Movies That Change

A good read — What movies feel different to you at different parts of your life?  Link goes to many film critics, some who don’t really understand the question (journalists with reading comprehension? no!), but some are appropriately thoughtful.  In The 400 Blows, for example, I agree: when watching it in high school or college, I was focused on the parents at all.  Growing older, you become aware of how adults are portrayed in those coming of age movies.  A few suggest that eras change perceptions of a film – the countercultural liberations of the 60s might feel foolish or quaint much later.

For me, I might pick La Dolce Vita, a movie that’s long been important to me, introduced by my good friend and roommate in the second half of college.  Appreciated popularly for its glamor and decadence, its invention of the word paparazzi, its buxom blonde in the Trevi Fountain, to us, aided by our situation in a massive, conservative state school, we understood Marcello’s sense of disconnect between who he was and what he wanted to be.  Watching it again recently, I’m still struck by the characterization, the sense of bemusement hiding a darker undercurrent of being lost.

This is shown in the appearance of Marcello’s father, whose provincial desire for a good time is sidetracked by failing health (and age).  But it really comes out with the episodes about Steiner, Marcello’s friend from a past he still clearly idealizes.  We first run into Steiner playing organ in a church, chided by the priest for a decidedly non-ecclesiastic piece he jaunts off, and later Marcello goes to one of his house parties, where his guests are impressively intellectual and run circles around Marcello’s wife without intending to (if I remember correctly).  We also meet Steiner’s beautiful children in a scene of gauzy domesticity.  Steiner’s name is not a mistake — it reflects German Romanticism and the cerebral traditions of the north.  Stein, it should also be said, also means ‘stone’ in German.

We return to this narrative thread later when Marcello later learns that Steiner has killed himself and his children.  Marcello is forced to protect Steiner’s wife from learning this horrible fact directly from the hounding press on the street, while trying to process it himself.  It’s a wretched scene that thankfully Fellini does not dwell upon.

It wasn’t until this last viewing where the impact really hit me.  Having a wife, and now a son, and having piled those years behind me, Steiner’s death, his murders, the whole thing, was crushing.  The episode is pivotal to the film – Marcello is basically not the same after this, and thematically the reasons are clear.  Steiner was a friend, but also an idol  His was the intellectual life Marcello had lost, as well as the domestic bliss he had failed to find with his wife, whom he clearly doesn’t like.  With Steiner gone, and in such a horrifying way, what else is left?

So, it wasn’t until I had larded unto myself those immovable, needed things, that the ice drenching impact of the episode became clear to me.  Affecting, too, how the character arc changes, and the structure of the film, which is highly episodic, takes a severe bend.

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