Few directors so clearly understood the world they inhabited than did Federico Fellini, who was at the peak of his powers when in 1960 he made this sprawling, elegiac critique of life in the swinging Roman scene of the late 1950s.
The beauty of La Dolce Vita is its, well beauty. There's so much of it to go along with the cynicism. Fellini wasn't satisfied just to have his protagonist, the playboy journalist Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni, never better) drowning in his own hypocrisy. Fellini's camera work and editing -- which is right up there with Welles and Kurosawa -- makes the temptations of "the sweet life" seem all too real. I mean, hell, who wouldn't want to romp with Anita Ekberg underneath a waterfall? Sign me up!
Marcello's odyssey through a day in the life takes its toll on the viewer after a fashion, but that's Fellini's point; sooner or later, we all have to sober up and look for a little more balance in life between the real and the fantastic, the ugly and the beautiful, the sweet and the sour. For his efforts, Fellini won both the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
On the second disc of features in this capable set (though it's no Criterion release, for sure), there is posted a letter written by Fellini at a sidewalk cafe. The letter precedes a collection of Fellini's TV-commercial work, and they're clearly related: "If these young friends of mine intend to use the crumbs, the shavings, I hope they have the good sense to present them in the perspective they were intended. They were things to go into 'Ginger and Fred' (his 1986 film), breaking the narrative as a polemic to the indecent habit of gorging films with commercials. In preparing a film about television, these tiny tales were meant to be the cracks of a whip. I'd prepared them in excess: I couldn't use them all. I'd completely forgotten about them. Now you've found them. Use me like an Etruscan tomb: pick and choose. Do your will: I entrust them to you."
The second disc also includes a series of never-before-scene short films from Fellini's TV days, while the main disc features optional commentary by film critic/historian Richard Schickel -- one of the few critics you'd want providing commentary, believe me.
La Dolce Vita (2-DISC COLLECTOR'S EDITION)
Directed by Federico Fellini
Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg
(Koch Lorber Films)
In those heady days of the late 1970s, when broadcast television had realized some of its potential to present programs that actually mattered, we were being graced with such socially relevant shows like M*A*S*H and All In the Family. Bridging the gap between these shows and later, equally topical shows such as St. Elsewhere, Northern Exposure and NYPD Blue was The White Shadow. Being a huge hoops fan and a typical white-guilt liberal of a suburban teenager, I thought I was double-blessed with this series about Ken Reeves (Ken Howard), a fading white NBA star who takes up an old friend and now inner-city high school principal's challenge to retire and coach the boys basketball team.
Bruce Paltrow and Mark Tinker were creative minds behind all these subsequent shows, and this collection of the show's first (and clearly best) season feels only a little dated and seems instead to be rather groundbreaking. With the help of former child actor turned legendary TV director Jackie Cooper (who won the show's only Emmy for the pilot episode), The White Shadow is arguably the first television to seamlessly blend athletics and drama. Imagine Lou Grant on the hardwood.
The show benefited from great casting, especially considering that the 6-foot-6 Howard was the only white player on his Long Island high school basketball team and looked the part of a player. Co-star Thomas Carter (who played the mercurial, Afro-topped Hayward) went on to direct not only this show and others but also such feature films as, fittingly enough, this year's high school hoops film Coach Carter. While Paltrow's writing wasn't exactly the hippest dialogue to come down the pike (yes, the word "turkey" makes its appearance, it's unrelentingly issue-oriented without sacrificing plot, composition or, most importantly, basketball action. This was a time when characters could speak frankly and even playfully about race, starting with the pilot when Ken Reeves hears his old (and black) friend in the distance: "Where are you, Willis? You know I could never see you in the dark!" But within the first few episodes we get frank discussions on not just race but also juvenile delinquency, alcoholism, teen pregnancy, street gangs and homosexuality.
The optional commentary by Tinker and Cooper is slight, although they both marvel at the surprising amount of polish in the camera work, with Cooper employing his share of wide-angle, long and zoom lens, subtle pans and composition.
The White Shadow (The Complete First Season)
Directed by Jackie Cooper
Starring Ken Howard, Joan Pringle
(Fox Home Entertainment)