What do Fellini's drawings tell us about his films?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Jan. 22 2004 4:53 PM

Portraits of the Auteur

What do Fellini's amateurish drawings tell us about his films?

Self-Portrait With Ginger and Fred (click on image to expand)
Self-Portrait With Ginger and Fred (click on image to expand)

Like John Huston and Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini was a compulsive doodler. But he had no pretensions about his absent-minded hobby. When a longtime friend, the graphic artist and journalist Vincenzo Mollica, approached Fellini with the idea of publishing a book about his drawings, the director resisted with some hostility. He saw no appreciable merit in his "scribbles"—mostly caricatures of friends, actors, and fat-breasted dominatrixes, dashed off on scraps of office stationary. Fellini told Mollica, "I think that if I hadn't been a director no one would talk about my drawings. For me it's a secondary, marginal, peripheral activity that has sparked interest only because I've made some films."

Mollica eventually wrote the book anyway (Fellini: Words and Drawings was published in 2000, seven years after Fellini's death), and many of the drawings, done in blunted pencil or magic marker, have recently been on display at the Guggenheim, just a floor above the scribblings of Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne. The curators roughly divided the exhibition into three main groups of drawings, each of which corresponded to a different phase of Fellini's life: the early movie star portraits, which he drew as a youth in Rimini, Italy; the drawings for set and costume design that he made throughout his career as a filmmaker; and finally the show's most revealing section, the caricatures, drawn in the final years of his life. Although the caricatures are of dubious artistic quality, when taken with the earlier drawings, they provide rare insight into the evolution—and dissolution—of Fellini's directorial career.

Fellini detractors may find in all of his drawings confirmation of the criticism often leveled against Fellini: that his characters are mere caricatures. Fellini's sketches of the prancing comedian Totò, for instance, resemble the work of the caricaturist at my cousin's bat mitzvah. Fellini admirers, on the other hand, may appreciate the playful touch with which he sketched, over and over again, his caricatures' rhombic smiles and googly eyes. But even they may be taken aback by a group of caricatures titled "Erotic Drawings." For me, seeing these for the first time was a bit like discovering his hidden stash of porno mags—framed and hung on the walls of the Guggenheim.

Like the other caricatures, most of these erotic drawings were drawn in the last years of Fellini's life and revive his favorite characters from his films. Foremost among these are the "Amazonian" woman: the lascivious behemoth, robust and buxom, who lures the intimidated (and aroused) male hero. This imposing figure, who appears over and over again in his films, tends to combine a ravenous sexuality with a comforting, maternal presence. One such example is Saraghina, a village prostitute whose wicked gyrations on a beach first stun, then excite, a group of young boys in 8 1/2 (1963); others include Volpina in Amarcord (1973) and Suzy in Juliet of the Spirits (1965). Many of the erotic drawings honor this Fellinian sex symbol, her defining features blown up to mythic proportions. Fellini himself appears in several of these caricatures, often in miniature. In one, he is smothered between mammoth breasts, with only a flapping arm and leg visible. In another, a geyser of milk spurts out of a woman's breast and lands on the diminutive Fellini who stands primly beneath the gigantessa.

But more surprising than the Amazonians are Fellini's erotic self-caricatures. When I was at the exhibition, it took the elderly couple next to me nearly a minute of squinting and head-tilting to realize that the drawing they were looking at depicted Fellini masturbating (and having marked success). In another drawing, Fellini's Brobdingnagian manhood drops to his feet, drags along the ground, and then rebounds perpendicularly to serve as an elbow rest for the grinning auteur. There is still something playful about this set of caricatures, but the overwhelming lewdness, combined with the knowledge of the artist's advanced age (several are undated, but the rest are from around 1990, the year Fellini turned 70), gives them a somewhat darker aspect. The innocence and wonder apparent in the portraits of 1930s movie stars are gone; so too is the meticulous and crafty attention which he gave to the drawings he made on the sets of his films to explain his ideas for costume and set design. Oddly enough, the caricatures, the erotic drawings included, are the most childlike of his drawings.

Yet there is a tragic logic to the unexpected affinity between his caricatures and his last three films. In a film retrospective accompanying the exhibition, the Guggenheim is showing Ginger and Fred (1986), Interview (1987), and even the impossible-to-find The Voice of the Moon (1990), a disjointed and nightmarish tour of Fellini's favorite fascinations, featuring Japanese tourists, TV reporters, and the inevitable sex-starved Amazonians, among others. (See the complete film schedule here.) In their mawkish attempts to revisit Fellini's earlier, greater achievements, these last films often feel like caricatures themselves.

Ginger and Fred, in celluloid
Ginger and Fred, in celluloid

In Ginger and Fred, Fellini regulars Marcello Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina (Fellini's wife in real life) reunite as aging music-hall dancers, called out of retirement to perform on a nationally televised variety show. They arrive at a TV set filled not with actors but with celebrity impersonators; Fellini argues, not too subtly, that the awe and wonder of cinema has given way to the crass phoniness of the new TV culture. Mastroianni and Masina laugh in resignation as they see Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, and even an Italian Ronald Reagan backstage. Unfortunately, Fellini is so successful in reproducing the hollowness of television (its slimy "personalities," flimsy sets, slavish devotion to corporate sponsors) that the film assumes the blank glare of the medium he intends to mock. In the film's most memorable scene, Mastroianni tries, on live television, to perform a tap dance solo, a reference to a younger Mastroianni and his earlier, more vibrant acting days. Too old and clumsy, he falls down. Rising warily from the fake ballroom floor, he cannot disguise his humiliation. It is a sad metaphor for the film itself, in which Fellini struggles to attain a stylistic grace that he can no longer summon up.

Intervista, a caricature of a different sort
Interview, a caricature of a different sort

Interview, playing on Jan. 24 and 28, is even more regressive in its approach. (The Voice of the Moon plays on Jan. 30.) The film is a pseudodocumentary: A Japanese film crew interviews Fellini, who plays himself, about his career. In one particularly uncomfortable scene the film crew follows Fellini and Mastroianni as they show up unannounced at the home of Anita Ekberg. She has inflated frighteningly in the 30 years since starring opposite Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita. The two former co-stars embrace and tell each other that they look the same. Then they plop down on the couch and view clips from their scenes together. Watching the old black-and-white footage, Ekberg begins to cry.

Amid the exhibition's drawings hang two widescreen televisions that show a loop of memorable scenes from Fellini's best films. Once every five minutes or so, a loud, sultry voice comes over the speakers. It is the young Ekberg, wading knee-deep in the Trevi. "Marcello," she cries. "Come in." Everyone forgets about the drawings and turns to the screens, transfixed by images more colorful and animated than all of the squatting Amazonians and grinning caricatures together.

Nathaniel Rich is the author ofThe Mayor's Tongue, a novel, and San Francisco Noir, a book of film criticism.

  Slate Plus
Slate Archives
Nov. 26 2014 12:36 PM Slate Voice: “If It Happened There,” Thanksgiving Edition Josh Keating reads his piece on America’s annual festival pilgrimage.