Federico Fellini and the White Clowns

Near the beginning of Federico Fellini's Intervista (1988), a very large camera crane is about to rise, wreathed in smoke and artificial moonlight, high above the soundstages of Cinecitta. One of the camera operators calls down to his director (Fellini being played by Fellini), "Aren't you coming up?" "No," Fellini immediately replies, "I can imagine it from here." The cameraman shrugs, turns to his colleague on the crane, and says, "What did I tell you?"

That brief exchange about sums it up: both the distinctive personal, imaginative, and visionary quality of Fellini's cinema and, at the same time, the response of his detractors, who for years have claimed that his work is composed of predictable and repetitive fantasies, without experiential, intellectual, or ideological content. But, in fact, the only truly predictable thing about Fellini's films over the years was the response of the critics, repeating in chorus "What did I tell you?" or perhaps a Reaganesque "There you go again."

Ideologues and social (as well as socialist) realists have always been uncomfortable with Fellini, so it came as no great surprise when on the day of Fellini's death National Public Radio's All Things Considered trotted out an insignificant critic named Stefan Scheiss (or something very like that) to denounce him, to declare that he was without...

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