“And it insists on looking.”
Robert Richardson’s Literature and Film (1969) develops an arresting comparison between The Waste Land(1922) and La Dolce Vita (1960). Richardson convincingly parallels Eliot and Fellini’s thematic interest in “visions of the hollowness of contemporary life,”1 as well as many of their particular narrative devices for pursuing that interest. But we should linger for a moment over the logic supporting Richardson’s literature/film comparison as such. For example, though he concedes that Eliot and Fellini were “working at different times, in different countries, and in different mediums,” Richardson argues that the comparison is useful because, nevertheless, “they have still a surprising number of things in common” (104). Strikingly, Richardson does not even bother to claim that La Dolce Vita refers to, or was influenced by, The Waste Land, which is surely within the realm of possibility. Richardson’s apparent indifference to these types of justification for the comparison underscores that the “things in common” he finds between the two art objects derive from pure critical acumen rather than from more conventional principles such as time, place, nationality, authorial intention, or artistic form.
The semi-arbitrariness of the pairing does not make it any less illuminating. Indeed, it marks Richardson’s deeper boldness: for English-language scholarship in 1969, unapologetically taking La Dolce Vita as seriously as The Waste Land is a polemic in itself. Though Richardson cautiously qualifies his connections between Eliot’s poem and Fellini’s film with remarks such as “Eliot has managed a similar effect with different means” (107) and “in La Dolce Vita, almost exactly the same technique is used to make the same point” (109), his approach tacitly borrows literature’s prestige for cinema (a battle that today we might forget ever needed to be fought). Moreover, the work of scholars like Richardson opened the way to larger claims about the formal links between literature and film. It is one thing to note that Eliot and Fellini share a theme reaching back to Ecclesiastes; it is quite another to suggest that, since The Waste Land “leans toward cinema style” and La Dolce Vita leans “toward poetic style” (104), in these works Eliot and Fellini advance toward a vocabulary that merges the literary and the cinematic. The former claim is a constructive critical analogy; the latter goes past analogy to synthesis: not simply that literature and film may be usefully compared, but that the analytical terms we apply to them may be substantially synonymous.
To choose just one example of the enduring influence of this synthesis, consider Susan McCabe’s 2005 study Cinematic Modernism, which begins by announcing that “In the spirit of montage, my project links texts and silent films not previously brought together” as a way of contending that “the medium of film opened up a new vocabulary for modernist poets.”2 McCabe, to be sure, augments Richardson’s intuitive approach with history and theory to link the poems and films she examines, but even so she acknowledges that she “builds upon the work of those who have thus far probed the affinities” between poetry and film — including Richardson, whose study is by far the earliest among the half-dozen predecessors she cites (232). The word “affinity” is apt; like Richardson, McCabe detects a mutual attraction between literature and film, and like Richardson she explores this attraction in overlapping terminology: hence she can say that film “opened up a new vocabulary for poets” and yet not mean that the poets became filmmakers. She can describe William Carlos Williams’s use of white space and dashes as “Cuts between images,” and note that he “is not fond of the ‘dissolve'” (105).
Certainly the overlapping of critical terminology between literature and cinema may be useful, but we should attend to the ways in which this practice might obscure important aspects of a film. La Dolce Vita provides an interesting example of some of this method’s ramifications. I want to look here at the point-of-view shot that begins the sequence of the party in Steiner’s apartment, a shot which bears a meaning central to the film. Though Richardson does not discuss this moment, one of his most evocative parallels to The Waste Land rests precisely on the significance of Marcello’s point-of-view: after quoting Eliot’s note that Tiresias is a “mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character'” and yet also “the most important personage in” The Waste Land because “what Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem,” Richardson remarks that “What Marcello, the reporter, sees is the substance of the film. He, too, is more a spectator than a character… and he, too, is the personage who unites the other characters” (105). In effect, Richardson proposes that though Fellini only occasionally supplies a conventional point-of-view shot for Marcello (played by Marcello Mastroianni), we should understand all of La Dolce Vita as originating from his perspective. The scattered moments that Marcello-the-character does not witness are authorized by Marcello-the-persona, perhaps similarly to the modern-day events in The Waste Land that Tiresias has “foresuffered.”3 Though Marcello may not hear the pimp berating the prostitute (0:17), or watch the paparazzi posing the family of the “miracle tree” children (1:00), he knows the story of the world he inhabits even before it happens. Like Eliot’s Tiresias, and like Prufrock for that matter, Marcello-the-persona’s sense of the exhaustion of ambition, principle, and faith pervades La Dolce Vita regardless of whether Marcello-the-character observes every single instance of it.
But the sequence of the party at Steiner’s apartment does open with a conventional point-of-view shot, or at least with what starts out as one (1:14). The shot fades in as Steiner’s wife (played by Renée Longarini) welcomes Marcello with a warm “Good evening,” spoken directly to the camera and phrased in a manner that encourages viewers to identify with Marcello: “We were waiting for you.” She turns and conveys “you”/Marcello through a set of doors, glancing back at the camera and then ahead to her husband, redirecting “your”/Marcello’s attention to Steiner (played by Alain Cuny; Fellini supports the transition by concurrently racking focus to Steiner). Steiner rises, looking toward the camera, and then something remarkable happens: as he approaches, his path curls to his right, Cuny shifts his eyes accordingly, and suddenly Marcello enters from the left side of the frame to shake Steiner’s hand. The transition involves no cutting; in fact the shot continues for about twenty seconds after Marcello enters the frame, following him as he falls into conversation with another group. Instead Fellini presents a conventional point-of-view shot which changes into, or is revealed to be, something else as the character whose perspective it represents obtrusively separates from it. On a plot level, no doubt, Steiner meets Marcello’s gaze and holds it; a more precise description of the technique employed might be that at first Marcello’s point-of-view coincides with the camera position, and during the shot what Marcello sees and what the camera sees diverge. By staging Marcello’s entrance into his own point-of-view shot, Fellini indicates that though we might think we occupy Marcello’s point-of-view at the beginning, we do not; we simply see what he sees.
That way of putting it needs some explanation. The term “point-of-view” is slippery; in literary analysis, “point-of-view” is a metaphor, but in cinematic analysis it need not be. That is, when applied to prose or poetry, the term designates something about the depiction of a character’s mind — obviously we do not really see what Benjy Compson sees any more than we hear what he hears or smell what he smells, but through the scrim of Faulkner’s words we can appreciate how Benjy’s consciousness interprets various stimuli, and that, figuratively speaking, means we can apprehend his “point-of-view.” When applied to cinema or to painting or to other visual arts, however, “point-of-view” can have a considerably more documentary meaning: it might designate no more and no less than where the camera is positioned, or the angle from which a portraitist approaches his or her subject. While camera position is certainly an artistic choice, it need not reveal anything whatsoever about a character’s mind, even if a camera position is identical with a character’s position. Of course point-of-view shots may be subjective; the difficulty arises because, when approaching cinematic analysis from a literary model, we might assume that seeing “through” a character’s eyes must be equivalent to grasping his or her thoughts. But I see no reason to conclude that, simply because the camera position in La Dolce Vita sometimes coincides with Marcello’s position, we necessarily learn anything about Marcello’s mind. Indeed, what a camera records from any physical position need not ever line up with what a psychology would “see” from the same vantage, and that is why The Sound and the Fury can artfully express, through prose alone, the operation of several different minds, whereas cinematic point-of-view shots may say nothing at all about a character’s thoughts even while documenting what a character’s eyes register.
Richardson conflates these meanings of “point-of-view” by contending that what Marcello sees is the substance of the film. As an onlooker Marcello documents plenty, but what Marcello fails to see — and why he fails — comprises the true substance of the film. The sequence initiated by the shot I am discussing repeatedly illustrates this. For instance, the sequence’s opening fade-in is counterbalanced by a foreboding fade-out on Steiner, sitting in the bedroom his children share, gazing into the night after trying to explain to Marcello the existential bleakness that will soon lead him to murder and suicide (1:28). Marcello’s subsequent guilt over Steiner’s actions — his regret that he did not understand Steiner’s meaning, his shock at realizing that though Steiner attained everything to which Marcello himself aspired, he felt such despair — precipitates Marcello’s own decisive abandonment of hope. The problem confronting Marcello cannot be only his passivity, since Marcello remains an onlooker even when he tries to involve himself, as in the sequence with Sylvia. Rather, like Richardson, Marcello slips into believing that a documentary point-of-view is the same as a mindful point-of-view. Fellini’s shot skillfully warns against this mistake, though Marcello, by definition, cannot heed the warning. (Still another example in this sequence occurs when a partygoer, toying with Steiner’s recording equipment, accidentally appends a thunderclap to Steiner’s conversation, which in retrospect — but only in retrospect — predicts Steiner’s actions. La Dolce Vita overflows with signs that are documented but not understood.)
Perhaps the confusion between looking and seeing immobilizes Marcello because he, too, was a writer. Fellini suggests as much in the film’s closing shots, when Marcello, weary and wretched, stumbles with another group onto what Richardson calls the “hideous aquatic throwback” (108) on the beach. “And it insists on looking,” Marcello says in a tone mixing glum mockery and hesitant bafflement (2:50). He refers both to the monster and to himself — that is, Marcello accepts that though he looks, he is not an “I” but an “it,” and thus in that moment he truly renounces a literary vocation. Still, this film’s world offers many chances, and so after wandering a few paces away from the others Marcello hears Paola (played by Valeria Ciangottini) calling to him. She gestures, mimes his typing, and apparently suggests he join her. “I don’t understand,” he repeats, though her meaning seems clear. With a vestige of shame (he waves goodbye with a hand that also blocks his face), he retreats into the vortex of the endless empty party and is lost. Then, once again, something remarkable happens: Paola looks after him with a smile, but Ciangottini turns her body and her eyes to the right and ends by staring straight at the camera (2:53). A circle is closed: at Steiner’s party the camera diverges from Marcello’s point-of-view, and here it returns to his just-vacated point-of-view, offering viewers as well an opportunity to see rather than to look. Fellini asks: Can we value the difference between a mind and a recorder? The beginning of an answer requires a vocabulary that enables us to recognize the question.
- Richardson, Robert. “Waste Lands: The Breakdown of Order” (1969). Rpt. in Essays in Criticism: Federico Fellini. Ed. Peter Bondanella. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. 103-112. [↩]
- McCabe, Susan. Cinematic Modernism: Modernist Poetry and Film. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 3. [↩]
- Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land (1922), line 243. [↩]