Fellini, Fred, and Ginger: Imagology and the Postmodern World

Edward Mendelowitz. The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Leading Edges in Theory, Research, and Practice. Editor: Kirk J Schneider, James F T Bugental, J Fraser Pierson. Sage Publications. 2001.

“Our danger is that, invaded by the external, we may be driven out of ourselves, left with our inner selves empty, and thus become transformed into gateways on the highway through which a throng of objects come and go.” ~ J. Ortega y Gasset (Meditations on Quixote, 1961)

The British playwright George Bernard Shaw once quipped that all professions were conspiracies against the laity. A bit of hyperbole perhaps, the remark is nonetheless instructive. Our own guild suffers the same commercial pressures and varieties of professional demarcation as do the others, with insiders very often the last to find out. In this chapter, I offer a corrective and recompense in the consideration of one example of would-be “being-in-the-world” using filmmaker Federico Fellini’s astonishing Ginger and Fred as text and gospel. Fellini’s interest in psychology was prodigious, as was his fascination with humanity’s success and failure at finding itself in a disjointed location in time. For him, life inhered in neither ideology nor the empirical but rather in wonder and transience, humor and poignancy, sadness and love. The filmmaker has much to teach us about the world we inhabit and share and the incompleteness we mostly embody and still long to surpass, about the sheer madness and mystery of being in a new millennial landscape and terrain. It is the artist’s peek behind the proscenium arch. In other words, it is psychology.

Amid a proliferation of strategies of psychotherapeutic endeavor and an ever-increasing influx of information bits, the psychologist today stands in Kafkaesque perplexity before a deafening surfeit. It is not so different, really, from the way in which the rest of the world feels—deluged, jaded, confused. Consider: The overwrought layperson consults an overwrought psychologist to secure a bit of respite in an overwrought world. What that person finds, inexorably, are leveling reductions, formulaic responses, and specious techniques—all masquerading as truth. Take our professional curricula or, for example, our annual pageants and conventions. Which door to choose, which lecture hall, which rally cry? By all means, we must stay current. Truth is fashion, and fashion is what sells in the marketplace of commerce and experience. The Czech writer Milan Kundera—the very same one who has coined our word “imagology” and whose novels are psychologically stunning—has stated the problem with grave precision: In the age of speed and expedience, it is requisite, as Rimbaud had already admonished, that we remain “absolutely modern.” But just what does it mean to be absolutely modern, and what, God help us, is the price tag? It is a strange world out there and, I sometimes think, even stranger here within our professional divisions and cliques with our comforting shibboleths and statutes and theoretical watering holes. It is stranger perhaps for the very lack of correspondence between so much that goes on in our offices and heads and what it means to be alive on a teetering planet in the dawning moments of a postmodern millennium. “To be absolutely modern,” Kundera (1991) laments with all the solemnity of a eulogy, “means to be the ally of one’s gravediggers” (p. 141).

We psychologists are the worse for our overspecializations and frantic routines, accoutrements that too rarely let in the greater light. We have detached ourselves from the source and do not know how it is that we have become so threadbare. Rollo May said it was because we had lost touch with what it might mean to be fully human, with wonder and what Goethe called “the All.” Having cut our cords with the motherland, we no longer are able to hear the music of the spheres (a very different type of chord) or the reverberations of our own heartstrings. We have become purveyors of flatness and representation, system and certainty, rotation and sham. Cords versus chords? This is our question.

Lately I have been watching the films of Federico Fellini, many viewings apiece for they are fathomless in their scrutiny and depth. An amazing psychologist and brilliant articulator of the complexities of the self and the vagaries of postmodern existence, the Italian maestro is almost too shrewd for us. The general practitioner is quite baffled by the subtlety and scope of the artistry and insight and so bids a crude and hasty retreat into safe havens of diagnosis and dismissal. But how to diagnose genius? See how we retreat from the vast-ness of our subject. One film in particular interests me for its very depiction of a world gone wrong and the near impossibility of finding oneself amid a morass of sound bites, information streams, and video monitors where all is simulation, packaging, and artifice. Ginger and Fred (Fellini, 1985) is an unflinching depiction of an uncanny time, one in which image is everything. Reflected here is a world of superfluity and void, a static drama of boredom and titillation, a fascination with the odd and grotesque so as to conceal perpetual inner emptiness and outer vacuity.

From the opening scenes and thereafter, we are besieged with advertising and stridency and commercials, with the television monitor never far from view. “YOU’LL BE BETTER-LOOKING, STRONGER, AND RICHER WHEN YOU USE …” reads the billboard ad at the train station in downtown Rome where the story begins. We know psychologists and pharmaceutical houses who use more or less the same line. And the crowds! Who are these multitudes, and just where do they think they are going? They scurry back and forth in search of vocation and author, all waiting to play bit parts in a holiday gala to be aired on television. The world has become a tentacular broadcasting station whose insidious reach now ensnares all, an electronic shopping mall of hype and Hollywood, an Internet of the inane. Mediocrity tops the postmodern hegemony; you will not find an individual in sight.

The protagonists are, in fact, not Ginger and Fred but rather Amelia and Pippo, dancers from a bygone era who once had made a name for themselves (and a living as well) impersonating the more famous couple. And just whom have they copied but Hollywood stars who themselves were not what they seemed and had, in fact, changed their own names even further back so as to pander to audiences wanting only to be entertained and thereby let off the cross of self-consciousness for a spell? Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, icons of flash selling American dreams with their tire-somely happy endings. And indeed, the States, with our incessant ebullience and our penchant for packaging, hover ominously over Fellini’s film like a dark and foreboding postmodern cloud. “It’s important,” observes Amelia, “to have an American name.”

Amelia and Pippo have come out of retirement to dance once more for old time’s sake. They are to be the nostalgia act in the incessantly promoted television extravaganza. Amelia has been coaxed by family and friends. Pippo seems to need the money and will confess, in a moment of weakness, that he has been reduced to selling encyclopedias on the sly. They have not seen each other for 30 years and are by no means the only copyists. There will be a part of the show given to look-alikes, and doubles are seen flitting about everywhere—Clark Gable, Marcel Proust, Sitting Bull, Brigitte Bardot, Ronald Reagan (“Where is your cowboy suit?” we hear somebody shout), and Woody Allen (who has, of course, been copying himself for years). “Kafka has arrived!” says the gum-chewing chauffeur. The situation is Kafkaesque indeed. Clark Gable mistakes Amelia for Bette Davis while introducing her to Proust. “He’s a big French writer,” he points out. “I’m not anyone’s look-alike,” protests the Italian dancer with the American name.

Let us take a closer look at postmodernity’s lineup, for we find, unremittingly, the counterparts filling up the ranks of our own profession as well. There is the transvestite Evelina Pollina, quintessential exhibitionist who offers herself as a Madonnalike pinup to all of Italy’s prison inmates. It is a ball pitched, according to Kundera (1991), “to the lowest ontological floor” (p. 111). “I’m in such agony over those poor boys,” the transvestite sighs. “Shouldn’t somebody care?” Amelia thinks for a moment that she has met some overcoifed acolyte of Mother Teresa who has taken a wrong turn somewhere and wound up in Bloomingdales or the boutiques of Milan. “I felt a calling, a true vocation,” Evelina proclaims. It is more likely that this calling has been preceded by dread and impoverishment, by the harrowing prospect of having to survive in a world now defined by image and chip and by a populace weaned on the commonplace.

We next observe a most touching character, a retired admiral, a military hero said to have once saved a ship and perhaps a city with his valorous exploits, although all details are lacking in an ambiguous age. The admiral is now old and bent, the event for which he will be remembered having occurred half a century ago whatever it was, a hazy story about a faded snapshot taken long ago. “I love artists,” says the admiral with all graciousness and dignity on meeting Amelia. “They are the benefactors of humanity.” Rilke and Proust, of course, had said it as well, and I suggest that we write it down on our organizational shirtsleeves before it is lost forever beneath a deluge of sophomoric techniques and humorless technicians who look too much like foot soldiers but lack the admiral’s blossoming quietude and consciousness even as the body declines. With senility comes release from conformity and spectacle, from the oppressive need to keep up and hang on and in. The admiral is less a serviceman than the teeming imagologists who surround him and many psychologists as well.

But wisdom is fleeting in the new-millennial landscape, and we proceed straightaway to an oddball mother-and-son duo who record voices from the stratosphere and beyond on their tape recorder. “The dead,” rants the mother. “They’re so happy, so festive.” “A kind of murmur,” the son concurs. “It’s all been tested by experts, no tampering.” It is New Age proof of the soul’s immortality though, to be sure, what cannot survive here will not be found there. Tested by experts, like antidepressants and American Psychological Association-sanctioned training, like rote psychotherapy and the management of care—tested by experts, no tampering.

Conventional religion has no place in the marketplace of novelty: the post-theological age will require a trick. And so the Church’s sole representative to the garish festivities is a priest who is able to levitate! The master of ceremonies tries to coax the “flying monk” into demonstration—“a miracle to open the audience to the hope of life everlasting.” “Everything in life is a miracle,” says the priest. “It’s up to us to discern it in all we survey.” It is one of those hallowed moments when the prankish director lays down his arms and discloses his hand. “We are not small enough to understand the big things,” says the priest. And indeed we are not, for the bloated ego precludes wonderment. Write it down on your shirtsleeves: it is manna from heaven courtesy of a Zen master that you will find nowhere in the District of Columbia or Babylon.

Next comes a mafioso resplendent with Italian tailoring and youthful good looks, one whose style and story will make equally good press. But despite Mediterranean machismo, the apprehended gangster is, in the end, one more copyist. We can trace his vintage back to Godard’s Breathless (where Belmondo copies Bogart) or Brando’s Don Corleone. Indeed, the gangster is no better or worse than anyone else in a world that exists now in a zone far beyond good and evil. The laws of the marketplace dictate the postmodern ethos and guideposts. Those Italians know how to dress, and the hit man should score high.

And now, perhaps, the ultimate in postmodern feminism—a woman who has abandoned her family and home and has married an alien. “He understands me!” she muses in the obligatory television interview, this contrived format having long since eclipsed human encounter in import and valence. This woman is beyond men, beyond women, and yet (in her inability to get beyond staging and self-interest and stratagem) fails like the rest in glimpsing the mystery is not small enough to embrace the beyond. The camera-ready plastic surgeon, with his entourage of testimonials, is all but predictable, one more instance of postmodern fundamentals: “YOU’LL BE BETTER-LOOKING, STRONGER, AND RICHER …” And we move quickly along (for slowness is postmodern heresy) to a housewife who, driven like the rest by the transfixing spotlight, has agreed to the ultimate in sacrifice in forgoing television for a godforsaken month. She is tearful and shaken after her ordeal, the quintessence of suffering in an age without interiority or substance. Postmodern posttraumatic stress disorder! “Never again! Never again!” cries our postmodern saint. Words once uttered in prayer before the ashes of millions of gypsies and Jews and Proustian inverts and the few individuals they managed to find who went up in flames in the death camps of Europe now express the misery of the unplugged! But God forbid that we who sit back and laugh give up our own currencies and jargons, our degrees and positions and fine opinions of ourselves, and throw ourselves back on ourselves. Try finding yourself in the world where we live. It’s important to have an American name.

There are two participants in this televisual chaos and bedlam who are real: two bona fide vagrants, although Pippo mistakes them for look-alikes. The vagabonds are real! Lei capisce? This is what we all are when we crack the code and cut to the chase. The charade lies in mistaking ourselves for the images projected. Beckett (1954) gained fame for his depictions of bums who reminded us uncomfortably of ourselves, wrote an essay on Proust, and spent a lifetime pondering “the suffering of being” and the problem of “accursed time.” He could have dissected each act on our list with more skill than a surgeon, exposing the hobo at the existential core. “We’re incapable of [silence],” says Estragon. “We’re inexhaustible,” agrees Vladimir. The punch line is Estragon’s: “It’s so we don’t think.”

It is all, gasps Amelia, a “spectacle” and “circus”—the doubles, the monk, “and, of course, the admiral.” In the background, a line from Dante markets alkaline batteries. Backstage, Pippo laughs it up with a chimpanzee. “Boy, you’re a mess,” he thinks he hears the chimp say. It is one of the more perceptive appraisals that we have in fact heard. More copies of copies, such as Belmondo and Bogart, and copyist audiences too. All the world is a stage. We all are understudies awaiting our 15 minutes of fame and perhaps fortune, a Proustian moment in the postmodern sun.

Mimicry and commerce, simulacra and gimmick. Reality manufactured by God knows who and fed back to us in cathode ray tubes and billboard ads, professional lexicons and manuals tested by experts, no tampering. “An obsession,” observes Salman Rushdie, “with flimflam.” “I am Pippo Botticelli, stage name Fred. I imitate anything!” says Marcello Mastroianni, who indeed could and did, although nothing so flawlessly as humankind’s puzzlement at finding itself here in the first place. “Bravissimo!” is Amelia’s adoring response. But really, it is the (genuinely) inimitable Giulietta Masina who also could and did. Hard to talk of self and encounter and the old “I-thou” and still keep a straight face in this wasteland of assemblage and glitter. There is no figure-ground here, no touchstone for our valuations. Only imitations of imitations, and psychologists would do well to take note. It is a madhouse, no doubt, yet more accurate by far than our organizational platitudes and technical truths, our protocols of “treatment” with their childish mathematics, our templates and theories with their bizarre reductions and symmetrical cures.

Appearances though they may be, Ginger and Fred yearn nonetheless for the real. “We’re professionals, you know,” complains Amelia. “We’re surrounded by dilettantes,” echoes Pippo, who also takes his craft seriously in the end. And it is in this foundering relationship between two worn-out souls that we find a shimmering of postmodern redemption. Pippo is forever the clown but intent and earnest in guiding Amelia on fine points of nuance and dance: “You always got this part wrong. It should be much more subtle. Here the melody ends, embracing, oblivious, like a dream. Do you understand?” And do you, you psychologists? For we also have got it all wrong. That is what William James had said. I am only the reminder and gadfly, epitaph to genius and history.

It is not for nothing that Pippo and Amelia are dancers. There they intuit something of the ineffable mystery almost in spite of themselves, speak in hushed and reverent tones of movement and tap dance and roots. “It’s not just a dance,” says Pippo. “It’s much, much more. The Morse code of slaves, a wireless telegraph, the language of love and death.” Do you see? A stab at the real, possibility, encounter so as to counterpose the postmodern worm at the core. There is the remnant of prophecy in this Italian joker despite his buffoonery, no matter that he mistakes Reagan for Sitting Bull!

And, indeed, it is in the moment of Indian-like stillness just at the start of Ginger and Fred’s performance, before the gaping audience and its canned applause (when the blackout occurs and the transmitting devices and deities are suddenly silenced), that the voices of reason and soul call out to man and woman once more. We see for just an instant the motionless broadcasting tower, that postmodern cross of the New. And now quickly follows the epiphany of dancers:

Amelia: What did we come here for? We must be completely out of our minds!

Pippo: A giant with feet of clay. It’s like a dream, far from reality. You have no idea where you are…. We’re phantoms, Amelia. We arise from the darkness and vanish into darkness.

Amelia: I was looking forward to seeing you again.

Pippo: Molto romantico! I was looking forward to seeing you too.

Pippo urges Amelia to flee with him into the darkness, escape to something more solid than the ephemera of airwaves and anonymous praise. But power is restored at this very instant, and Ginger and Fred complete their routine—a final waltz for the crowd, a wireless telegraph, a two-step and shadow dance of love and death. “Pippo, we made it!” exclaims Amelia at the end. And who among us could say more? For here the melody ends, embracing, oblivious, a spiritual flash in the postmodern sky.

The parting at the station where it all began is poignant enough, the two old copyists ever at a loss for what to do in real life. Some youths ask for their autographs: they have seen a nostalgia act on television. Amelia loans Pippo some money, and the couple bid farewell through the hackneyed reenactment of a scene from their AstaireRogers routine. It is moving, because so empty, in the extreme. As Amelia’s train departs, Pippo disappears into a cafe. He has decided to stay in Rome for a while and try his hand at the television game. Before a monitor on the platform, a solitary figure dances a few desolate schizophrenic steps with himself, one more shiftless creature mesmerized by the artificial light and chasing after postmodern dreams.

Long before making Ginger and Fred, Fellini (1974/1976) wrote,

Our trouble, as moderns, is loneliness…. No public celebration or political symphony can hope to be rid of it. Only … through individual people can a kind of message be passed, making [us] understand—almost discover—the profound link between one person and the next. (p. 61)

There are, no doubt, other voices with something important to say:

We stumble from one false perspective into another, the bewildered victims of false prophets and charlatans whose recipes for happiness only close one’s eyes and ears, so that we fall through the mirrors, like trap doors, from one disaster to another. (Kafka, cited in Janouch, 1985, p. 73)

Our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits have long been at work, and it is the task of art to undo this work of theirs, making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to the depths where what has really existed lies unknown within us. (Proust, cited in de Botton, 1997, p. 103)

You have taken our land and made us outcasts. (Tatanka Iyotake [Sitting Bull], cited in Brown, 1970, p. 426)

And here the melody ends, embracing, oblivious. Fragmentation and chaos, memory and speed. Sheep without shepherd, pretense and travesty. Dance and embrace. Time lost and never recovered. As for paradise, it is irreparably the same. Dance and embrace. Anxiety. Acceptance. Reality. Awe. A postmodern nightmare and love story, a tap dance of sublimity and prescience has been captured on celluloid and tape.