NEW YORK — Although Federico Fellini made it here for the premiere of his latest film, "Ginger and Fred," he was still upset that a sudden leg injury prevented him from being one of the illustrious director-presenters of the best film Oscar.
"The Oscars have the kind of nostalgia, spectacle and stardust that you see in 'Ginger and Fred,' " he said in English. "I would have liked to be there before my definitive mummification."
But his 16th feature (which opens in Los Angeles next Friday) suggests that this recipient of four Oscars of his own is hardly on the brink of retirement.
"Ginger and Fred" teams, for the first time on screen, Giulietta Masina--Fellini's wife and star of such classics as "La Strada," "Nights of Cabiria" and "Juliet of the Spirits"--with Marcello Mastroianni, star of "La Dolce Vita" and "8 1/2." They portray a pair of aging dancers, who used to perform imitations of the world's most beloved dance team, reunited after 30 years for a holiday TV broadcast.
Although the title suggests that the film might be about the world of Astaire and Rogers, Fellini's focus is more contemporary, zeroing in on the raucous vulgarity of television and the values it represents. Indeed, "Ginger and Fred" is less sentimental about its two protagonists than parodic of the new world to which they're briefly invited.
The larger-than-life creatures, exaggerated faces and stylized images that have become Fellini's trademark are abundant in this film, from dancing midgets to a lascivious transvestite, from a senile admiral to a sleazy emcee with a pasted-on smile. They have all been gathered to appear on an exceedingly tacky variety show.
"I tried to balance the story of what is going on around us with the one of two individuals who are not merely witnesses," explained the 66-year-old director. "They come from another kind of picture--not only as human beings, but as performers--more old-fashioned, with pathos and comedy. I follow them without too much sympathy because of my satirical intentions. In the background is TV, which I present objectively."
Although the gaudy proceedings might seem hyperbolic to some viewers, Fellini insisted on this objectivity: "It's impossible to exaggerate when dealing with TV--to present anything more stupid, cynical or demented than what's on the tube. It's like describing the disaster of an insane brain while using an insane brain--a game of mirrors. The real difficulty is that my parodic intentions become almost impotent because it's hard to parody something which in itself is already a parody."
Part of the director's anger stems from the way that television lacks the magic of the film-going experience. "Cinema is like a ritual," he observed, occasionally using a translator. "In its communication of a message, it respectfully leaves more interior space for the viewer. To have gone there, leaving the others outside in the street, is a testament to personal choice--'I want to go see this'--rather than succumbing to invasive dependency.
"The individual remains alone with the message, walks out of the dream and returns to his life," he continued. "The ritual has a religious moment. It's not senseless, disrespectful and dangerous like teledependency, where you watch while you're on the phone, yelling at your children or switching from channel to channel while eating. The best way to watch TV is while you're asleep."
One would assume that Fellini consequently hates films on videocassettes, which can be watched with the same lack of respect. But here his view is more benign. As he explained, "It's nice that you can keep a film you love like a book, to re-create the cinema in your home. Hopefully, you'll turn off the lights! Then it's an imitation of the theater ritual. You can even have popcorn!"
Ironically enough, the origin of "Ginger and Fred" was a TV episode in which Fellini was to direct his wife. "The series fell through," he recalled, "because of the arrogance of a producer who said, 'Why should a director like Fellini do a little TV episode? Just write a few more lines of script and make a feature.' He was right."
Fellini had not intended to use Mastroianni who "hardly has the physique of a dancer," Fellini said with a laugh, "and was heavier than usual. He said to me, 'I've made so many films, but would love to do one in a tuxedo, tap-dancing.' I answered, 'Well, my friend, it will remain a dream.' "
But when Fellini told Masina about this, she begged her husband, "Please take him. He's such a nice guy." In Fellini's opinion, this was "hardly the thing to say to a director who's trying to be rigorous. But finally, it was perfect."
Pairing these two icons of the Italian cinema fit in with what Fellini called his "puppeteer nature: I've put together two of my favorite puppets, each representing a different aspect of my cinema. This is the trick--an honest one--of the entrepreneur who offers two stars together for the first time."