In Bizarro-world, Judge Clark Douglas adored clowns as a child.
Our review of The Clowns (Blu-ray), published October 18th, 2011, is also available.
"After many appearances by the circus in my previous movies, it was inevitable that I would dedicate an entire work to it."—Federico Fellini
"So I got this Fellini movie to review," I told a pal of mine.
"Oh yeah? Which one?" my friend asked.
"I Clowns—er, The Clowns," I said.
"The Clowns?" he said. "I've seen a lot of Fellini movies, but I've never heard of The Clowns."
To be honest, I wasn't familiar with the movie, either. It's certainly one of the most obscure titles on the great director's resume; an experimental outing originally produced for Italian television and then given a brief theatrical run in the United States back in 1971. Despite Fellini's considerable stature, this is the first time I Clowns has received an official Region 1 release. So, do we have a hidden masterpiece or a forgettable mess on our hands?
A little bit of both, actually. Fellini takes an usual "docu-comedy" approach to The Clowns, primarily relying on the documentary format but occasionally indulging in extended flights of fully-staged fantasy and partially-staged "reality." The film flirts with the idea of being about a great many things, but ultimately proves to be primarily about Fellini's own obsession with clowns (an obsession which had already manifested itself in Fellini's work on numerous occasions).
We begin with a genuinely terrific sequence, as we witness a full-blown circus in action through the eyes of a child (Fellini, to be specific, recalling a childhood memory). The frenzied spectacle is kind of exhilarating, as Fellini ambitiously attempts to recreate the awe-inspiring energy and sensory overload of the experience. We see the jugglers, trapeze artists, magicians, lions, tigers, elephants…but then the clowns arrive, and the child begins to cry. Of course many children are terrified of clowns, but Fellini's fear of these larger-than-life figures would eventually turn into a fascination.
The lengthy midsection of the film is where things become problematic. Fellini (onscreen a good deal of the time) determines to track down some of the great clowns of yesteryear and interview them; perhaps to engage in some debates on whether or not The Clown is Dead. The problem is, the interviews tend to be cut short just as they're getting interesting, and considerably more attention is paid to Fellini than to his colorful subjects. In one scene, Fellini goes to interview a very old clown, who seems heartbroken about not being a part of the circus anymore. We want to hear what has to say. Instead, we cut to a shot of Fellini leaving his house while declaring, "Damned old age. It's so tragic."
Fellini eagerly starts conversations with no intention of finishing them or even getting them rolling; touching on the history of clowns and particular famous performers and the relevance of the circus in the modern world and so on. Any of these subjects would have been worthy if Fellini were a better documentarian, but the man is so wrapped up in interesting camera angles, editing tricks and individual shots that he seems to lose sight of his overall purpose. An appearance by La Dolce Vita star Anita Eckberg is a pleasant surprise, but the cameo doesn't go anywhere interesting.
But then, after wandering and sputtering its way through a series of people, places and things, I Clowns comes roaring back to life in the third act. It's an extended clown funeral, which begins on a mournful note and then (inevitably) turns into mad chaos; a pure, unfiltered dose of old-fashioned clown slapstick. After all of Fellini's rambling chatter about the significance of clowns, he finally conveys his point best by simply allowing us to watch them. This delightful sequence is capped by an elegiac coda which ranks as nothing short of great Fellini.
The DVD transfer is mediocre, but I suppose that's to be expected from a 40-year-old made-for-television film. The film was shot in 1.33:1 but was framed for both full-frame and widescreen presentations. Still, I'm glad that it's presented in the original full frame format. The level of detail isn't too great, and there are moments featuring some color bleeding. Edge enhancement is a problem much of the time, too. It's not unwatchable, but don't expect I Clowns to knock you out on a visual level. The audio is equally mixed, as the dialogue and Nino Rota's score sound a little muffled at times. An intriguing note about the score: early in the film, Rota recycles his theme from 8 1/2 and casually slips it into the mix. Even more intriguing, however, is the appearance of the theme from the finale of The Godfather. The piece is used for a clown funeral, and Rota must have decided the theme was good enough to use again a short time later. Supplements include a visual essay on the film by Adriano Apra, the Fellini short film Un Agenzia Matrimoniale and a 50-page booklet featuring an extensive essay by Fellini on I Clowns. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the essay describes what Fellini was trying to achieve with much more clarity than the film does, and is an essential read for those who see the movie.
I Clowns is certainly a minor Fellini film, but it is unmistakably a Fellini film. As such, it's worth a look.
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