Grok My Enthusiasm (10)

By: Gordon Dahlquist
March 16, 2016

One in a weekly series of enthusiastic posts contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars.

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It took a third time seeing Fellini Satyricon to perceive how tight it was, and get my head around what that might mean, in terms of narrative, for a film whose “story” is based on spectacle as opposed to plot or character. Especially when so many responses to the film trot out words like “indulgent” or “excessive” or “decadent” or “depraved,” the point feels worth making. Fellini Satyricon is an incredibly rigorous, patient, and precise (if also loose) adaptation of one of the more unlikely texts in Western History, the Satyricon of Petronius. This text is a coarse and witty satire of Roman society by a crony of Nero’s who eventually slipped off the courtier-to-a-tyrant tightrope, committing suicide before he could be sentenced to death in 66 AD.

We begin with Encolpio and Ascilto (perhaps former gladiators, perhaps students, cast perfectly — no offense to Martin Potter or Hiram Keller — as self-involved Eurotrash) fighting over the affections of Gitone, a winsome and fickle adolescent boy. Encolpio, raging like a tragic hero at his love being stolen away, tracks Ascilto to the baths. They fight, until Ascilto merrily confesses that, post-pleasure, he’s sold the boy to a theatre. We get to the theatre mid-performance… it sounds backhanded to say that none of this matters. And that’s wrong, because it all matters, because the spectacle means nothing without human engagement. But — and the subtlety with which this point is teased and rewoven through every second of the film is hard to overstate — the characters we follow are entirely negligible, they are simply, hungrily, alive.

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It’s possible that a few of the shots were on location — when our trio is captured by the pirate Lichas and travel by ship, or the magical final scene — but most of the film is eye-popping proof of what a film studio, properly understood, can accomplish. For Satyricon, Cinecittà provides cavernous baths, enormous banquets, country villas, inner city tenements, a galley ship, craggy countryside, desert shrines, love palaces, art museums, an earthquake, a labyrinth (with Minotaur)… and while none of it looks like the Rome we know from Hollywood epics, Fellini’s vision is entirely persuasive: this Rome is lived-in, hand-made and un-modern, and also, sensibly, consistently intertwined with North Africa and the East. The past — even of our home, as Rome was Fellini’s — is a foreign land.

The film’s set-pieces present a world never before seen on film: the false funeral of Trimalchio, the theatre of Vernacchio, Encolpio’s battle in the labyrinth, the slave girl in the villa whose owners have committed suicide, the doomed kidnapping of the hermaphrodite oracle, Encolpio’s mystical cure for impotence… but what seems most important is how the durational aspect of spectacle creates a particular block of time. By the film’s end, we’re lost less in story than in pure experience. Our eyes have learned to look at new things, our ears to hear new sounds — we’ve eavesdropped our way to an alien world’s reckoning. And, of course, it’s our own.

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GROK MY ENTHUSIASM: Rob Wringham on THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | Gordon Dahlquist on WEEKEND | Joe Alterio on MILLION YEAR PICNIC | Adrienne Crew on LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | Josh Glenn on THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | Alix Lambert on THE SKIES BELONG TO US | Adam McGovern on PENELOPE and CHAVEZ RAVINE | Rob Wringham on THE LYKE WAKE WALK | Mark Kingwell on NORTH STAR SNEAKERS & GWG JEANS | Gordon Dahlquist on FELLINI SATYRICON | Erik Davis on AH! | Devin McKinney on WHISPERING AFRAID | Mimi Lipson on 1973 SEARS ROEBUCK CATALOG | Jessamyn West on MOSS | Josh Glenn on THE SCOUT HOW BOOK | Brian Berger on SLACKER | Alix Lambert on ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS | Chelsey Johnson on MONOTREMES | Devin McKinney on THE BUTCHER COVER | Flourish Klink on ONE DIRECTION | Gordon Dahlquist on FULL METAL JACKET | Allegra Huston on CLOTHESLINE | Jenny Davidson on POWERLIFTING | Evan Narcisse on REZ | Deborah Wassertzug on VEGETARIAN MEATBALLS | Chris Spurgeon on WALLACE AND GROMIT | Mandy Keifetz on BENEFICIAL MICROBES | Annie Nocenti on MARKS ON WALLS | Molly Sauter on THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF | William Nericcio on LAND OF THE LOST | Dan Fox on “VOICE OF GOD” RADIO DJS | Brandi Brown on WIKIPEDIA TALK | Claire Lehmann on THE APPARATUS REVEAL | Alice Boone on COSTUME JEWELRY | Colin Dickey on WIDESPREAD PANIC | Anshuman Iddamsetty on THE FULL BODY PROJECT | John Hilgart on MAKING GRATEFUL DEAD ALBUMS | Rob Wringham on STEVEN UNIVERSE | John Overholt on DECKLE EDGES | James Hannaham on HABIT PATTERNS | Jessamyn West on THE PUBLIC LIBRARY SYSTEM | Adam McGovern on THE SPACE GIANTS | Brian Berger on MEDIUM COOL | Chris Spurgeon on THE DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT | Joe Alterio on TABLETOP WARGAMING | Mimi Lipson on TRASH PICKING | Jason Grote on CZECH CINEMA | Roxane Gay on AUTOMATED CAR WASH | Dan Fox on JULIA DAVIS | Amy Thielen on BINGO | Steph Burt on FEIJOA.

MORE ENTHUSIASM at HILOBROW

WOWEE ZOWEE (2018 weekly): UNISEX | UNDER THE PINK | DUMMY | AMOR PROHIBIDO | HIPS AND MAKERS | & dozens of other Nineties (1994–2003) albums. KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2017): THE KILLERS | BANDE À PART (BAND OF OUTSIDERS) | ALPHAVILLE | HARPER | BLOW-UP | & 20 other Sixties (1964–1973) neo-noir movies. #SQUADGOALS (2017 weekly): THE WILD BUNCH | BOWIE’S BAND | THE BLOOMSBURY GROUP | THE HONG KONG CAVALIERS | VI ÄR BÄST! & dozens of other squads. GROK MY ENTHUSIASM (2016 weekly): THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | WEEKEND | MILLION YEAR PICNIC | LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | & dozens more one-off enthusiasms. QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2016): “Tainted Love” | “Metal” | “Frankie Teardrop” | “Savoir Faire” | “Broken English” | & 20 other new wave songs. CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2015): DARKER THAN YOU THINK | THE SWORD IN THE STONE | OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET | THIEVES’ HOUSE | QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST | & 20 other fantasy novels from 1934–43. KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2014): ALDINE ITALIC | DATA 70 | TORONTO SUBWAY | JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | TODD KLONE | & 20 other typefaces. HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2013): “Spoonin’ Rap” | “Rapper’s Delight” | “Rappin’ Blow” | “The Incredible Fulk” | “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | & 20 other old-school hip-hop songs. KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2012): Justice or vengeance? | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | “KHAAAAAN!” | “No kill I” | Kirk browbeats NOMAD | & 20 other Captain Kirk scenes. KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011): THE ETERNALS | BLACK MAGIC | DEMON | OMAC | CAPTAIN AMERICA | & 20 other Jack Kirby panels.

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