For readers of film criticism, there are few words more frustrating or alluring than “cinematic”: on the one hand, it is reprehensibly vague and is essentially empty of all content; on the other hand, it offers up the seductive possibility of capturing that ineffable something that makes the truly wonderful films so damned appealing in the first place. Really, these two edges of the signifier sword are almost concomitant on one another: a word probably needs to be vague if it is tasked with describing what is fundamentally indescribable. So a term like “cinematic” enters the critic’s lexicon. Well, what does “cinematic” mean, then? Who really knows? And that is the whole point!

Here is an example of what “cinematic” means: it is Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido Anselmi waking from a nightmare (one that is instantly evocative of Fritz Lang’s horror masterpiece Metropolis), entering his deluxe bathroom and beginning to prepare for his day. We know nothing, yet, about Guido. Suddenly, Wagner’s ludicrously stentorian “Flight of the Valkyries” is being blasted on the soundtrack and Guido begins to come to life. He gesticulates around the bathroom, a vividly designed set of sharply contrasting black and white fixtures and furnishings, the jolting, shuddering Guido himself all in black clothing. We have gone from one dream to another and are learning that Guido is something of a fantasist. A sudden cut and we are outside, Wagner’s music is still hammering, the camera is spinning. What is revealed is a forest of people in black or white, thrumming with energy—they are kicking their feet, shaking hand fans and twirling umbrellas—and then they break into a complex choreography, rendering their barely constrained potential energy into a kinetic display of coordination. Contrasting black and white clothes, a maneuver involving perfectly handled umbrellas and a huge architectural edifice looming over everything, all while “Flight of the Valkyries” continues. This is Guido: it is happening in his head and he has composed it all, concocted it from whole cloth while still rubbing the sleep from his eyes. It is a perfect movie scene, combining steady control with irresistible energy, a dream made material and brought into life, an homage to Fritz Lang that preserves the horror of a certain type of German cultural expression. It is both terror and wonder and we are barely through the opening credits of , with more than two hours still to come. That is what “cinematic” means. It is lazy and passé to say, but peak Fellini was less a director than he was a magician.

After 1960, Fellini had the seemingly impossible task of making a follow-up to La Dolce Vita. He had a few collaborative relationships to help him—including close connections with three of the best cast-and-crew folks to ever work in cinema: Mastroianni at his absolute peak, composer Nino Rota and cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo—but it was still a Herculean task. What Fellini decided to do was to embrace the futility of a follow-up and make , a faux-autobiographical film about a director (Mastroianni’s Guido-as-Fellini-avatar) who made an enormous hit, got famous and is now unable to muster the creative or administrative energy to make his next film. is an elaborate joke, a meta-commentary on the film industry and a feast for the senses. While every scene is saturated with layers of meaning, it is a film, as no less than Roger Ebert has asserted, that is more about images than ideas. is an absolute bonanza of richly choreographed and scored set pieces where the camera is in even more persistent motion than the actors and the sets and costumes remain striking studies in contrast. Few films have been more brash about their constructedness and artifice and even fewer still are as pleasurable to simply sit and take in. Taken as a totality, is cinema at its most purely phenomenological: it is the very act of experiencing it as a spectacle that imbues the film with meaning. Every viewer makes her own interpretation at each viewing. Rarely has there been a finer film.

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