Edited by Damian Petttigrew,
Harry N. Abrams, $35, 176 pages
Review by Michael Rowin
a Film Comment online exclusive
Among the past year's overlooked films was Damian Pettigrew's Fellini: I'm a Born Liar, a documentary featuring not just footage from the late director's final interview and revealing insights about his life and work from collaborators such as Italo Calvino, Donald Sutherland, and Terrence Stamp, but also evocative tracking shots through locales made famous in La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, a simple tactic that renders these environments both reminiscent and more palpable. Haunting imagery and attention to physical presence similarly pervade Pettigrew's book I'm a Born Liar: A Fellini Lexicon (not to be confused with Sam Rohdie's seminal, poetic Fellini Lexicon), a sort of companion piece to the film, consisting of the author's interview material, arranged in alphabetical order according to subject, as well as rare, restored photographs capturing moments from the films and the director at work. Roughly coinciding with the 10th anniversary of Fellini's death on October 31, 1993, the book proves to be one of the great documents of Fellini in his own words, as well as a beautiful photographic journey through his cinema.
While Fellini's explications of his filmmaking method and theory never had the impact of Pasolini's or Antonioni's writings, I'm a Born Liar further demonstrates, along with the interviews and statements collected in Essays in Criticism and Fellini on Fellini, that the director was never short on ideas, opinions, reconsiderations, witticisms, and humor. It also testifies to Fellini's complete dedication to cinema as an intuitive visual art that transcends mere illustrative storytelling, an idea he repeats obsessively, as if to stress how rudimentary and yet underappreciated it is: "I think almost exclusively in images, which explains why an actor's face and body are more important to me than plot structure . . . . The key word to understanding my kind of cinema is vitality. What I seek is to live the expression itself." There are also round-ups of Fellini's thoughts on Jungian psychology, women, artificiality, dreams, clowns, metacinema, and the artistic process. All of this may be nothing new to Fellini aficionados, but the book's organization keeps revealing his well-known philosophies in various guises, from concerned modernist to playful innovator to out-and-out joker. Pettigrew only occasionally allows his questions to remain in the text, creating a discontinuous but fluid flow suggestive of the "open" form of Fellini's middle to late films.
Fellini was such a good interview subject largely because he reveled in creating his own myth, even outside film ("I invented everything, including my birth"), and, in keeping with its title, the book presents a host of wonderful Fellini yarns, including his childhood abduction via wolf, his mysterious encounter with Carlos Castaneda, and several experiences involving magic and paranormal visions. The main curios come from projects that never got off the ground: not only the well-known cursed production Voyage of G. Mastorna (the funereal mood of which pervaded Fellini's films from Satyricon onward), but also a WWII version of Tarzan, written by Marcello Mastroianni; Visions of Italy, a collaboration with Italo Calvino inspired by the latter's Italian Folktales, dealing with "fables as prophetic dreams"; a story concerning a man who metamorphoses into a woman after a heart transplant; and The Voyage to Tulum, a sort of Fellini Que Viva Mexico! documenting the director's search for Castaneda, the infamous "Mescaline Man."
Perhaps the greatest surprise, however, comes from Fellini's sincere humility, not only in his role as an artist ("My films are based on fragile, half-digested ideas propped up with contradictory information and infused with nonexistent memories. If I'm lucky, I manage to get a few laughs") and his success ("I do not recognize any particular acts of will on my part that can be described as personal ambition"), but also in his approach to life, in his belief that observation and improvisation, rather than aggressivity and hubris, can foster attentiveness to reality while transforming it at the same time. This was the brilliance of Fellini's vision - an eye that searches patiently for people and places, essences and oddities. As the maestro himself so elegantly explained it, "To believe is part and parcel of that vague yet fundamental sentiment in which I recognize an essential part of myself - the feeling of waiting for something." The images in Born Liar attest to the boundless creativity and beauty generated during this wait.
- MICHAEL ROWIN
© 2004 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center