Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Fellini's Casanova

dir. Federico Fellini
Bitterly one pays for abandon,
Hardly easy,
Mostly hard.

January 8, 2007 - VHS

Is this a “lost” movie? How can that be? It’s Fellini, it stars Donald Sutherland in his prime, and it appears to have cost a godzillion dollars... but still, it certainly seems lost, doesn’t it? It bears all the hallmarks-- hard to find, a mixed (
generally contemptuous) reputation, an epic running time, etc. I mean, you’re a Fellini fan... have you seen it? And what sense does that make when it turns out to be this, one of the largest, craziest and most tragic of all Fellini’s large, crazy and tragic productions? It would be like if Martin Scorsese finally managed to make his long-in-the-works epic about the foundations of violence and turmoil in our urban culture, featuring an important actor giving his most triumphant performance, only to have its reputation sink down near the bottom of his filmography within three years. I mean, c'mon... that wouldn't be no fair kind of world, would it? It’s time to wake this movie up so people can roll around in it at night and place a revolted hand over their bathroom-mirror reflection in the morning. If it is indeed lost, let’s just agree to go turn stuff over until we find the fuckin’ thing, and celebrate it for what it is—an opulent, hilarious, and ultimately disquieting achievement.

Due to the reputation it seems to have inexplicably earned, I started watching Casanova as if it were going to be a long, unpleasant curio. From the opening sequence (in which a barrage of fireworks blast nonstop above Venice while masked merrymakers attempt to lift a gigantic stone statue of Venus, goddess of love and beauty, out of the grand canal… seriously, every scene is like this...) I was floored. There are sights here that deep-fry the brain with their extravagance and imagination, all delivered with Fellini’s patented, disgusted snarl of genius. Maybe that’s the trouble... no matter how beautiful, ironic, and bracing, perhaps two and a half hours of relatively uncollected disdain and self-loathing simply used to be too much to take for most audiences (presently, can we all agree that those days are over?). Indeed, the director seems to have a real distaste for this Casanova character he’s created, who has clearly slipped out of the dankest jail cell in Fellini’s mind (begging the question: should the title be read as “Fellini’s Casanova,” or as “Fellini Is Casanova?” Eh? Maaaybe? ...don’t tolerate this from me, folks...). Imagine the spirit of the final scenes of La Dolce Vita playing variations on itself for a full, epic running time, except smooth Marcello Mastroianni is now instead a penis-face lookin' satyriasist. Shake your legs around if you’re having a good time thinking about this movie.

And let’s talk about the sex, which is far and away the funniest you’ll ever see outside your own bedroom. I’m actually worried that its impact will be lost in my description, but here goes. Casanova and a woman (be she a 7-foot giant, an 80-year-old wannabe mystic, a life-sized porcelain robot, or what have you) will take some of their clothes off (some, mind you, generally excluding key items such as underwear). Then they’ll do an absurd bit of foreplay like hopping around the room together in the wheelbarrow position, before finally lying down missionary style. At this point, Casanova will thrust his entire body forwards and backwards, his face red with crazy strain, while the woman experiences something like rapture. The first time we see this act committed, the lovers are being watched by a detached observer, who states afterward that he’s incredibly impressed by Casanova’s technique... save for the actual sex part, that is, which could probably use a little work. Still – very, very impressive. I don't believe it would be spoiling anything to let you know that Casanova's technique does not improve as the film progresses.

I can’t finish without mentioning the music, which is always up to Fellini’s ambition. Though used sparsely, Nino Rota’s score here is a thing of remarkable invention, dipping more than occasionally into candy-coated schlock to achieve its effect. Whenever one of the aforementioned sex romp sequences kicks into gear, for example, Casanova’s little mechanical rooster—which he apparently takes with him everywhere—springs to life, and Rota provides a fittingly garish and sonically invasive plink-plonk kind of soundtrack to accompany all the zealous shrieking and moaning. Elsewhere, he seems almost to be quoting some of his own La Dolce Vita score, only to agonizingly twist it to achieve Fellini’s subversive aims.

And no question, when the movie has finished, you are left with a powerful sadness. What seemed like an endless string of amusing, pathetic, fantastic sexual exploits is eventually revealed to have been one man’s entire life and legacy. There comes a moment when we are alarmed to discover that Giacamo Casanova’s face has suddenly shriveled (pun unfortunately intended) into that of an old man, and his bloodshot eyes tell a long, excruciating story of regret and desperation. And there we were, laughing along all the way. For me, this discovery was almost unbearably heartbreaking, and altered the entire picture. I’m anxious to explore the film again, but I’m sincerely afraid of how I’ll feel afterward.

There are a small handful of directors who we simply cannot do without. By the same token, we shouldn't have to do without any of their contributions. Were these people to have never existed, than almost any film they made—taken on its own, out of the blue—would come as a sudden, overwhelming, medium-rocking revelation. Fellini is simply not a filmmaker who deserves to be saddled with forgotten films, or lumped in with the likes of actual latter-day mess men like Coppola, Bertolucci, and (put your hand on my back and feel my spine shake) Gilliam. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly wouldn’t want to lose those guys... but I kind of feel like I’d trade any one of them to see this version of Casanova revived.

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