The Unbearable Lightness of Genre

17Mar07

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In the course of their respective careers Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais tried to get some projects off the ground which were inspired by genre fiction. Albeit not much of this came to fruitition. But I suppose that although they had to face problems of financial backing etc. (especially Resnais) they ultimately realized how hard it would be to incorporate the formulas of science fiction or fantasy within the narrative structures they had developed for themselves; Fellini in his unique way of magical realism which was designated with the epithet “felliniesque” and Resnais who expressed via non-linear, repetitive and elliptic modes of storytelling his obsession with time and memory .

Fellini’s confessional 8 ½ actually adresses such difficulties: The director’s alter ego Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) finds himself unable to cope with a straightforward science fiction narrative.

In the case of 8 1/2, something happened to me which I had feared could happen, but when it did, it was more terrible than I could ever have imagined. I suffered director’s block, like writer’s block. I had a producer, a contract. I was at Cinecittà, and everybody was ready and waiting for me to make a film. What they didn’t know was that the film I was going to make had fled from me. There were sets already up, but I couldn’t find my sentimental feeling (…)
Then, I heard the small voice of creativity within me. I knew. The story I would tell was of a writer who doesn’t know what he wants to write (…) Later, I changed the profession of Guido to that of film director. He became a film director who didn’t know what he wanted to direct. From I Fellini – Charlotte Chandler

When approached for the Edgar Allan Poe omnibus Histoires Extraordinaires (Spirits of the Dead) Fellini was initially reluctant to do it, but Toby Dammit turned out to be the film’s finest episode and it is regarded among afficionados as one of the great achievements in fantasy filmmaking. Especially the depiction of the devil as an innocent looking girl proved to be highly influential. Fellini chose to transpose Poe’s source story Never Bet the Devil Your Head to a contemporary setting so that it could stay in tune with some of his household themes:

Terence Stamp… reincarnates Poe as a tripped out spectre of 20th century stardom… a pre-punk iconoclast whose persona and conduct during TV-interviews were studied all too well by Johnny Rotten.
(Q: ‘Is it true that you’ve taken jobs of an undignified kind? A: ‘Yes…, but never a TV-interviewer!’)
Tim Lucas (Video Watchdog No. 33)

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The devil in Toby Dammit

Alain Resnais had his first experience in the realm of the fantastic in 1936 when he filmed a version of Fantomas with his schoolmates. Another project that Resnais always dreamt of was the adaptation of the Harry Dickson series and in 1959 he met with fantasy novelist Jean Ray to discuss it. In the late sixties he collaborated with science fiction writer Jacques Sternberg on what was certainly the closest that he came to film a fantastic sujet in his career as a professional director: Je t’aime, je t’aime. I haven’t been able too see it yet – it’s very rarely screened – but by all accounts he was successful in melding the paraphernalia of time travel stories with his personal vision. Read this very good synopsis from Strictly Film School:

A group of scientists anxiously await word for a despondent, melancholic patient named Claude Ridder (Claude Rich) to regain consciousness at an unidentified hospital, where he is gradually recuperating from a gunshot wound resulting from an attempted suicide, in order to approach him on an ambiguous proposal to participate in a short duration human time travel experiment.” more…

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Claude Rich in Je t’aime, je t’aime

From 1969 to 1970 Resnais tried his luck in the United States. Deliver us from Good should have been a film about de Sade. Arkham was a project about H. P. Lovecraft that he prepared together with William Friedkin. It might be that he used some of its material for Providence as this film is dedicated to Lovecraft.

One other noticeable similarity between Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais is their avowed love of comic strips.
Before making films Fellini even did some jobs in the this field.

He worked for the publisher Nerbini on (among others) two publications: the satirical weekly 420 and l’Avventuroso. During the era when fascism decreed rigid isolation, it was forbidden to import American comics, but certain characters from them were continued in adventures created by Italian artists. Legend has it that Fellini wrote several scripts for Flash Gordon, illustrated by the exceptional Giove Toppi. Fellini can only recall one title, Rebo, King of the Mercurians.
Vincenzo Mollica in Trip to Tulum

Resnais was vice president of the Centre d’Étude des Littératures d’Expression Graphique and member of the editorial staff of Giff Wiff the first magazine in France to explore the history of comics. He also claimed that all he learned about editing came from comic strips. During his stay in the US Red Ryder was another of his projects that was abandoned.
Incidentally Mandrake seems to be the favourite comic character of both Resnais and Fellini. Lee Falk even received the famous cap from the latter in exchange for the promise to let him adapt Mandrake for the screen. But, alas, this was not to be, either.

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Marcello Mastroianni as Mandrake the Magician

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Alain Resnais’ Toute la Mémoire du Monde

Postscript:

To give credit where credit is due. Tim Lucas states in his very incisive, above mentioned article on Spirits of the Dead that Fellini drew his inspiration for the “bambina diavolo” from the ghost-child in Operazione Paura (1966) directed by Mario Bava. Well, I would argue that he must have seen Bunuel’s Simon del Desierto (1965), too.
Here’s a clip from Toby Dammit. And another one has Terence Stamp retelling how Fellini explained to him the motivation for his part.

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Silvia Pinal and Claudio Brook in Simon del Desierto

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