The Clowns

Dir: Federico Fellini, 1970. Foreign.
The Clowns

“The Clown is a mirror in which men see a grotesque, crooked, goofy image of themselves. It's the shadow within us. It will always be there.” — Federico Fellini The Clowns is Fellini's way of breathing life back into the circus. At once whimsical and sad, the lifestyle and acts of it are thought to be near extinction. Surely in America, France, and Italy, the lifestyle of a carny and the pleasures of the circus have dwindled. Fellini revisits a boyhood experience of seeing the circus come to town and being one of the few who were disturbed by the clowns featured there. He compared them to real people in his village: bums, alcholoics, and perverts who dress in rags and had terrible grins on their faces. Their dopey and mischievous demeanor reminded him, as a child, of the worst mankind had to offer. But as an adult, the director was given the chance to direct a film for television. The idea to do something for television intrigued him because he knew nothing about it and it posed a challenge. He gathered a team and explored France and Italy, filming a movie that is as much of a document about the art of the circus as it is a semi-autobiographical divergence into a world breached within almost all of his feature films.

Pulled by what the director deems to be a purely “subjective” and “emotion” attachment to filmmaking, The Clowns is considerably different than his other films, yet plays with the same familiar themes. Presenting the circus as a unique experience full of characters that mirror and mask the tragic and comical aspects of life, the movie is a great feat based on the thoroughness of this exploration alone. However, the movie goes deeper into the depressing and realistic side of traveling acts, as was done in one of my favorite of his films, La Strada. It also exposed the mystery behind every detail of circus acts, down to the development of costumes. My favorite among these is the story behind the White Clowns, known to most from their appearances in pantomimes and more regal circuses. Their embellished and extravagant costumes, supposedly designed by either the clowns' wives or fashion designers, brings a sort of avant-garde runway appeal to their beauty.

The team visits several retired clowns who look back on their experience with the circus in a mixture of pain and great pleasure. Their testimony about the past and almost non-existent future of the circus is bleak, and yet hopeful. These interviews are mixed in with visits to museums and art-houses that used to be the stomping grounds for several famous clowns and performers. The footage of real circus grounds sends a mixed, and somewhat sad message; most of these places have been renovated and turned into your typical places of business, while the ones that have had excellent upkeep lack both performers and an audience. Towards the end, Fellini dons the clown make-up himself and puts on a dazzling performance with other clowns—an experience that seems to be as personally justifying as it is metaphorical for the audience. This final segment with Fellini himself performing in a circus with professional clowns is a lesson in humility and bravery. I still can't shake those final images from my mind. These clowns are all wonderful performers and I hope that in the '70s this film helped to restore faith in the art and get people interested in preserving the circus.

While it is not as objectively driven as his most famous works, it is a unique experience that makes you curious and excited about the subjective fascination and outgrown fear of a great director. The imagery is both haunting and exceedingly beautiful, and the film as a whole is truly outstanding. The new DVD release features several essays from film theorists and critics, as well as quotes and interviews from Fellini. With magnificent color photos and even a bookmark with original clown drawings from the film, I was pretty much sold upon opening the case.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Apr 14, 2011 11:34am
Steve Earle and the Dukes
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