.

Fausto has the most ambition; he seems to get excited by every woman he meets, and sets his goal to have sex with each one in turn. We first meet him putting the moves on a young lady who rejects him. Then, we find out he’s impregnated Sandra, the sister of his friend Moraldo (apparently Fellini’s autobiographical stand-in). Their shotgun marriage doesn’t end his womanizing, and in fact, the connecting thread of the movie is his constant attempts to regain favor in his wife’s eyes. Assuming I didn’t miss much at the very end, all does seem to be forgiven when the screen finally goes blank.

There’s lots more, of course. Riccardo (played by Federico’s brother Riccardo), is the most pathetic character, living off his sister with his mother until the sister leaves with a shadowy married man. His drunken ramble at the end of the Carnivale sequence is gut-wrenching to watch. Leopoldo has an encounter with a homosexual actor which is painful, as well. At first, he thinks he’s finally being taken seriously as a writer; eventually, he realizes he’s only being taken seriously as a cute young man.

Richard Linklater would have liked these guys, I’m sure, but he wouldn’t have invested such energy in telling their story. As with any Fellini flick, the fun is in the camera work and the acting, not to mention the pacing, which can roll along at an ambling speed before shifting into whirlwind mode at any time.

Because my viewing ended at the moment when Sandra forgave Fausto, I was left with the impression that lying to his wife worked for the guy. So, imagine my surprise when later that night, we watched “Where Were You When the Lights Went Out,” a 1968 sex/corporate culture farce, and darned if the same thing didn’t work for Doris Day’s husband.

You’ve seen these mid-to-late 60s comedies starring Robert Morse and an interchangeable cast, right? They’re all a blast, thanks to the set-em-loose while the cameras are rolling professionalism of the veteran actors. They’re all equally among the most blatantly misogynistic movies ever made. You’ve got to appreciate Doris Day’s magnificent body language – nobody ever walked in a huff with more flustered huffiness – at the same time you’re wondering why her character never read any Betty Friedan. Of course, in the moral universe of these strange flicks – all of which, by the way, seem to have the exact same artless direction and semi-hipster musical score, not to mention, at least one short sequence with the kind of hippy Jethro Bodine hung out with when he smoked crawdads – even if they had a feminist inkling, the women would end up pregnant and in love with the guy who did it to her.

So, here’s the set-up. Never mind the tie to the 1965 New York city blackout which gave us the title, and which is barely used as an excuse to set plots in motion. Just enjoy Morse, the treasurer of a large corporation who embezzles $2 million in cash and has to get out of the country with the money. And Day, playing an actress married to an architect played by Patrick O’Neal, who is still seen as a Constant Virgin (the name of her hit Broadway play). When O’Neal cheats on Day with a woman reporter who had been in her Manhattan apartment to interview her, Day heads to their Connecticut home. Morse’s car breaks down outside, and the farce proceeds apace.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention the astounding Terry Thomas, playing a Hungarian theatre director without bothering to change the Englishness of the only character he ever really played in any movie. O’Neal catches Day and Morse sleeping together – they each drank sleeping potion – and the long path to conclusions is quickly breached by a leap. Thomas needs to split Day and O’Neal up, so he can take her to Hollywood and make lots of money. He bribes Morse to convince Day they did sleep together, because despite the obvious infidelity of her husband, she’ll only divorce him if she thinks she cheated on him. How’s that for logic?

It’s all as perfectly pieced together as any jigsaw puzzle you’ve seen, and ultimately, all is made well. Morse returns to the corporation from whence he had stolen, and in fact becomes company president. Day and O’Neal reconcile, and nine months later, have a baby. Which, I guess, leaves Thomas stuck on Broadway looking for a way to Hollywood.

Both “I Vitelloni” and “Where Were You When the Lights Went Out” feature women who are completely virtuous and incapable of staying mad at their philandering husbands. Both women seal their marriage by having babies. Sandra, of course, only gets her man because she’s pregnant; Day keeps hers that way. Motherhood is the holy fate of women which locks their men to their side. It has nothing to do with love or respect, that’s for sure. Fausto and O’Neal are equally shown to be incapable of resisting the allures of other women, and incapable of seeing their own women as anything other than the stability they need to enable them to concentrate other attention on their horniness.

It’s amazing to me that this vision of male-female roles could have been so blatant. I mean, we’re all still used to happy endings and love conquering all, but in our new moral universe, Fausto and O’Neal would each have been punished, and their women would have found a knight in shining armor who would truly respect them and love them for who they are. Instead, the women who have given their men total devotion get trampled on by men who fear that devotion and feel trapped, and their only out is to tie the men down further by giving them children to raise. Yeah, that should keep those male eyes from wandering. I think they’d have been better served letting their own bootheels start wandering.

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