I have been a big fan of John Cusack ever since he was starring in Savage Steve Holland joints like One Crazy Summer and Better Off Dead. I’ve also enjoyed the novels of Nick Hornby which I’ve had the pleasure of reading, especially High Fidelity. So Cusack’s performance as Rob in the film adaptation of High Fidelity is pretty much foremost among that movie’s charms (with Jack Black’s turn as Barry a very close second). And quite possibly my favorite-part-of-favorite-part is a monologue Rob delivers to the camera about intellectual literacy. I’ve been known to quote this monologue at the drop of a hat, and I will now transcribe it from memory. I may not have it 100% verbatim, but that’s not the point. If I wanted it reproduced perfectly I could just look it up, but this is the version that resides in my head:
I mean, I’m not stupid. I’ve read books, like Love in the Time of Cholera, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and I think I even understood them. They’re about chicks, right? Kidding. But I gotta say, my favorite book of all time is Johnny Cash’s autobiography, Cash by Johnny Cash.
Which reminds me that one of these days I myself have to get around to picking up Cash (esp. since I’ve already read Kundera and Garcia Marquez) but that is beside the point, or even more beside the point than we already are. So the point, then, is this: watching La Dolce Vita was for me a lot like reading Love in the Time of Cholera was for Rob, including the kinda-joking idea floating through my mind that it’s a story about chicks.
Yes, it’s a classic, and yes, it’s the work of a master (Fellini), and yes, it’s thought-provoking and mesmerizing. But I did find myself running into a bit of a dead end every time I tried to ask myself “so what is it all about?” I think part of this was due in part to various aspects of the movie’s trappings, like the original movie poster and the art on the DVD itself and the sequence that plays alongside the DVD menu, all of which feature Anita Ekberg as Sylvia and make understandable an assumption that the story is about her, or about Marcello’s doomed pursuit of her, or something like that. But no, Sylvia flits in and out of Marcello’s life, one of many picaresque episodes. One of many, many, many episodes. It took me a while to realize Sylvia wasn’t coming back, and after that, there was still a lot more movie to go.
So if the movie isn’t about that particular chick, any more than it’s about Marcello’s womanizing in general, what is it all about? Life, I suppose. Life as it was lived in a particular moment in time in a particular segment of society in a particular geographical location, but modern life in general as well. And I know that all great art is supposed to engage on some level with this struggle to reflect and comment on life, but if I’m being completely honest (and why wouldn’t I be) I remain deeply skeptical of any work for which “it’s about life, man” is one of the few specific things you can say about it. I could probably go a step further and say that La Dolce Vita is about how modern, urban, upper-class life is fundamentally empty and unsatisfying, but it goes about demonstrating this in a really simplistic way. Marcello is a cipher, and almost everyone else in his life is a straw-man for the argument: Sylvia is the oblivious starlet, Marcello’s father is the absentee parent, Emma is the long-suffering love/hate object, Steiner is the (INCREDIBLY DEPRESSING SPOILER) admired friend who seems to have it all until he shoots his small children and himself. It sucks to realize that your dad is gonna die soon and you’ll never have a real connection with him, it sucks to feel tied to a person you don’t want to be with but who will literally kill themselves if you leave them, it sucks to realize no one in the world has life all figured out, I get it, I get it, I get it. Three hours of it all is just a bit much, however much heresy it might be for me to harbor that particular opinion.
All that notwithstanding, I was glad that I hung in there until the very end for the sequence on the beach, where Marcello encounters a prehistoric-looking giant stingray in a fisherman’s net, and then sees a young girl he had met earlier. I’m not sure I completely got the symbolism of the famous Jesus-statue-dangling-from-a-helicopter shots at the beginning, but I found the ending a little easier to grasp. The imagery of life and death as mysteries so incomprehensible they’re practically alien; our own pasts as smiling, fair and bright children, shouting at us from the other side of a wide gap, even though we can’t hear them to understand what they want to tell us. At least that was my takeaway. I reckon that another advantage of creating a work that defies being about anything specific is that it remains wide open for interpretation. Much like life.