Saturday 5 August 2017

Federico Fellini - The Secret Meaning of his Short Masterpiece TOBY DAMMIT revealed by Theodore Price. Part One.


2017 is the 50th anniversary of the making of Toby Dammit.

Federico Fellini
Toby Dammit is a 40-minute film, part of a three-part film (Roger Vadim and Louis Malle made the other two parts) that Fellini made in the winter of 1967 just before he turned 48. 2017 is, therefore, the 50th anniversary of the making of Toby Dammit.He’d just recovered from the most serious illness of his life, diagnosed, according to him, by five of Italy’s best doctors as inoperable cancer of the pleura.

He thought he was dying, and so did nearly everyone else around him.

He said he was saved he was saved by a friend from Rimini, his home town, who visited him in the hospital and diagnosed Fellini’s illness as some rare allergy that only animals were supposed to get but that Fellini got nevertheless. The friend surreptitiously got Fellini some cortisone, that eventually cured him; but Fellini had spent two months in hospital and another month recuperating.  This was in the spring of ’67.

The last film he’d made was Juliet of the Spirits, in 1965.  Shortly before he became ill, he’d been working on The Journey of G. Mastorna, that he never finally made.  In his pseudo-documentary A Director’s Notebook we see some of the preliminary sets: a scaffold cathedral and the fuselage of Mastorna’s airplane, whether before or after a flight, now, at any rate, grounded forever. We really don’t know much of what Mastorna was to be about.  It seems to have been in the form of a flashback of a man who had died, who had, so to speak, come back from the dead to tell us his story.  Marcello Mastroianni was to have played Mastorna.

Besides his usual trouble with producers, Fellini said that the idea of the film itself had brought on his illness!  Bernardo Zapponi, who later collaborated with Fellini on the stories and screenplays of several films, including Toby Dammit, said that for Fellini Mastorna “was a film of death.”
“He became ashen whenever we talked about it.”  And although Fellini went back to the film at the beginning of ’68, he never did make it. He went on to make Satyricon after finishing the made-for-television A Director’s Notebook, that ends with filmed “notes” for Satyricon after visually dealing with Mastorna at the start.  The title essay that Fellini wrote about Notebook is called “The Ruins of Mastorna.”

Elsewhere, Zapponi tells us that when he thinks of Fellini he doesn’t “see the face of a jovial man, with the happy, warm smile of a youth that journalists like to write about.”  Rather, he goes on, he sees “the uneasy, careworn, even somber expression of a man deeply withdrawn into himself.  Only an indestructible faith in the imagination and in creation makes it possible for him to surmount the obstacles that cross his path.”

When he and Fellini were working on the theme of Toby Dammit, they’d haunt deserted restaurants and bars, especially at Ostia (the beach that reminded Fellini more of his hometown, Rimini, than the present-day real Rimini beach.)  They found the beach endless, desolate, fascinating in the winter solitude, “like a city after the dropping of an atom bomb.”
Zapponi goes on to say that Fellini “likes desolation.  Desolation is tragic, poetic; an empty restaurant, a hotel from the fascist era, old, worn-out, without customers --- these have the attraction of things beyond time and history. 

“They are things that have never been born and so can never die.  For desolation never goes out of date, is never on the wrong track.  It has found its mooring-line and has docked.”
Zapponi says that it’s from the expression of despair that the story of Fellini’s Toby Dammit was born: the story of a “mad, drugged actor, who comes to Rome to die.”

Now, I think that this background is rather interesting, and I’d like to think that others would find it interesting too.  The information isn’t readily available.  And, having written this decades ago and in my 92nd-year recollection I no longer, alas, can document my Zapponi and other quotations. And I think that it has everything to do with Fellini’s masterly little film, that I like so very much.  Yet let me make myself perfectly clear: --- You don’t need this background material to get at the secret meaning of the film.  That’s something distinctly apart from these background data.’

French poster
The English title of this three-part film is Spirits of the Dead, the title of a poem of Edgar Allan Poe’s.  The French title is Histoires Extraordinaires, that Baudelaire gave to his translation of a group of Poe’s stories published in France in 1856, seven years after Poe’s death. That is to say, they were, strictly speaking, the stories of a dead man.  The Italian title of the film is Tre Passi nel Delirio.

The only connection between the three parts of the film is that they’re each loosely based on a separate story of Poe’s, Fellini’s, the most loosely based of all.  In each the hero dies, and in each there’s some sort of a ghostly element or atmosphere.

By every consensus the two other films, by Vadim and Malle, are simply awful, without any possibly redeeming social (or even pornographic value.)  But the critics generally liked Fellini’s film.  They just didn’t say what they thought it meant.

The little-known Poe story that Fellini based his film on is called “Never Bet the Devil Your Head: A Tale With a Moral.”  It’s a little artificial piece that Poe wrote to make fun of critics who didn’t like his stories because they said that the stories had no moral significance.  To them the only works of art were those with “profound design.”

It’s a nice irony that Poe here was making fun of critics like me, in just the sort of paper where I’m insisting that there’s a “profound design” to the Fellini film that’s based on this story!

Poe was going to write for those critics a story --- a silly, fantastic story --- that had a moral, stated boldly and baldly in its very title: “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.” In Poe’s tale Toby Dammit’s a young man messed up from childhood by his mother, who, being left-handed, whipped him from left to right instead of from right to left, as the world spins, and thus threw his emotional equilibrium out of kilter.

Edgar Allan Poe
Toby got into the habit of saying, “I’ll  bet you this,” “I’ll bet you that” (he never bet money because he hadn’t any).  Finally he got into the habit of saying “I’ll bet the Devil my head if ---“ whenever he wanted to assert anything. One day he comes to a bridge --- a somewhat unusual bridge, a canopied sort of bridge --- with a turnstile at its entrance.  Instead of simply going through the stile, he decides to leap over it, offering as was his fashion, to bet the Devil his head that he could.  At that moment a “little lame old gentleman,” his hair “parted in front like a girl’s,” appears to supervise the attempt.

Over the stile, unnoticed by Toby, is some sort of supportive iron bar; and when Toby makes his leap, his head’s cut off by the bar, and the little old gentleman picks it up and runs off with it.  Poe asserts, therefore, that he has confounded his ignoramus critics because he has now certainly written a tale with a moral: Never Bet the Devil Your Head.

Theodore Price

Editor's Note: My thanks to Peter Tammer who passed this essay to me with a view to publication on this blog. Theodore Price is an American academic and long time cinephile. He wrote this 6000+ word essay at the age of 92.

Coming soon Parts Two and Three

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