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Matters of perception

Fellini!; Edited by Vincenzo Mollica; Skira/Guggenheim New York: 176 pp., $45 paper

June 20, 2004|Michael Bracewell | Michael Bracewell is the author of "England Is Mine: Pop Life in Albion From Wilde to Goldie" and "When Surface Was Depth."

As a boy growing up in Rimini, Federico Fellini idolized the prewar Italian caricaturist Nino Za, the nom de plume of Giuseppe Zanini, who was so successful that he could behave more like a film star than an illustrator. Watching Za at work on the terrace of the town's Grand Hotel, the future director found a role model who seemed to embody the very life of glamour, luxury and romance identifiable in the movies. "The little combo played 'Follow the Fleet,' " Fellini once wrote. "The sky had become a velvety dark blue, like the jacket of the famous illustrator. I felt as if I were in Los Angeles, who knows why. Nino Za. Magnificent hotels. Success. Golden cigarette cases. English shoes. I envied him in my bones."

With the release of his seventh film, "La Dolce Vita," in 1960, Fellini himself became iconic, legendary and, in the eyes of the Vatican, notorious. More than any other director of his generation, he was perceived as both the chronicler and the embodiment of a particular kind of glamour.

Fellini's evocation of a new, Pop-age Roman decadence in "La Dolce Vita" and "Fellini's Roma" (1972) was as intoxicating as it was astute. Perhaps not since the fiction of Andre Gide had there been such a poised and searching portrait of the heady, sulfurous demimonde between high society and contemporary bohemianism. Crammed between the strata of urban society, this was a place where sex, sophistication, high living and excess were constantly shadowed by moral suffocation, neurasthenic passions and, ultimately, a kind of fatal boredom.

Throughout his work, Fellini's novelistic naturalism was always matched -- in some films more overtly than others -- by a glittering overlay of psychological symbolism and archetypal myth. Brothels and parties would become Jungian chambers of the imagination; sea monsters, glimpsed women, cabaret artistes and circus clowns became the mystical signage, playful yet perilous, of a parallel inner world that was part dream and part fairy tale but every bit as real as the world of starlets, paparazzi journalists and elegant cafes on the Via Veneto.

"Everyone lives in his own fantasy world," Fellini told his biographer, Charlotte Chandler, "but most people don't understand that. No one perceives the real world. Each person simply calls his private, personal fantasies the Truth. The difference is that I know I live in a fantasy world. I prefer it that way and resent anything that disturbs my vision."

As an artist and an icon, therefore, Fellini comes across as the omnipotent combination of Jean Cocteau and Orson Welles. He is primarily a visual artist -- a fact that he stressed in his interviews with Chandler: "He told me, 'Films are pictures that move,' " she writes in her introduction to "I, Fellini" (1995), "and he considered his own films the heirs of painting more than of literature."

With this in mind, the exhibition at New York's Guggenheim Museum of Fellini's drawings -- caricatures, cartoons, comic strips, erotica and dream diary sketches -- last autumn and its accompanying publication, "Fellini!," offer a fascinating insight into an artist whose reputation for constantly mythologizing the facts of his own career is curiously vital to our understanding of his art. With its focus on Fellini's relationship to drawing and popular culture, "Fellini!" also achieves the rare biographical task of examining Fellini's career before he worked in cinema.

Exuberant, mysterious, witty and satirical, Fellini's drawings should be enjoyed first and foremost for the sheer style and agility of their execution. The drawings reproduced in "Fellini!' are introduced by a richly informative and perceptive essay -- "Fellini From the First to the Last Drawing" -- by a close friend of the director, Vincenzo Mollica. Of necessity, Mollica introduces his own essay with a lengthy quotation from Fellini's principal statement about his working methods, "Fare un Film" (1974). And of course, it is Fellini himself who gives the best description of his relationship with drawing, in a prose style so torrential and voluptuous -- even in translation -- that its account of his own creativity becomes utterly seductive.

"But let's go back to the drawings," he writes in "Fare un Film," "this almost subconscious, involuntary sketching of scribbles, laying out caricatural memos, creating an endless stream of puppets that stare back at me from every corner of the sheet of paper, automatically tracing obsessive super-sexy female anatomies, the faces of decrepit cardinals, the guttering flames of candles and more and more bosoms and bottoms, and countless other doodles, hieroglyphics, spangled with telephone numbers, addresses, lunatic poetry, tax bills, times for appointments. In short, this graphic grab-bag, spreading, limitless, the delight of any psychiatrist, possibly a sort of clue, a thread, at the end of which I find myself with the spotlights on, on the soundstage, on the first day of shooting."

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