on the minds of aging directors: federico fellini’s and ken russell’s memories and regrets

Fellini philosophizes on the very different natures of the sexes as an explanation for his thoughtless, repeated infidelities to his wife Giuletta Massina, memorable actress in so many of Fellini’s films…”

 

by mike mosher

 

I reread two books long on my film studies shelves, and with the ensuing years, now notice the heavy hand of mortality upon them. They may have been “mainstream”, in that they were bankrolled by major enough studios to secure distribution to cinemas in cities across the US, and then revived in college film societies and repertory movie houses, yet they were “avant-garde” and considered edgy at the same time, in a very different film culture before the advent of YouTube, DVDs or even VHS availability.

I, Fellini by Charlotte Chandler is the memoirs of the Italian Director Federico Fellini (1920-1993), always a favorite. The book takes the form of interviews over the course of a decade with his friend Charlotte Chandler, with her questions removed and his first-person answers edited into long meditations on the past. Is Charlotte the scion of the family that published the Los Angeles Times, and gave the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion?

Fellini’s cinematic artistry isn’t in question. After a series of good movies, his “8 1/2” (1963) might be the consummate Fellini film, moving along quickly (set to bouncy Nino Rota music), with the gentle surrealism of a cartoonist, which the Director has always been. If “8 1/2 was Fellini’s apogee, then “Juliet of the Spirits” (1965) was the perigee, reaching the master’s creative heights but, in retrospect, portending his descent. I had the opportunity to watch it reel by reel in a summer, 1975 film class, with highlights and motifs pointed out by another experienced movie director, visiting professor Joseph Losey.

The decadent “Satyricon” (1969), which I saw on the UM campus when in high school, and the warmly autobiographical “Amarcord” (1973) are fine and memorable films, and “Casanova” (1976) and “City of Women” (1980) had some amusing turns and memorable images about the relations between men and women, but “Roma” (1972) “Ginger and Fred (1985)” were slight inspirations blown up into bluster better forgotten. “The Ship Sails On” (1983) was weakened by (spoiler alert!) the we’re-only-shooting-a-movie dénouement, like a grade-schooler’s ghost story being deflated by Then I woke up, it was only a dream, whew!

Fellini philosophizes on the very different natures of the sexes as an explanation for his thoughtless, repeated infidelities to his wife Giuletta Massina, memorable actress in so many of Fellini’s films. The book is truncated by Fellini’s death at age 73, and Giulietta died shortly afterwards, near the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary. One wonders if the intrusive Chandler (shown too many huggy photos) hopes readers will discern a romantic relationship between the lines with the Director. University of Michigan Professor’s wife Anne Wehrer served as amanuesis on Iggy Pop’s 1981 autobiography I Need More largely so, in an Afterword (which doesn’t appear in recent editions) she can tell of how they ended up in (or, hurriedly, atop) a bed.

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Another visually exciting Director of memorable movies, lauded by 1970s college cinéastes, was Ken Russell (1927-2011). He wrote his own autobiography, and while it’s got some sharp and witty moments, it’s as bloated as some of his later, less successful movies. There exists an authorized biography An Appalling Talent, by John Baxter, which I haven’t read, so this version is all I know of the Director’s life.

After unpleasant education in a naval academy, he fancied himself a performer, had a scholarship with the International Ballet in 1948, left to join a touring company of “Annie Get Your Gun” in 1950, and the following year joined Lettie Lubin’s British Dance Group and London Ballet. The following, upon that troupe’s demise, he was dancing with a group called the Barefoot Boys.

In 1958 Russell got his break in media production, when Huw Weldon of the BBC, Editor of the program Monitor saw short films he made and took a chance on the potentially-creative but unformed thirty-one year old lad. Here he made his biographies of composers, which have been recently issued on DVD by the British Film Institute. Wikipedia quotes film critic Mark Kermode that Russell, “proved that British cinema didn’t have to be about kitchen-sink realism—it could be every bit as flamboyant as Fellini.”

I was in high school when, on PBS, I saw Russell’s biography of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, “Dante’s Inferno”, starring Oliver Reed as the painterly poet. Oh God, I loved this as a sixteen-year-old Alice Cooper fan. After Rosetti’s lover Lizzie Siddall killed herself, he impulsively put his manuscript of poems in her coffin, then was haunted by dreams of her accusatory corpse when he dug her up to retrieve them. There’s a version of this sequence now found on YouTube,  saddled with an intrusive Blur music hall song. A week later I remember relishing “Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World” strangled by her scarf caught in the wheels of her (or was it her lover’s?) sports car.

Russell then turned to depicting creatives upon the big screen. “The Music Lovers” with Richard Chamberlin (star of an American medical soap opera) as composer Tchaikovsky, tormented by his homosexuality. “Savage Messiah” was a sad romance of the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Breszka, a casualty of WWI who died too soon after promising early work. “The Devils” depicted religio-political and erotic frenzies in the seventeenth century, starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave. “Women in Love” involved Reed in a passionate nude wrestling scene, as well as Glenda Jackson in a field tormenting bullocks in a pasture with a sensuous dance

I never saw Russell’s revived 1930s musical “The Boy Friend” but thought his “Tommy” made a jolly movie out of the Who’s pompous rock opera. “Tommy” was followed up, though, by the disastrous “Lizstomania”, whose initial conceit of the the 19th century pianist as pop star could have been handled with intelligence, instead of a fey, struggling muddle.

“Lair of the White Worm” was a skillful, rustic combination of vampire and big monster movie, while “Gothic” was clamorous and claustrophobic at the same time, but seems to work in repeated viewings. I really don’t remember “Crimes of Passion”, “Valentino” and “Whore”, other than having seen them. “Salome’s Last Dance” was fun but slight. Russell exasperatedly tells of the intervention of screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky while making “Altered States” from a Chayevsky script. Two actors who did fine work in Russell films, Amanda Donohoe and Oliver Reed, appeared together in Nicholas Roeg’s “Castaway”, a grim travelogue supposed to prove something or other mature about men and women and love and sex.

Russell compares the view of a childhood toy shop, with costumed warriors and Coronation coaches in miniature, to the adult film-making process. “In childhood we inhabit a world of wonderful contrasts that later we often come to see as bizarre and do our best to rearrange, with everything in it’s “proper” place. Unusual juxtapositions we label surrealistic. Yet what is surrealism but a second childhood with Freudian overtones which we have to be re-educated to enjoy—part of the tragedy of growing up.”

Russell’s glory days were from his artists’ biographies of the nineteen-sixties through the explosive “Tommy” in 1975.  A moviemaker’s decline is double tragic, as it’s so big-screen public. Russell’s book recounts, through gritted teeth, the decline of his marriage and a sparking new romance with the woman who, by the end of the book, becomes his second wife. This marriage too burned out after some years, and he was with a third wife at the time of his 2011 death. When the 1991 book closes, he’s optimistic about a Tarot card reader’s prediction he’ll soon make a film on Aleister Crowley, plus other predicted dark and malevolent movies, none of which come to pass.

Fellini’s book has a certain melancholy Mediterranean café resigned-ness: Charlotte, Charlotte, why don’t Producers give me money for new movies if everybody reveres me so much? Russell’s insists hey, look at me, I’ve still got it, in my sixties but better than ever. But he wasn’t. And Fellini wasn’t. And perhaps they shouldn’t have taken the time, from what remained for each of them, for the production of these books.

Charlotte Chandler, I, Fellini, 1995, New York, Random House.
Ken Russell, Altered States, 1991, New York, Bantam Books

 

Originally published:
Issue Seventy-Four
May 2017

 

 


Mike Mosher is an artist, adventurer  and university professor.  More from Mike Mosher can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

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