The Sex, Scandal, and High Style of La Dolce Vita.Posted: August 23, 2011
There are far too many oddities of my personality to list (and far too few which people find as fascinating as I might hope), but one of the more prominent is an obsession with ‘good’ movies. I feel like knowing a lot about film will let people know that “Hey, look at me!!! I’m smart!!! I have good taste because I like things the New York Times tells me I should!!!!! And I’ve definitely never eaten at Friendlys and enjoyed it!!!!!!” So this newest post ties not only into that deep-seated desire to be accepted by the nouvelle intelligencia whose world I assume I’ll be trying to infiltrate once I enter grad school (and my myriad attempts to prepare for just such an inevitable occurrence through stocking my mindcloset full of wildly useless tidbits about obscure films, books and music… rather than trying to remember shit that, you know, might actually get me into grad school), as well as my general fatigue at the end of summer and after the GREs. Funny story, haha, I thought they were a day later than they were. August 23rd, rather than the 22nd. You know, it happens. Don’t worry, I didn’t miss them. I just had three hours to study rather than 27. Hilarious right? I think I cried a little when I read the confirmation email. Anyway.
So for my triumphant return to the blogosphere, I bring you the sexy and scandalous tale of not a person, but a film, on this, the (approximate) fiftieth anniversary of its arrival on American soil. Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Probably his best known movie, (Until they made that piece of shit musical-cum-Fergie-vehicle Nine into a movie just in time for Oscar season a couple years back. Think again Rob Marshall, you can’t get another golden boy for making Chicago 2. Fuck you and your meaningless razzle-dazzle.) it also marks the change between not only his own neorealistism style to a more surrealist approach, but that of all Italian cinema.
Told as a series of vignettes, it was contemporaneously touted as “the greatest modern parable on the sadness of sin.” The movie is packed with so much latent and overt sexuality it verges on caricature. Hell, it is a caricature. The main character is a socialite paparazzo (a term Fellini actually invented) who has just as much scandal in his own life as those of the people he photographs.
The moral stance Fellini takes against his characters and their wanton actions is mixed up with the fact that, to some extent, he is jealous of them. It’s a beautifully filmed, devastating and subtle film, there is nothing sexier than Anouk Aimee’s dresses, Anita Ekberg’s dancing, or the way Marcello Mastroianni smokes a cigarrette, gazes over the edge of his sunglasses, then sighs like he’s watching his lung being eaten by a pack of feral street cats. But there’s no real need for me to try and summarize the movie or draw interpretation which anyone else can do in their own. And in fact, I think at some point, when I get more time, I’ll try and write up a little history of the sexiest films of 1961, ’cause shoot boy, they were more numerous than health and safety lawsuits against Arby’s. But that’s another story.
A brief note on the ‘critical reception’ of the day. When it first opened in America (after a delay of more than a year), it was not a universally well-received movie. Some critics took umbrage to its lack of linking structure, but far more felt reviled by the content which was deemed “vulgar,” “grotesque,” and “shameless” by more than one review. The America which La Dolce Vita arrived was still a highly conservative one in its taste for movies. One of the highest grossing movies of 1961 was Judgment at Nuremberg. A legal drama. About Nazis. Yum. Meanwhile, in Europe, part of the cathartic process of rebuilding a broken continent lay in sexual and artistic liberation, thus paving the way for some very daring films indeed.
FUN FACT: In 1961, the actual act of sex hadn’t been depicted on screen, not even in grindhouse theaters, which showed films made outside of the MPAA rating, and were thus far more ‘edgy.’ In grindhouse movies you got violence, and drugs, and lots of titties, but no penetration. Porn as we know it came about in the 1970s, so that’s another story. This is a sweet little documentary on the subject, if you’ve got a spare hour and a half ( you know you do, why else are you reading this blog?). This is not to say movies weren’t sexy. Alfred Hitchcock not only loved himself a stylish thriller, but a blond bombshell in every fucking picture. Even his silent films practically explode with sexuality, but the times were different, and the panoptic studio system of the time knew sex would sell, but too much would alienate.
So anyway, sex has always been a part of the filmmaking tradition, implicit or otherwise, and by 1961, international shit was hitting the American fan. After WWII, the increased American interest in all things European was divided generally between, “I want to take an expensive and intrusive vacation in Europe, stay in a Hilton hotel and maybe walk around and talk loudly about how much I’ve been walking around,” and “Let’s watch a foreign movie.”
There were plenty of critics and movie-goers who did love and recognize the genius of La Dolce Vita, despite some ‘trying’ subject matter. Roger Ebert’s first published film review was for La Dolce Vita, and he still lists it in this top ten favorites. Bosley Crowthers, the famously harsh critic for the NYTimes even called it a brilliant commentary on the inherent decay caused by “over-civilization.” ‘Shocking,’ ‘sexy,’ and ‘sordid,’ were commonly used to describe it at the time (’cause who doesn’t love a little alliteration?), and while it was never banned in America (though it was by the Church in parts of Italy, and in Spain until after Franco’s death), it was relegated to art-house theaters, and with censored subtitles. But I’m too far removed (via fashionable aloofness) from the incident to be all that indignant, especially now that the movie’s got itself a nice little box-set DVD release, and is universally lauded as a turning point in world cinema. Oh, and sorry if this entire post was less sexy and scandalous and more like listening to an entire conversation like this.