Those of you who watched the last video essay on Fellini's And the Ship Sails On have already been treated to the insights of film critic Michael Joshua Rowin (Reverse Shot, The L Magazine). Below you will find the full transcript of my conversation with Michael in preparation of the video essay. I'd like to throw in a little contest related to the last two video essays. By the way, for those still hanging in suspense, the answer to the last contest question was Dames.
See if you can answer these questions:
- What recurring object is replaced in each of the three shots of me in the Burnt by the Sun video essay?
- What Sixties rock star does Michael do a mean impersonation of during karaoke nights? (I know this is not really related to the video essays... then again, And the Ship Sails On is about music...)
First person to answer two of these three questions gets their choice of either one of the Village Voice Pazz and Jop Top 20 Albums (mp3 format) or a DVD copy of Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth (one of my favorite films seen last year). Submit your responses to firstname.lastname@example.org
Kevin: And the Ship Sails On is one of the last of Federico Fellini's films, made at the twilight of his career. A lot of critics and even Fellini afficionados don't give this film its full due; they see it as a morbid take on a past era, shot in morose shades of grey without the kind of elaborate camerawork and carnivalesque air that you find in his 60s films. We're going to talk about a few of the things that we've picked up on in this movie that really make it stand out and worth considering.
Making Music without Rota
K: And the Ship Sails on happens to be the first film that Fellini had made without his longtime collaborator,the legendary composer Nino Rota. Which presents an irony since the film seems so preoccupied with the theme of music and examining music in all its power and mystery over people.
Michael: It's an interesting aspect and I think in a way you can say that Fellini used opera as a way to get around the fact that he wasn't working with Nino Rota for the first time. But it's also a tribute to Nino Rota - there are all sorts of different forms of music here: Serbian dance music, opera, carnivalesque water music, industrial sounds, and all sorts of interesting textures and tones going on. And that's something that Nino Rota did for Fellini - he combined muzaky lounge music with classical components, with great symphony scores for his films, and he made music a key component in his films, from La Strada where a musical refrain is a beautifully haunting motif, to Orchestral Rehearsal where music is the central theme. So in a way the film is a tribute to all Rota had done to bringing a powerful element to the Fellini universe.
Boiler room opera
K: This film is very much about the operatic aesthetic. Plotwise the film is about a group of opera singers who are taking a cruise to dispatch the remains of a legendary diva. On this boat we get a sense of opera under different perspectives, as an embodiment of high and low culture, something that applies to Fellini's films as well, since his films aspire to artistic stature but also have a heavy degree of carnivalesque lowbrow elements that he really loves.
M: What you were just saying was one of Fellini's hallmarks. Take the scene where the workers in the boiler room goad the opera singers into a singing contest. The room compositionally dwarfs the characters. We have a lot of long shots where the boiler itself makes the characters small and puny.
K: He establishes this vertical space where the opera singers are looking down and the laborers are looking up, which implies that the singers have this authority over the boiler room workers. But they're in competition with each other. Fellini likes to cut horizontally between the singers, and they're looking at each other jealously. Whereas the boiler room workers are almost always shown as one group, swaying in unison while listening to the singers above.
M: Fellini cuts to the different singers in close up. He gets closer and closer to them. In the past he used tracking shots to seek his characters out. Here he's dividing them.
Most of the film takes place in long shots which is very different from the usual Fellini aesthetic.
K: Which I guess is a nod towards the theatrical tradition.
M: There's a great contrast between the high art aesthetic of opera and the ridiculous hyperbolic caricatures that Fellini gets out of these close up shots of these opera singers doing their damnedest to outdo each other and to win the workers' favor. It's very comic and irreverent. I think that's the main thing about Fellini's take on high art. He usually likes spoiling it with really crude jokes.
K: And the fact that it's in the boiler room and these highly trained baritones and sopranos are singing their lungs out in the midst of this very noisy boiler room... A carnival of sounds
M: There's many kinds of sounds working in this film, it's not just opera. We have industrial clanging sounds, we have the chicken scene, a singing that borders on the hypnotic, we have this music done with glasses, we have Serbian folk music, so Fellini is combining a lot of different sounds and music and tones in this film.
K: The film emerges as this extended study of the nature of music as an art form and as a primal mysterious force with strange powers over the human mind...
M: I think that's why Fellini at times is hard to pin down. He can be a political filmmaker, a social observer and so on, but a lot of his ideas are mystical - I don't want to say New Age - but they're irrational. They try to deal with the transcendent, the ludicrous, the unexplainable.
Take the scene with the classical musicians playing music with stemware. It's very eerie and mysterious, but it's also funny. It's a carnivalesque, vaudeville performance, with these upper class artistes who are engaging in something that you would see at a circus.
K: It's a weird mix of these technically gifted musicians who are able to apply their talents to make lowbrow music out of these glasses. It's a weird mix of highbrow skill and lowbrow entertainment.
Highbrow art and lowbrow entertainment
M: That's what's so great about Fellini to me. He's a filmmaker who emerged during this great wave of European art films and so much of his cinema was experimental, and narratively stylistically unconventional. And yet he was totally unafraid to give us some simple and delightful entertainments.
K: I think about Bergman and the flak that he's gotten recently. I think Fellini has suffered the same blows by the critical establishment over the years. They aren't considered highbrow enough - they're seen as highbrow entertainers for people who like to think they're sophisticated in their understanding of cinema, but it's really these simple, carnivalesque pleasures dressed up in fancy cinematography and symbolism. What do you make of that?
M: Personally i think that's unfair. I don't think that really takes into account of how sophisticated Fellini's vision really was. He was dealing with the high and the low, but not in a way that was middlebrow. He wasn't catering to any bourgeois populist taste. He definitely struck a nerve, but by this point in his career, after Amarcord he had really fallen out of critical favor. It's interesting, he still kept on doing what he was doing. But I think, even watching this, and this was a film I had forgotten over time, I found it to be really interesting, just as interesting as Amarcord, which was very popular in its time. And also dark, and melancholic, and touching on all these moods and ideas. There's so much life to it even though it's a bleak film in many ways. And just to reduce him to a middle-brow filmmaker is unfair.
K: After the musicians finish their stemware concert, they start intellectualizing and critiquing the performance they had just finished. Fellini treats it with this gentle mockery, making fun of their seriousness and pretension.
M: He recognizes how ridiculous these characters can be, but at the same time he's not disdainful of their intellectualism. As you see, when they start talking about the Serbian folk music, which is really just an expression of these peoples' feelings, which comes out of these people's cultures... Fellini shows the contrast between the pure love of the music by one people, but then he shows them joining in and taking part in it just as the Serbs are. Fellini's trying to show music as this unifying force which can transcend nationality, race, politics.
Breaking down barriers through sound and image
K: In this sequence [where the opera performers dance with the Serbian refugees] we have the same vertical hierarchy as in the boiler room scene, between the bourgeois opera performers who are upstairs and the Serbian refugees downstairs. At the same time it's a reversal from the boiler room scene...
M: Because the space collapses between them and the barrier is broken.
K: Exactly, and it's the lower classes who are doing the performing and the upper classes are drawn in to their performance.
M: This goes back to the idea of spectacle unifying two different groups of people.
K: There's a great use of shadow in this scene. The Serbians are mostly seen in shadow, you can't make out their faces at all. Whereas the people on the upper deck, you can make out each of their faces in detail. But as this hierarchy collapses, you get this blend of seeing people in light and in shadow.
M: I wonder if Fellini's gaze of the Serbs in this scene is a little more exotic, shrouding them in shadow...
K: More mysterious, more protean in their collective mass movements...
M: Blending together...
K: Yes, very abstract.
M: It reminds me of how shadowy the characters are in movies like Satyricon and Casanova where Fellini's looking at them as some sort of mysterious, unknowable creatures whom he can never really understand as well as the caste he belongs to.
K: To me it gets to the question of human beings as individuals and human beings as collective bodies. You lose what distinguishes you when you join this mass but the mass as so much collective energy that you lose yourself to its power. That's something that you see in his other films, in these party sequences that are alternately fascinating, seductive and terrifying all at once.
M: They're subsuming, in a way that allows you to lose yourself in a good way and in a very frightening way.
Individual freedom versus mass appeal
K: It gets to Fellini's own attitude towards individuality. One of the paradoxes of his films is that they're considered to be among the most ego-driven because their sensibility is so distinctive. He's the quintessential artist who imposes his vision on the world. At the same time some of the best moments are these mass sequences with dozens of people and you're lost in the melee of humanity.
M: Even though Fellini usually gives us someone to identify - for example the Marcello character in La Dolce Vita - in And The Ship Sails On we have a reporter character who's our surrogate, but we're still not sure who to identify with. Identification in Fellini films are very transitory - it varies depending on the situation. It can completely dissolve.
K: Some might say that this is the weak point of this film, that there's no strong figure to identify with. There's no Mastroianni who's captivating and glamorous, and you identify with him and enjoy him. It's more along the lines of Satyricon, where you're adrift among all these wild things going on, and your attitude towards these events is less anchored.
M: What's interesting is that the heroes in Fellini's earlier films - Nights of Cabiria...
K: La Strada...
M: Those characters give way to these ciphers who are really not sure how to feel about, or these weak, reporters who are totally undermined and shown to be ridiculous in their claims to objectivity. And that's what makes their films interesting or risky.
K: It's amazing the turn that Fellini made from the romantic protagonists of the 50s and 60s to these anti-hero pieces in the 70s and 80s. Fellini's reach can be pretty broad. He's a filmmaker who likes to embrace different people, and he's encompassing a lot of different roles that people choose for themselves within this realm of music as a reflection of society. Even with the realm of music you establish a hierarchy between these these highbrow trained musicians and intellectuals, and these Serbian folk whose music is as natural as the air they breathe and they don't contemplate it as deeply as these intellectuals do, nor do they really have to.
One thing that intrigues me about Fellini is that one the one hand he's such a wide-reaching, wide embracing director, I can't think of any other director who is as in love with humanity in all its variety, especially its facial and physical variety, some of the most memorable faces are in Fellini movies. At the same time, they all risk edging towards caricature. He has this tendency to illustrate people in terms of their types, which can be limiting at times.
History Aestheticized as Spectacle
M: One thing that's interesting about this sequence is that in it, music is unifying two distinct classes of people through their love of music and dance and performance. In previous Fellini films - and And the Ship Sails On came a decade after Amarcord and Casanova, he shows that spectacle can create communities that are not joined by love or unification but by fear. So in Amarcord, spectacle, Fascist parades and music and so on are used to bring people under the banner of conformity and mistrust. In Casanova, it's a complete corruption of the spirit and of love, that create these spectacles that are devoid of any cathartic element, that are really for narcissistic purposes. So it's interesting in this film, made in 1983, a decade after Amarcord, that Fellini's view had come around again to a more optimistic, more generous appreciation of what spectacle can do.
K: History is reconfigured in these operatic terms. This is a fictionalized historical incident, sort of a melding of the sinking of the Lusitania with the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, and it's dealt with by Fellini in a heavily operatic manner. At the end, the way the opera singers evacuate the boat, they make gestures as if they're about to leave the stage, and the stage itself is on the brink of collapsing as if it was the finale of a Fellini opera.
M: Everything in this film is highly artificial. The battleship looks unbelievably fake. The sea is made of plastic. And when everyone joins in singing at the end, it's a climax where the artifice of opera and art renders the historical as an absurd performance piece.
And the Ship Sails On is a very pared town film for Fellini in terms of color. It's very desaturated. Grays and muted greens and blues. And that's really the palette for the movie. He's working in very faded tones. The movie starts out in sepia tone and when it goes into color, it's not like this explosion into color. It's still very muted. It's this sort of nostalgic lens through which the film is being regarded.
K: It highly references theater and opera, but at the same time it makes these interesting transitions into cinematic moments,or meta-cinematic moments, where the dead diva is projected on the screen by the conductor...
M: Who's deeply emotionally attached to her. The whole idea of art as ephemeral, and the technological reproduction of the voice or the image, it's all a metaphor for the cinema. It's really Fellini making a statement about cinema through opera in a way. About how artifice almost makes reality both artificial but a greater reality that could ever be lived in in real life.
K: He's referencing these artforms that more or less have had their heyday. I wonder if he's saying the same about cinema. There's something about this film with its funeral attitude towards cinema... I want to call it a death of cinema film, even as it celebrates cinema's power - the penultimate shot in the movie attests to the magic that cinema can construct. Still there's a sense of profound mourning for the artform as well.