747 Fellini Satyricon

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Re: Fellini Satyricon (Federico Fellini, 1969)

#26 Post by Roscoe » Thu Jul 23, 2015 4:09 pm

"The many detours into grotesque celebrations of ugliness and decadence grew tiresome"

I'm not seeing Fellini celebrating ugliness or decadence -- he certainly depicts it, but I never get the feeling that he's getting off on it. Is Fellini celebrating Vernacchio having slave's hand severed for the good of the show, or the collection of needy mutilated people congregated at the albino demi-god's temple?

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Re: Fellini Satyricon (Federico Fellini, 1969)

#27 Post by Gregory » Thu Jul 23, 2015 6:00 pm

Many viewers seemed to see similar things in La Dolce Vita, claiming that it was an endorsement of debauchery and even that this was Fellini's own milieu or lifestyle (it wasn't). I just don't see it. One of the reasons that Fellini Satyricon was considered controversial in its day was its nonjudgmental treatment of homosexual relationships, but I'd be surprised if that's what's meant by people today as part of the "decadence" shown in the film. If the debauchery of Trimalchio's feast is instead mainly what's meant, then there is a real criticism of those notions of status and power, I think. Petronius wrote those passages in such a way that Encolpius was understood to be mocking and criticizing Trimalchio, and Fellini's film has always seemed to me to convey that. I can't understand seeing such ostentatious excesses, with virtually nothing noble in evidence, in a positive light.
And the reason that the feast featured so prominently in the film that it's main part of the Satyricon that survived more or less intact, so as a way of tapping the spirit of the original text it makes sense that it became one of the film's main centerpieces.

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Re: Fellini Satyricon (Federico Fellini, 1969)

#28 Post by domino harvey » Sun Jul 26, 2015 3:07 pm

I think your last point is the most compelling one (Fellini focused so much on the dinner scene because the source text did as well), but I don't think Fellini is being merely presentational in his laundry list of icky decadence. When so much of it is captured and focused on and returned to over and over, it makes it hard for me to accept that the film is all that critical of what it is depicting. A chopped hand here or there is hardly enough to make up for the makeup et al. And even if Fellini is critical of the ugliness of Antiquity, he still devotes so much time to just showing it that the message could have easily been related without half as much of this kind of thing on-screen.

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Re: Fellini Satyricon (Federico Fellini, 1969)

#29 Post by knives » Sun Jul 26, 2015 3:16 pm

Also the question is what about the decadence is Fellini/ Petronius satirizing. In the book (which I just finished actually) it's clear that an assumed arrogance is the point of humour and Fellini doesn't really seem to differ much on that. The actual decadence seems almost besides the point of the parody with the accompanying attitudes being much more sour for him. Or to phrase it more clearly the dinner isn't so much an issue as the way the dinner is used to augment status. It's almost as if Fellini is comparing the Neronian politics to the fascist ones of Italy's recent past. It's clear that at least through representation Fellini enjoys the decadence even if he doesn't like the people.

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Re: Fellini Satyricon (Federico Fellini, 1969)

#30 Post by Gregory » Sun Jul 26, 2015 5:45 pm

I suppose it was to be expected and possibly intended that viewers would be impressed and even titillated by the excesses and bizarre displays but also shocked and revolted by the alienness and vulgarity of some of it, wanting to see such things only from a safe desire. For me, there is arguably some measure of Fellini reflected in Trimalchio, and his feast is extremely different from watching Laughton doing Henry VIII in the Korda film, simply exaggerating piggish manners to comic effect, because Trimalchio delivers such an ingenious performance for his guests at every turn, consciously and cleverly twisting their expectations of what's going on. For example, when he leads them to intercede on behalf of the chef who pretends to have forgotten to gut the pig. The chef is stripped naked before it's revealed that it was all a show and that the pig has been carefully filled with sausages. Trimalchio then pulls a similar stunt by having a slave fall off a ladder onto him, as Trimalchio pretends to be injured. Are the guests caught up in this charade because they're concerned about the slave's fate? According to Petronius, the guests would have been happy to see his neck broken except for the fact that this may have ruined their fun by compelling them to go into mourning for someone they didn't even care about. Trimalchio then frees the slave. Why? A staged display of mercy? To show that he has so many slaves that he can set them free on a whim, or as Petronius has it, "so that nobody could say that the great Trimalchio had been hurt by a mere slave." Probably all of the above.
Thus it's all an elaborately calculated and self-serving show (much worse than something merely decadent or wasteful) and the guests are willing to be party to it all because they're so busy being entertained and wrapped up in them.

So while Fellini (and Petronius) may share some qualities with Trimalchio, there is something deeply horrible about the latter. In one way of reflecting on all this, I can't help but see political meanings in it: the showmanship that's wrapped up in displays of power and prestige; the notion of someone who fancies himself a philosopher/poet but is only concerned with endless accumulation and conspicuous consumption.
But Fellini claimed that the banquet scenes were actually inspired by eating contests he'd seen in the villages of his childhood that took place at "appalling" peasant dinners that lasted all afternoon and late into the night. (That's from a quote attributed to him in Eileen Lanouette Hughes's behind-the-scenes memoir.)

This seems to support my existing reading of the banquet sequence as implicitly critical of that kind of decadence itself, not just when it's done by horrible people, if the inspiration for the way it was adapted had in mind not slave-owning landholders but hardworking people who made the occasional feast become so excessive that eating became a competitive sport. But I'd come around again to the statement at the beginning of this post, and conclude that Fellini revels in excessive depictions as part of his psychology and vision, independently of the material (his Book of Dreams was a revelation for me in that area). He takes his flair for the grandiose and the fantastic seen in a film like Juliet of the Spirits but here applies it to many strange and even grotesque situations, many of which were purely Fellini's own, not found at all in the Petronius text. Surely even many who were major fans of Fellini's previous works were strongly turned off by Satyricon.

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Re: Fellini Satyricon (Federico Fellini, 1969)

#31 Post by Sloper » Sat Aug 01, 2015 11:38 am

This has been a welcome opportunity to catch up on some late Fellini I hadn't seen before (I liked Juliet of the Spirits and Roma very much, Amarcord not so much) and re-visit La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. However, despite also re-watching Satyricon (and starting to think it's one of Fellini's best films) I’m struggling to think of a coherent response to the above posts. Here are some thoughts, anyway...
Gregory wrote:Many viewers seemed to see similar things in La Dolce Vita, claiming that it was an endorsement of debauchery and even that this was Fellini's own milieu or lifestyle (it wasn't). I just don't see it.
I'd certainly worry about someone who came away from La Dolce Vita thinking that its title wasn't overtly ironic. However, I'm not sure that it is 'debauchery' as such that is being critiqued there, but rather a way of life that is defined by artifice and pretence, a culture in which people have lost touch with their deepest, most profound impulses, or with what Fellini sometimes figures as ‘the spiritual’, or ‘spirits’. The film is most scathing when it comes to the paparazzi, who seem to embody these problems. The bacchic revelries themselves seem to me quite ambiguous in tone. Even the final sequence suggests that such orgies offer some kind of revelation, even if the truth revealed is an ugly one.

In any case, what we get in Satyricon is quite different, and I do think the overall tone here is more celebratory and less moralising. Looking at Fellini's own comments on the film in the MoC booklet, it seems that he was torn between three different perspectives: first, he is attracted to the source material because he sees in it a way to satirise modern life, which supports your reading Gregory; second, he wants to portray and explore this lost, alien lifestyle in an uncompromising but non-judgmental way; and third, it seems pretty clear from his tone that he is also quite enchanted and seduced by these transgressive adventures.

For me, these last two perspectives are the ones that tend to dominate in the film. As a rule, it refuses to take a moral stance of any kind. I read the interview where he discusses the parallel between Trimalchio's feast and the provincial eating contest, but his tone doesn't seem especially judgmental - more fascinated, really. And notice that even Encolpio is amused when Trimalchio sends Eumolpo off to be tortured; the more 'innocent' characters in this film, the young men whose beauty, tenderness and sensuality are clearly being celebrated much of the time, are also capable of cruel and abusive behaviour. But unlike in, say, La Strada, Nights of Cabiria or La Dolce Vita, the cruelty and thoughtlessness on display never seem that consequential. That is, I’m not sure I agree that Trimalchio comes across as ‘deeply horrible’, especially since the film does not draw clear moral distinctions between him and the other characters.
Roscoe wrote:Is Fellini celebrating Vernacchio having slave's hand severed for the good of the show, or the collection of needy mutilated people congregated at the albino demi-god's temple?
I can’t see how he’s ‘celebrating’ the latter, especially since some of them are clearly bloated rich people; one of the mutilated figures is a ‘hero’ who has lost his limbs in battle, but nothing in this film implies that it has any great respect for such military endeavours. This crowd of people come across as gullible, deluded, occasionally mad; the albino hermaphrodite is clearly being exploited by the two old men; and what are we supposed to think of Encolpio and Ascilto murdering them and then kidnapping the demi-god? I just don’t see the clear opposition you seem to be pointing to here.

The chopping off of the slave's hand is a fascinating moment. It's horrifying, of course, and yet the slave himself seems almost to be grinning with pleasure (mixed with pain) after losing his hand, as he's dragged around the stage and forced to participate in this theatrical 'miracle'. Much like the marriage ceremony on Lichas' ship, or Encolpio's battle with the Minotaur, the scene has a dream-like quality that makes it hard to see it as a serious critique of anything. There is something of Fellini's unashamed love of tawdry vaudeville acts in these lurid fantasies. The world of Petronius' text is distant from the modern world in the same way that dreams are distant from reality, and the abrupt ending is both a lament for the loss of the past (cf. the disintegrating underground frescoes in Roma) and a rueful awakening into the realities of life, a recognition that these characters and their adventures have all been mere representations – and fragmentary ones at that – painted on a wall by a fantasist. By the same token, though, I think the fantasy is to be enjoyed, in a kind of innocent, guilt-free, amoral (or non-moral?) way, while we're immersed in it. The whole thing is astonishingly beautiful. It must be fantastic on a big screen.

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