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, June 22, 2005

As Though La Dolce Vita Can Be Discussed in 1200 Words Or Less

“La Dolce Vita” isn’t exactly an action flick, but it’s plenty engrossing. Fellin’s 1960 acclaimed masterpiece tells the story of Marcello (played by the incomparable Marcello Mastroiani), a tabloid journalist who can’t quite figure out why he is no more happy than all the bored and jaded celebrities he spends his life observing. The film moves through a series of encounters Marcello has with different women, until ultimately he is cut off from the only woman who represents hope to him, thanks to a loud wind and just enough of a tidal basin to keep them apart.

You know me, I’m gonna wind up focusing on the representation of women in this movie. Fellini seems fixated on three possibilities for women – they are empty whores, boring housewives, or virginal angels. Obviously, the only life option for the angels is to empty themselves out one way or the other through sex; there’s not much hope for young women to grow up into a life with depth.

Marcello hooks up with a bored and rich socialite who picks up a streetwalker for the thrill of being taken to her house to have a strange location for sex. The prostitute is paid only for the use of her bed, not her body. Marcello goes along for the ride, willing to make his friend happy, but not caring if she isn’t. He asks her if she wants sex, she says no, and then they do it anyway.

Much later, this same woman tricks him into revealing one of only a handful of actual emotions shown in the whole three-hour movie. Why does she trick him? Because she is a slut, unable to resist the lure of another cheap and tawdry thrill, making love while humiliating a man.

Meanwhile, Marcello lives with Emma, a boring housewife in circumstance, if not in name. Her only interest is in marrying Marcello, and since he is sleeping around on her, she tries to kill herself. That’s when we see another emotional side of Marcello, who cries at her side in the hospital. Of course, he does leave her to make a call to the socialite, but he comes back when the phone isn’t answered. (As an aside, it’s very interesting to see the sheer number of telephones in this movie, and to realize the difference between our current cell-driven world and the time when all conversations were limited to the length of a wire from a wall. Fellini definitely emphasized the telephone connections and distances here.)

After Emma comes Anita Eckberg, the brainless, sensualist (clearly shown to be at the very least a tease, which is a virtual slut in Fellini-land). Impossibly beautiful and possessing a chest that would make Lara Croft jealous, Eckberg steals the film with her sequences. Laughing and posing in her press conference, then dancing with a series of men, Eckberg flies off the screen with an ease and grace. But, while Marcello expresses an interest in her – out of habitual lust, I suspect, more than any real connection – she is far too flighty for him. Again, a woman serves only as something to be gotten or forgotten.

Emma figures in the next sequence, a visit to the countryside where two children claim to have seen the Virgin Mary. Here, Marcello tries to keep his partner safe – housewives must remain on a pedestal, where they cannot participate in life – while he investigates further. Chaos reigns in one of those amazing Fellini crowd scenes I’ve come to love. Nobody ever knew how to get more humanity into a large group of people than Fellini did. Eventually, somebody dies, and we move on.

After this comes the center of the film in Fellini’s mind, I suspect. Marcello sits briefly in a nearly deserted café. The fourteen-year-old girl who works there is enjoying the music on the jukebox, but he asks her to turn it off. She does, and engages him in conversation, instead. Somehow, we are meant to believe this is a real connection, though the film stops just short of being creepy and having Marcello make a pass at her. But, this is the only time that Marcello finds himself engaged by a female on a level other than one of disinterested sexuality.

A party at an old friend’s home gives us a chance to see Marcello dream of a different life. Steiner is a real writer, with intellectual friends, a wife, and two beautiful children. Eventually, he kills himself. But, that comes later. Marcello tells Steiner of his jealousy, and Steiner tells him that life is not any more interesting for him than it is for Marcello. I think Fellini believed people were pretty much trapped inside themselves, forced to go through motions they didn’t enjoy, even when they were rebelling against the conventions of society. At any rate, this is the first step in Marcello’s slow decline towards degeneracy himself, as he learns that his aspirations towards higher quality literature might not save him from the boredom he feels with the world.

Then, he runs into his father, whom he rarely sees. This is the most bittersweet section of the film, with Marcello wanting desperately to connect to his father in the same way he had connected to that girl. But, of course, another woman comes into the picture, a dancer in a nightclub who, of course, is slutty enough to keep the old man company and take him home for spaghetti Conroy (is that what they called it back then?). Here, at least, even though yet another woman is available to him, Marcello doesn’t even feign lust himself. But, from our point of view, we’re still seeing women as whores (or, in the offscreen presence of Marcello’s mother, a boring housewife).

One more woman to meet and it’s over. That’s Nico, later famous for “singing” with the Velvet Underground. Her bubbly bemused presence doesn’t exactly equate to any of the potential roles for women in the rest of the film, but she does lead Marcello to the party where he gets demoralized by the socialite mentioned above. After this, Marcello gives in, and leads the action of his social circle, rather than chronicling it. Things get really ugly in the final party scene before everybody goes out to the beach and views a freshly caught monstrous fish which keeps on staring out at them. As if the monster were outside them after all!

“La Dolce Vita” is so full of powerful imagery, constant and invigorating movement, overlapping dialogue, and creative genius that it can be an overwhelming experience. Marcello is the focal point of it all, the man who attempts to observe life yet can’t help but be hurt by it. It’s not as though any character other than Marcello is developed beyond a few simple characteristics, but the men all seem defined by things they do, while the women are trapped in relation to what they do to men. An interesting project for some ambitious young feminist writer might be to retell this movie from female points of view. Perhaps the socialite has gone through the same downward spiral as Marcello. For now, we are only left to wonder.

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