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The Clowns might be the most wonderfully experimental of the obscure
Federico Fellini films. Now depressingly only available on shoddy old
videos from the 1980s (where, unintentionally on Fellini's part, the
film skips a couple of times in jump cuts), it remains a testament to
one of the director's life-long obsessions: the depravity, the joy, the
delirium, and the choreography of the circus, particularly clowns in
He opens the film with a particular image- a child watches outside his
window as the circus tent is erected up, as if it were rising up from
the ground like a tree- and then goes head-first into a circus
performance. While it shouldn't be very funny, somehow it is, extremely
so, in all the silliest ways that are partly Fellini in the timing of
the shots and how buoyant the camera goes, and in the Nino Rota score
(which, by the way, borrows from all the standards of circus fare, and
as self-referentiality is the name of the game from 8 1/2 in the Wagner
choice), and partly from the clowns themselves.
After a quick kaleidoscope view of a neighborhood with certain
citizens, like a pool-hall man who's kind except for when he goes into
a crazy state once in a while and acts like he's in war, Fellini
changes gears, though not exactly. Like Herzog, and just as personally,
we see a form of a documentary take shape, and not really at the same
time. Fellini seems to be making a documentary on clowns, the history
of them, interviews with the old masters from France and Italy and
Germany, and visiting what remains of the great old sites and rare
silent film reels. But then we see the camera is shooting *them* (them
being the crew) shooting the documentary, and not in a usual
documentary way: it's still a 'Fellini' film, meaning it has the
self-indulgence of Fellini's narration, the dialog sometimes colliding
into what the last person said, and in sweet gliding camera movements
that seem to be flying on air.
What happens from this is that what could be just sheer indulgent flair
turns into a creatively self-conscious work of personal film-making; we
all know how wrapped up Fellini is in all of this, and without calling
too much attention to it he's relaxed and humorous about it. See the
great moment, in the midst of the climax, when he cuts to himself,
being interviewed by some journalist, asked what is the 'message' he
wants to convey with this film, and immediately after this buckets fall
on Fellini and the journalists' heads. And as Fellini is technically
doing a documentary, we get a superb whirlwind of showing and telling
on the part of the clowns. We see them at how they work, with tigers
and with big props, the midgets, the eternal pranksters, and how they
look back on their times (one says he just can't look back anymore).
But what's most brilliant is how Fellini kind of answers his own
hypothesis, which he comes to after viewing an all-too-short silent
film of the clown Remy- that the circus is dead- by having a
twenty-five minute long sequence where clowns deal with death, the
widows, the resurrection, and just pure celebration. By the time it
reaches its apex we're in the midst of one of the grandest of Fellini's
orchestrated acts of abstract art, where clowns are running amok, the
'special effects' are going to a point (won't that 'horse' get in
place!), and Rota's music seems to be going so fast one might see him
off-screen with Fellini as his hands are on fire.
So why not a masterpiece? It is, in a sense, great more as a minor work
than as something towering in the cinematic consciousness like La Dolce
Vita or 8 1/2. It's also a little difficult to judge it as it now
stands in its deteriorated state, as ten seconds of film in different
spots seems to be jettisoned. But it is essential viewing for any
Fellini fan, and for anyone who loves the circus as much as he does.
And for someone like myself, who occasionally finds clowns a little too
creepy and wacky for their own good, Fellini's contribution, however
brief it is in 93 minutes, is unequivocal.
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