“The clown was always the caricature of a well-established, ordered, peaceful society. But today all is temporary, disordered, and grotesque. Who can still laugh at clowns? Hippies, politicians, the man in the street, all the world plays the clown, now.”
-Federico Fellini, L’Arc 1971
Fellini’s film The Clowns (1970) is part documentary part fantasy. This hybrid of filmic styles evokes the very essence of the clown, the ability to bring fantasy and comedic wonder to the everyday, the mundane.
The Clowns opens with a long flashback to Fellini’s childhood visit to the circus (Fellini also narrates this segment). This enables Fellini to share his experience with clowns with his audience, or at least a facsimile of his experience. Inside the Big Top, the camera rarely moves from its fixed position, establishing a POV shot from the perspective of the “child” Fellini. This limits the sensations of the spectator considerably, but succeeds in conveying the terror Fellini experienced as a boy. Fixed in its position, the camera is also slightly turned upwards to capture the action of the clowns in the center ring.
The following segment serves as a blueprint for Fellini’s later film Amarcord (1973), in which a series of vignettes unravel accompanied by Fellini’s narration depicting the characters that frightened him as a boy living in provincial Italy. The characters that inhabit this section of Fellini’s flashback are deliberately stylized in both appearance and performance to recall the circus clowns seen earlier. These characters differ from the clowns for one fundamental reason; their antics are not for entertainment. Though they may be harmless, to a boy, and therefore to the audience, their liberty to wander as they wish and behave in such a grotesque fashion imbues them with a real sense of macabre danger. The second segment of the flashback also illuminates the first, putting the young Fellini’s fear of clowns into the context of his daily life. One must consider that on the streets of his hometown Fellini could easily avoid the characters whom he found frightening, while at the circus, when they are all collected before him in the form of clowns he, as a spectator, is unable to move and escape them.
The second act of the film follows Fellini and a small film crew as they travel across Italy and France interviewing the circus stars of the early twentieth century. The thesis of Fellini’s “documentary” is to determine why the world no longer needs clowns or a circus for that matter. The opinions of his subjects differ tremendously, making it almost impossible to draw any meaningful consensus from the interviews. If one considers the quote at the beginning of this piece one gets the impression that Fellini, for lack of a better explanation, has found a scapegoat in the youth movement. However, the material he presents in this portion of the film indicates that it is a much more complicated question with a much more complicated answer that I will return to.
The “documentary” portion of The Clowns its self is endowed with flashbacks, reenactments of the memories and shows that Fellini’s subjects discuss. The motives for this device are the same as before, to ground the audience in the perspective of the narrator so that they may share some form of that subject’s past experience. Of course these scenes cannot be called flashbacks. So little information is given to Fellini by his subjects that the obvious conclusion is that most of what one sees in these scenes is the manufactured fantasy of Fellini and not his subject at all. So what passes for a flashback in the filmmaking vernacular is in reality further insight into the artist’s vision; Fellini’s visual interpretation of the information given him by his subjects. The confusion here stems from the documentary approach Fellini takes toward his subject in this part of the film.
Yet, even Fellini’s documentary approach is a plastic invention designed to shield either the filmmaker or the audience. Consider how often these “documentary” scenes unfold from the perspective of a camera that has no affiliation to the film crew Fellini introduced early on. In fact, one often can see the camera that is supposedly shooting this documentary in frame, so who’s running the camera that shot that film? Of course this is intentional. Fellini is returning to the tactics he pioneered in 8 ½ (1963) to create a world of illusions within a world of illusions. But now, instead of replicating the fictional world of film into a film whose narrative concerns the making of a film, Fellini has turned his attention to the world of the circus. The ramifications of this device equate the illusory potential of filmmaking to that of the circus directly.
This returns us to the question regarding Fellini’s thesis “why doesn’t the world need clowns anymore?” In his very approach from the beginning of The Clowns Fellini appears to have answered this question far better than he has in the quote at the top of this piece. Equating the circus and the cinema as forms of necessary entertainment suggests that the cinema has replaced the circus. Both experiences are group experiences that take place in the dark and require the willingness of the audience to suspend their belief in their own reality in exchange for an artificial one. Unlike the theater, the circus and the cinema are catered toward anyone and remain devoid of the elitist stigma associated with the theater.
The relationship between the circus and the cinema continues, though more overtly, in the final portion of The Clowns. Here, Fellini presents us with a fantastic clown funeral (not to belabor his point) that soon reveals itself to be as much about Fellini shooting the sequence as the clown funeral itself. Fellini has imposed the tactics of the second act of the film onto the fantasy segments of the film, creating a reflexive piece of movie making. Fellini goes so far as to contrast the clown gags with the problems a film crew faces and how they address them. Again he recalls 8 1/2, whose final sequence equates a film production to the circus. Perhaps now Fellini’s parallels and comparisons have become too overt and smack of condescension. This would be inexcusable if the sequences at the conclusion of The Clowns weren’t so successful at conveying the wonder and spectacle of the circus heyday.
The self-referential tendencies at work in The Clowns become problematic. They indicate a series of preoccupations that borderline on obsessive. Fellini’s comparison of the circus to the cinema, no matter how justified, gets in the way of the question posed by the film. Fellini’s perspective given earlier testifies to his own inability to consciously answer the question that eludes him. Instead, The Clowns is content to posture on themes and conventions Fellini had explored almost a decade earlier. What is truly the highlight of The Clowns is its relationship as a precursor to Amarcord.