September 25, 2014
The Clowns – Italy, 1970
One of the great challenges of discovering directors and films from the past is being able to set aside all that has been said or written about them already and judging them for oneself. The internet has exacerbated this. These days, it is practically impossible to read about certain directors’ films without seeing the phrase another masterpiece near the top of a review or plot summary. And so people may watch the film expecting to see someone’s magnum opus and get frustrated by their inability to see the qualities that others have raved so enthusiastically about. Federico Fellini is one of these directors whose stellar reputation precedes him. He and his films have earned such praise as to have created the impression that practically each one of them is a perfectly crafted work of art that should be studied and re-watched for eternity. This is a very tall order, indeed; after all, it is highly unlikely for someone who made as many films as Fellini did not to have made at least a clunker or two. All of this brings me to Fellini’s 1970 film, The Clowns.
The Clowns is a pseudo-documentary sandwiched between two fascinating bookends. The film opens with a scene of wondrous imagination, and it produces expectations of an equally magical journey to come. In the scene, a young boy watches as a circus tent seems to rise out of the earth itself, as if it were being pulled upward by some invisible Greek or Roman god. The boy stands at his window fixated, and the next day, he even sneaks in to see the circus rehearse – as young children may be apt to do. Fellini then shows us the circus through his eyes – we see the strongman, the lion trainer, the knife-thrower. And eventually we see the clowns, which cause the boy to cry. There is a reason for this which I won’t reveal. However, I believe it would have made for a more fascinating story than what follows.
Towards the end of the film, Fellini shows us a clown funeral – well, a staged one at least. It begins with tears, moves on to jokes and silliness, and concludes with a marvelous swirling parade that is sure to delight both adults and children alike. This is followed by one of the film’s quietest and most personal scenes, and it is in this scene that we see that Fellini views clowns as more than just comic jesters or skilled performers of slapstick. To Fellini, they are gifted artists who use the promise of comedy to showcase their array of talents and elicit from their audience a variety of emotions. A clown that just honks his nose or trips over his own feet is just going through the motions. I feel safe in saying that I have never seen the kind of clown Fellini admires in person, although the clowns in The Pickle Family Circus came close.
In between the wonder of the opening scene and the power of the final scenes, The Clowns goes terribly wrong. The middle section seems to detail Fellini’s quest for an answer to a question that he doesn’t explain why he feels the need to ask: What has happened to the clowns and circuses of old? To demonstrate why he feels the need to ask such a question, Fellini shows audiences what he must consider to be an inferior act involving two clowns spitting water at each other. The act is juvenile and reveals very little in the way of musical or physical talent, but is it so awful as to demonstrate the downfall of the entire clown profession? No. In fact, all it really shows is that times have changed.
From there, we get more of the quest. Fellini takes us to visit retired clowns that live in senior centers and a clown that retired rich. He goes in search of footage of the man who is said to have been the greatest clown of his kind and is disappointed in what little he finds. I half-expected him to get frustrated and wonder what it was all leading to, as Nick Bloomfield does in Kurt & Courtney, an unrewarding film about a search for answers that yield nothing of any consequence. He doesn’t, thankfully. Instead, Fellini is more reminiscent of Wim Wenders in the film Tokyo Ga. That’s the film in which Wenders searches for remnants of the Tokyo that he was exposed to in the films of Yasujiro Ozu and laments not being able to find them. Fellini seems to have similar sentiments regarding clowns.
The difficulty with films such as this one is that what is meant to be nostalgic or sentimental runs the risk of coming across as complaining or being resistant to change. Yes, things are not the way they used to be, and from what Fellini shows us, being a clown meant something quite different in his day than it does in ours. This is an observation that indeed has great cinematic potential. In fact, a film about a boy seeing clowns in their splendor could have been timeless, and a film documenting a group of clowns creating and performing a clown funeral could have been inspiring. What we have instead is a man in search of an answer that ultimately proves elusive. Sometimes such a film can be mesmerizing; here, we have two compelling parts that are somewhat undone by an aimless center. I consider The Clowns a disappointment, but don’t take my word for it. According to the description on the DVD, it’s “one of [Fellini’s] final masterpieces.” (on DVD and Blu-ray from Raro Video)
2 and a half stars
*The Clowns is in Italian with English subtitles