Serge Daney wrote two reviews of Federico Fellini's 1986 Ginger and Fred: for the theatre release in 1986, and when the film was first shown on French television two years later. Here are both, in chronological order. Enjoy.
Ginger and Fred
He was the first to have understood the quid pro quo between cinema and television. Now that the quid pro quo has turned bad, his latest film has a real sadness.
Ginger and Fred is not Fellini’s latest film but rather the new last film by Fellini. It is different. Apparently, the next one will be nothing less than an adaptation of Kafka’s Amerika for 20th Century Fox. If we spoke English, we would not confuse last and latest. But in French (and in Italian) we only have one word at our disposal: dernier (ultimo). And we always pronounce it with a mix of funereal dignity and voyeuristic voracity. Thus, celebrating the latest (or last) Fellini is a ritual we must observe, for the same reasons that any tale starts with “once upon a time.”
For a quarter of a century, this ritual has meant that Fellini’s films are of a different nature, out of the ordinary. The ritual is wearing out though. In the latest “last Fellini films”, there is the nostalgia of the hunger before we gorged ourselves (hunger for pasta, then hunger for images), as we realise we are sated. As if we should still expect everything from Fellini, when we already expect too little from cinema. This is the way cinema is going (and Fellini as a cinema symbol). Flops and ships are sailing on (E la nave va).
Worn out, the ritual is somewhat creaking. The première of Ginger and Fred took place at the French Cinémathèque, but without Fellini. The film was almost released in Paris before Rome where a very private première took place at the Quirinal Palace for the Italian political VIPs (the sound, we are told, was atrocious). At odds with the producer, Grimaldi (something about lots of lire), the three leading actors are snubbing the promotion of the film. Upset with French subtitles, Fellini demands that they be rewritten, delaying the release of the film. There is around Ginger and Fred a lingering odour of unsaid polemics, which is spoiling the ritual.
There are good reasons for this. Whoever wishes to study the current “disruptions in the audiovisual landscape” should focus on the Franco-Italian axis. A few years ago, it was Toscan du Plantier himself who went to see Fellini in Rome, so that Gaumont, even at the risk of ruin, would be proud one day to have allowed the Master to make City of Women. Victory of cinema. Today, it is Berlusconi who comes to Paris asking French television to stop being pretentious and come back to basics. Invasion of television, this giant amoeba. And we then realise that Fellini - not that lost in the labyrinth of his personal visions - is absolutely capable of getting upset and intervening in the debate over Channel 5 (1). We forget that Fellini has always been a contemporary witness and there always was something of a journalist in him. This is why Ginger and Fred is received as the statement of a witness, a prosecution witness. Instead of the usual reactions (from “the old magician got me, once again” to “this time, I didn’t fall for it”), there is the almost scholarly formulation of a question: Fellini and television.
Everybody knows the “once upon a time” of Ginger and Fred. AFP is summing it up very accurately: “It is not just a pamphlet against private television networks, it is a story full of tenderness which recounts the reunion after 30 years of separation of a couple of variety artists (Giuletta Masina and Marcello Mastroianni) as well as a sensitive and melancholic reflection on old age.” In the ‘40s, Ginger and Fred had a tap-dancing act, imitating Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Ginger dumped Fred to marry a bourgeois. They are re-united for a gigantic variety show (Ed ecco a voi) where, on the set of a private TV network, they must perform again their act. Ginger still has it, Fred not so much. He is the one who has aged the most. He probably has failed in many ways.
Fellini’s movies are overpopulated thoroughfares where nothing much happens. There to perform again their tap dancing routine, as best they can, Ginger and Fred will do their usual act (despite an electricity blackout, cramps and the desire to flee). Then they will separate, probably forever. Of course, there are between them secrets which would like to be known, tears wanting to flow, masks willing to fall, and anger and resentment which would happily explode. But none of this happens. Fellini is one of the first filmmakers to have not only stopped believing in miracles but also in so-called events. In a world where television simulates events as on an assembly line, his wisdom consists in treating everything as a possibility. It would be futile, naive and even impolite to make this probable world in which we live absolutely real. The gain would be minimal.
The excited crowds, cramming into the vast pedestrian zones that Fellini’s false closed spaces have become, are composed of improbable beings: a little more than extras, a little less than characters. It is this uncertainty, rather than their appearance, which makes them monstrous. Who would Ginger and Fred be if, by convention, they were not the heroes of the film? What more do they have than the admiral, the prisoner, the Mafioso, the son and the mother of the ghost, the dwarfs, the intellectual, the sailor, the look-alikes, the flying priest or the chief exec of the TV network? Nothing. It only requires the spectator to believe (naively) or to hope (for a moment only) that something is going to happen to Ginger and Fred. Our expectations are raised, before being gently reminded that we are unreasonable.
So we arrive at the heart of the subject. The essential Fellinian subject is: the spectacle becomes universal and never ceases to grow. It grows well beyond the old divisions between stage and backstage, actors and audience (we can see how in The Clowns – this too little known movie – the divisions were themselves becoming spectacular). The heart of this subject, in 1986, is television, of which Ginger and Fred gives a damning and absolutely documentary account (“Let’s say that I have tried to reproduce it but with no intentions of parody. It’s not possible to go beyond what television already is.”) You can immediately see the objection: If television represents the triumph of the spectacle, why is Fellini after it, since he wants to know nothing of what is below or beyond the spectacle? Why so much hate, those vociferous words and the offended virtue? And besides, as we used to say, from which place does he speak?
It would be easy to answer if – as the opponents of “Italian-style” private television networks wished – Fellini played cinema against television, the magic of the large screen against the small domestic window of the television set, the purgatory of passions against the laxative image. This is not how television is shown in Ginger and Fred, which, by the way, is not a movie about cinema either. It would be the same if Fellini, elitist for once, opposed high and low culture, dignity and vulgarity, elevation and inanity. But this is forgetting that Fellini, an amateur of comic books and women with big breasts, is in complete solidarity with the Italian mass culture. And even if he reminisced with nostalgia the quality of the old varietà against its current caricature on television, the latter is the direct continuation of the former.
So let’s avoid (before it’s too late) the easy paradoxes of Fellini being both judge and party, a sprinkler sprinkled, already caught in what he is pretending to condemn - as if it was not the peculiarity of any satire! To understand why Ginger and Fred moves us when Berlusconi is depressing us, it is not unhelpful to call upon history (of cinema). Like all the important post-war filmmakers, Fellini has had a filmmaker’s intuition of the media which at some point would shake up cinema: television. Not the whole of television, but its mass culture side, made of games and attractions, halfway between the old carnival culture and its mass petit-bourgeois gentrification. From La Dolce Vita, it is perfectly possible to see in Fellini’s work something of an ironic, perhaps cynical, anticipation of what television programming will be. His work is already like a TV network, “Fellini Uno”.
There are countless examples. Fellini refuses more and more linear scenarios to prefer a free – sometimes loose – succession of moments which are all bravura pieces. But this refined art of complicity and interruption, alternating strong and weak moments, pretend seriousness and forced joy, isn’t this already the concern of the program director? Fellini’s camera always arrives too late, when the action has started and the bodies are already in motion. But isn’t this the television treatment of the spectator, caught between a beginning which is always missed and a denouement of no importance, destined to accompany with one’s gaze the filmed rags of the world, quickly forgotten or offered to an indecipherable mix of indifference and compassion? Rome in Ginger and Fred, unlike in Fellini Roma, is filmed like a totally abstract space where nothing separates the near from the far anymore, where everything is neighbourhood and where nothing communicates. But isn’t this the de-urbanised space, the universal suburb created by television? And isn’t Fellini’s wisdom (the waltz of the puppets is less disappointing than laying bare one character) the polite, a tad sorry, form of what television and advertising have transformed into a categorical imperative: nothing exists which is already an image?
I am not saying that Fellini and television are the same. I only suppose that television brings about the soulless caricature of a – virtual – world sensed before by Fellini. And I did say “soulless”, because in the final analysis, the difference between cinema and television is that great filmmakers are necessarily moralists where television, at best, wonders about issues of deontology. Increasingly, we feel that what is left of cinema (and what gives it its value, in the strictest sense) is the critical gaze that filmmakers throw upon what couldn’t care less about criticism: television. Even Fellini, who has always done everything not to appear as someone who teaches lessons, recently declared in L’Express: “Sometimes, looking at a face randomly on television, it seems to me one could do better. The eye looks destitute. I think it wouldn’t be without merit to give it a certain conscience.”
Leafing through a book entitled The Time-Image recently, I found on page 14 a sentence in parenthesis full of justness: “(embrace even that decadence which means that one loves only in dreams or in recollection, be an accomplice of decadence, and even provoke it, in order to save something, perhaps, as far as is possible)”. It was Deleuze talking about Fellini. If there is a Fellinian morality, it is to be found on this side, and if it has often gone unnoticed, it is because it is modest. Today, it seems to have found refuge in the formidable character of Ginger (Masina is superb). But one only has to unfold a few memories (each one its own) to find it again. For example in La Dolce Vita, when the paparazzi stalk Steiner’s wife, who does not know yet she is a widow, and take her picture even before they break the news to her. Or in that scene of Amarcord where the pater familias, summoned to the fascist cops who make him drink castor oil, slowly walks back home.
When bravura pieces are over, Fellini seems to say, there is no other bravura than picking up the pieces, “to save something” as Deleuze says. To be present at the moment when it will be too hard for the character, when they will fall from their height (and, especially, from not very high) and risk hurting themselves. Cinema is also the art of walking everyone back home, and Fellinian elegance – or rather his politeness – has increasingly consisted in never levying any tax, any soul supplement, over what is only about simple humanity.
This is why I do not think that Ginger and Fred plays cinema against television, or even the charm of old-style music hall against the botch job of television variety. All that, broadly, is the same. There is in human beings such a passion to be another that even in the world of Lombardini-Berlusconi there will always be thirty seconds of innocence rediscovered, of act re-performed, of re-suspended time, even without preparation, without illusions, without audience. The only problem is that thirty seconds go quickly. And that, unlike music hall and even cinema (cruel but pathetic arts), television – because it has the power to organise the competition of all against all – no longer has to take care of the scrapyard.
(1) Channel Five (“La Cinq”) was France's first privately-owned free terrestrial television network. Created by politician Jérôme Seydoux and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, the network broadcasted from 1986 to 1992. [Translator's note].The French version of this text was originally published in Liberation, 24 January 1986 and can be found in Serge Daney, Ciné Journal, Cahiers du Cinéma, 1986, pp. 308-312. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otis Wheeler, 2016.
Film characters sometimes have great moments of lucidity. To Ginger, who manages to keep herself together, Fred confides sotto voce that he feels like a ghost, not knowing where he comes from or where he is going. He only knows that something ought be done. To dance, speak, or cause a scandal. There is choice. To dance because that’s the reason he came, to speak to Ginger because he also came for this, to make a scene on television because he came for this. A triple program that he will – and this is the sadness of the movie – almost accomplish. He falls halfway through his tap-dancing act but carries on well enough to finish with dignity (albeit exhausted). He says two or three things to Ginger the he had meant to say for several years. It’s only in the third part of the program that he gives up: having come to shout at the spectators for being clots and Panurge’s sheep, his courage abandons him and he finds himself wriggling about as best he can, in the midst of general condescension. Worse: doing so, he salvages a bit of his dignity. It’s terrible.
Fellini has always liked the dialectic of the show-off. In Ginger and Fred, he enriches it with a new chapter on the strangeness of our relationship to television. Contrary to what has been said too quickly, Ginger and Fred is not an attack on television. It also questions without illusions the way we live with it. Hasn’t television made all of us household braggarts, always ready to criticize it from afar, to dream to cause a scandal on air and to have answers to everything, to behave badly in the middle of soothing liturgies and sheepish audience, in a word to make a scream heard, a real one? And aren’t we surprised, if we find ourselves one day in a television debate, to find everybody rather nice, to answer questions with a shaky voice, to play the game, and, very quietly, to slip back into the ranks? Fellini also talks about that, and this is why Ginger and Fred is much more than a satire or a game of destruction. It’s about the spectator as much as it’s about the show.
And this is why this beautiful movie about television, when shown on television – by some sort of dark humour –, is just a movie and nothing else, and is more about the feeling of time that it generates. Why is the beginning of the movie, Ginger’s arrival at Rome train station, her journey to the hotel and the few adventurous steps she takes outside, so beautiful? Is it because Fellini is a great filmmaker with a very sharp eye? Of course, but on television, this beauty is no longer quite the same. We see less Fellini the great visionary filmmaker and we suddenly realise that he is above all a great realist. Without him we would perhaps definitely forget what it looks like, Rome and its traffic jams, rainfall on advertising boards, a hotel appearing out of nowhere, fake daylight falling on the noisy and vaguely efficient human activities. This isn’t a vision, these are things we almost no longer see in movies and never see at all on television.
And if we see these things so well with Fellini, it’s because there is nothing in the film that measures in advance the time allocated to the action. It’s because things must be accepted as they come, and because lots of them, always too many, come round anyway. If we made an effort, we would realise that when it comes to television, we know in advance all the durations, and that this know-how is discouraging our desire to see – even before it kicks in. The most extraordinary example is the peculiar tone that newsreaders adopt when announcing that what they’re saying will be immediately followed by a report in images. The spoken words make the link (or give a leg up) to what is shown, under the surveillance of the viewer who, in turn, spends less time watching what is inside the duration than actually verifying how long it is.
It’s in relation to this pre-emptive right of the useful time over the useless image that any work by a filmmaker increasingly seems to be the fruit of an extraordinary freedom. We mustn’t call (Fellini’s) genius or vision what is after all only the normal exercise of freedom by a filmmaker who wants, like everyone else, to be applauded, but who finds a little bit disgusting this image of the eighth assistant bending down and going around the studio making vile movements with his hands to make a public of ghosts applaud in advance. We can’t really hold this against him.This text was first published in Libération, 23 December 1988 and can be found in Serge Daney, Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1997. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Otis Wheeler, 2016.