Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Variety Lights

Fellini Issue No. 1

Luci del varietà [Variety Lights, 1950] is Federico Fellini's first film — with Alberto Lattuada as experienced co-director alongside this man from Rimini, not wet behind the ears but not yet provided till now the opportunity to direct. That means that Fellini never created the string of shorts preparatory to a features-career. He had already, however, co-written a number of the key Roberto Rossellini pictures of the 1940s plus 1950's Francesco giullare di Dio, also a few Lattuadas pre-Variety Lights; these assignments arose from his successful cartooning career where his deft humor and literal line impressed first American G.I.'s, and then cinema professionals alerted to his talent by friends of friends of Fellini's. (In Damian Pettigrew's 2002 documentary Federico Fellini: I'm a Born Liar [Federico Fellini: Sono un gran bugiardo], Fellini recounts being saved by Rossellini when a Chinese subject wielding a straight-razor took issue with the cartoonist's use of yellow as the base for his portrait's skin tone.) Ultimately Fellini landed in the (co-)director's chair as a result of Lattuada's gratitude and because he felt that he might as well kickstart the inevitable career of a born genius. — Imagine such good-natured deference in America 2021!

The story goes, as far as his co-direction went, Fellini, reclining in his chair, just yea'd or nay'd setups and takes by Lattuada, though the plot and the milieu came entirely from Federico. The scenario involves a ragtag group (which Peter Forgacs in his Criterion Essential Fellini notes refers to as derived from the avanspettacolo or "pre-show variety" which preceded larger shows or feature-film screenings) that travels from bumfuck province to province singing for their proverbial supper. This post- and pre-dates all manner of poor troupes depicted throughout the cinema, most notably in Fellini's own later works, and in Bergman's 1953 Carnies' Twilight (aka Sawdust and Tinsel): scarfing down each meal, dreaming of gigs in the big city (the first backdrop shown accompanying the group's stage-show is a New York-esque skyline)... lead by an irascible manager (here Checco, played by Peppino Del Filippo, a man who wears a beret with a suit)... who is attached romantically to the trouper "Melina Amour" (Giulietta Masina, whom Fellini married seven years prior)... distracted if not fatally, then fatefully, by Liliana Antonelli (Carla Del Poggio, wife of Alberto Lattuada), who begs to join the troupe and succeeds by the circumstantial tear-down of her skirt mid-spectacle, to the delight of the cheap-seats (and they're all cheap-seats). It's high-fare regardless: Checco's troupe examines all the -isms of ports exotic including Hawaii, the Far East, and... Spain and Paris.

Segments of the film go without a dubbed dialogue-track. Live sound will be abandoned by Fellini altogether very soon.

There's a late-night soirée (induced by Liliana's perceived charms) (it ends in ruin and one of those early-morning walks-home that populate La dolce vita and Antonioni's La notte), a nightclub engagement gone to ruin thanks to a money-seductive commendatore sleaze similar to him of the previous late-night, — following a magnificent camera move that takes in the room before Liliana and Checco (who spins once more) take their seats at the table only to be finally disoriented by the commendatore Amaldi. He's open arms where his boss, Parmisano, is less forgiving, after watching Liliana ride Checco like a pig on the illuminated floor à la the Hudson Bar c. 2007, or Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious [1952].

Variety Lights is not an overly interesting picture; however, its importance is obvious. I'll skip to the ending, which involves Checco's seemingly successful attempt at impresario'ing a new company; Liliana's unearned haughtiness, momentary reckoning, and immediate re-rise to top-billing — nothing has been more typical in the decades since; and, finally, a full-circle closed with Checco and Melina on yet another train to another province that is not Milan.

Neither does the picture itself attain grander splendor. Like the yellow paint on the portrait of the Chinese, it awaits more coloring, tonality. Variety Lights endures today because of its cinephilic significance in Fellini's history, and for its enumeration of possible 'types' in an actors' troupe (both diegetically and non-), with a few focused-upon, with others background extras (figuranti?) that contribute to the kinetic buzz of a given shot and the shabby atmosphere of the film in general. Like Variety Lights, this critique wasn't very good, but maybe it shed some essentials. 


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