I wrote in my notes on Baby Driver that “It’s hard not to smile when you’re watching someone else have so much fun.” I Clowns is perhaps the best example of this, being Federico Fellini’s ode to his beloved world of the circus.
The film flows and tumbles like a continuously performed act, but it can be structurally divided into three parts. We open with a seemingly fictional depiction of the impact of the arrival of a circus on a nondescript, provincial Italian town. A little boy scrambles to a windowsill to witness the raising of a bigtop tent, the room behind him tall and drab like the fantasy nightmare in James and the Giant Peach. “If you don’t behave I’ll get those gypsies to take you away” warns his mother – we get the impression that FF’s lifelong experiments with mischief stemmed from a longing that such a parental punishment might have been meted out to him.
The opening circus shots are fantastically edited, with a childish perspective suggested by frequent appeals to the camera (winks) and an occlusive perspectival preoccupation with aspects of the show (particular actors or sounds), like significant memories forming. Was put in mind of the spectacular structure of wrestling (which is born out by IC‘s second section’s exposition of the traditions of clown types and roles).
The revelatory conclusion to this first section is an examination of the relationship between the circus characters and the townsfolk. The little boy claims not to have enjoyed the show because its cruel humour and anarchic actors resemble the intimidating and inscrutable adult world around him: in the town, coachmen bicker and scuffle like violent clowns, a leering old man exudes their complicit leering sexual humour, (most brilliantly) a town drunkard is wheeled away in a rickety barrow by his apoplectic wife. These figures are frequently shot from below against mundane backdrops; they are almost literally upstaged in their performance of everyday behaviour.
Known commonly as an apolitical director, Fellini introduces here a muted critique of stiffly prohibitive and humourless authority: a stationmaster reacts irately to a trainload of taunting children, insisting that a cartoonishly fascistic guard enforce a uniform discipline – the next convoy stare out at us from their carriages beneath arms raised in fascist salutes. Though clownish characters are shown to ape lower-class behaviour, their performances encourage antiauthoritarian lampooning; a world without clowning is a world of dire and dangerous conformity.
IC‘s second section follows FF’s own efforts to document the contemporary world of the circus in Italy and France, in particular. His cinematographic troupe bounce off each other and the world that their filming in often pretty amusing ways (they argue constantly, and often visually reflect the clowns they are filming). I love this idea because it’s FF telling us not just that films are like circuses, but also that making films is like the circus – all the stuff we don’t see behind the scenes is a clownish world of calamitous collaboration. This notion helps contextualise his enduring fascination with the childish world of the circus: as a director, he never really left it.
This stretch is IC at its most documentary – the potted history of European clowning is interesting with its esteemed characters and disputed traditions. Its history seems very much still up for grabs, with scholars and documentarians debating the aetiology of circus tropes and traditions – it is also the past of the circus, not just its future, which is in doubt. Dramatisations of legendary performances are often revealing and poignant: there’s the tale of a revered but terminally ill clown who sneaks out of the convent hospital for one last show (shot in ragtime fast-motion), and accounts of the famed Fratellini family performing in prisons (echoing IC‘s opening shots of incarcerated audiences) and insane asylums (the value of such performances for the disadvantaged stirringly contributes to my [admittedly prejudiced] enthusiasm for conservation of this entertainment tradition – “the whole world needs to laugh again with clowns!” beseeches and old custodian).
There is a distinctly melancholy skein running through this middle section: retired clowns toast their deceased partners; family historians reminisce about lost legends. I was reminded of Stewart Lee’s uncomfortable routine about the ghosts of dead performers haunting him onstage – I heard him say, in a podcast interview with Scroobius Pip of all people, that he drew on actual personal bereavement to make these performances feel more realistic, and that he was accordingly feeling a morally dubious fatigue after the exploitation of his own memories. The world of the circus seems to be consciously crowded with ghosts
…a sensation carried boldly through into IC‘s final section: a dramatised circus performance loosely centred around a funeral for a revered clown. It’s a riot of colour and motion, with the proceedings quickly descending into chaos after the destabilising interventions of various attendant clowns, weeping as they burn their noses and smack each other silly. It’s a Fantasia-esque escalation, shot from perspectives nimbly varying between ringside spectatorship and in mediis rebus involvement. FF’s own show reincorporates some of the striking Jodorowsky-esque imagery that I loved in Juliet of the Spirits (IC having been released six years after FF began experimenting with LSD), with slapstick surreality running amok.
There is a wonderful touch at the end: a journalist appears to be interviewing FF on the sidelines of the manic meta-chaos unfolding in the ring; he quizzes “are you trying to create a parallel–” until two buckets are chucked from the melée onto their heads. Shut up and enjoy the show!
Though IC is essayistic in structure, we’re therefore taken full-circle: the little boy is given the opportunity to put on his own show, not to be intruded upon even by his critical future self. Deserves to be judged more or less by its own standards; I can only compare it to F For Fake – this is just as fun, just as personal, just as idiosyncratic and just as captivating.