hen I was nine, my parents forbid me to watch “Schindler’s List.” “Not until you’re 16,” they hummed in unison, bewildered someone so young would beg to watch a graphic three-hour film about genocide. I admit, I was morbid for my age. I was curious, too, because I’d overheard my parents talking a few nights before about how Spielberg’s film “moved” them. “The little girl in the red coat?,” my Dad would sigh. “That’s the saddest part.” Mom would nod in agreement.
It irritated me to know they’d witnessed something special, and that I was not allowed to participate. I, too, wanted to feel moved. But sitting on the couch one night in junior high, some four years later, I got that first taste of everything I’d missed. The film was French director Jean Luc Godard’s “Alphaville,” from 1962. I was avoiding homework, clicking the remote on autopilot until the image of a doe-eyed Anna Karenina reciting the verse of surrealist poet Paul Eluard halted me:
Your voice, your eyes
Your hands, your lips
Our silences, our words
Light that goes, light that returns
A single smile between us.
In quest of knowledge,
I watched night create day
while we seemed unchanged…
In the film, Karenina plays Natacha Von Braun, a brainwashed ingénue living under thumb of a sentient computer known as Alpha 60. Alpha 60 runs a totalitarian regime where poetry and love are banned. That’s why Natacha doesn’t get it when detective Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) arrives in town and falls for her. To explain love, Caution hands Natacha his smuggled copy of Eluard’s “Capital of Pain.”
Natacha reads the poetry out loud. Her francophone murmurs smolder; there’s a peculiar sensuality in her pauses. Listening to her speak made me feel soft, empty, and a little sad. Was this what it felt like to be moved? I kept watching. Now Karenina’s right eye filled the screen. Her face. But then suddenly her face was barely there, and back again. Shifting into the craggy dunes of Constantine’s cheeks. Shadows and light.
Godard uses light sparingly, and it works to his advantage. Neuro-opthalmologists say that the human eye is attracted to empty white space. Alphaville is a dark city, so all it takes is one flash of light to turn the viewer’s eye wherever Godard wants it. Eyelashes, a fluorescent restaurant sign flickering in the distance. In the right light, these everyday things can touch us. They feel more ephemeral. Now we see them and now we don’t.
“Alphaville” gave 13-year-old me my first surge of confidence. Where my schoolmates made me a pariah because I appreciated subtlety and small things, Godard’s film told me that was alright to do so, even wonderful. It’s not a careless comparison to say that when I watched “Alphaville,” I was a bit like Natacha reading her first book of poetry.
I didn’t see another movie like it for two years. By then I was old enough to watch “Schindler’s List,” but the loss of its taboo coincided with a loss of interest. My new obsession was the phrase, “Fellini film.” I’d heard one or two highbrow types (even a lowbrow like Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee) use the obscure reference to describe a moment that was confounding or surreal. As with “Schindler’s List,” a “Fellini film” was something I needed to know about because it still existed somewhere beyond me.
Italian director Federico Fellini is best known for his 1963 magnum opus “8 1/2.” One could over-generalize by calling it Europe’s “Citizen Kane” — Fellini’s semiautobiographical tale of a lothario film director in crisis is the most well known foreign film in the states.
But his other major work, 1960s “La Dolce Vita,” is the better of the two. Depressed one winter, I locked myself in my dorm room for two days straight and watched the movie on repeat. “La Dolce Vita” is the perfect film for a college student discouraged by college antics, because it plays on the tension between artifice and art. Indecisive tabloid journalist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is helpless to choose between literature and smutty, sexy celebrity, his two obsessions. We watch as he flits over several days from one grotesque Roman vignette to the next. There’s a pervading sadness about the rarely likeable Marcello that makes me give him a second chance every time I watch.
Although “La Dolce Vita” moved me, it’s not quite the archetypal “Fellini film.” For that, one must look to “Juliet of the Spirits.” Juliet (Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina) turns to spiritual and sexual exploration after discovering her husband is cheating on her, until she swan dives into an abyss of dreams and regrets.
It’s the cinematic equivalent of comfort food — palatable and indulgent, but also startling because of Fellini’s brightly bizarre Technicolor cinematography. It may even be Fellini’s thinly veiled admission of guilt. In real life he cheated on Masina, but here she’s cheated on and given a shot at self-actualization.
The surrealism of “Juliet of the Spirits” runs deep. In a penultimate scene Juliet, frightened by mystifying paranormal visions, unties a childhood Juliet from a burning bed (the flames are actually red tissue paper, blown by a fan). Childhood Juliet rushes outside to the ghostly apparition of her grandfather. When adult Juliet follows, asking her grandfather to take her with him, he tells her no. She is alive now, he says, and he is only a dream — an elaborate invention.
“Ah,” I smiled, understanding. “So this is a Fellini film.”