"Ginger & Fred," the 17th feature film directed by Federico Fellini, is not, how you say, very good, and yet there is something pretty wonderful about it. Since Fellini saved all the best material for the end of the film, you tend to emerge cheered, perhaps even willing to overlook the 80 or 90 minutes that seemed so stifling when you were sitting through them.
In the film, now at the K-B Cinema, Fellini reunites his two great stars, Giulietta Masina, also his wife, and Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini's alter ego in "8 1/2" and "La Dolce Vita," as a pair of cheerfully seedy old variety performers from the '30s whose specialty was an impression, a vague impression apparently, of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing "Cheek to Cheek" and "The Continental" and "Let's Face the Music and Dance."
After many decades, they have agreed to dance together again on a monumentally absurd television spectacular called, at least as translated in the subtitles, "We Are Proud to Present," a show on whose accommodating stage the attraction might be a levitating monk, an industrialist who lost a pinkie to kidnapers, or a woman who made the supreme sacrifice of giving up all television-watching for a month.
"Never again! Never again!" the frazzled woman chants when trotted out, dazed, from the wings.
Television is only nominally a target here. Anyone expecting an Italian "Network" will be disappointed. Fellini sees television merely as a symptom of cultural pollution. It's everywhere, like the uncollected garbage piled up on Roman streets. In a world of trash and ads, television is a patently logical culmination. It beckons and coddles from every corner -- not diabolically, but because it can't help itself.
Amelia (Masina) and Pippo (Mastroianni) are innocents lured onto this hapless midway; they're genial vagrants from another, gentler time when artists had flesh and blood and grace. Artists are "the benefactors of humanity," an old man declares. They have been replaced by television personalities.
Approximately the first 90 minutes of the film is the prelude to the TV program itself; this is a movie that is 75 percent warm-up and one-quarter payoff. As the film begins, Amelia arrives at a train station where a huge inflated pig's foot is hovering over the throng and, after a depressing bus trip through the city, checks in at a hotel that appears to be on the outskirts of Kafka's Prague.
Amelia wanders about among the guests and Fellini gets to mobilize his pet army of grotesques and oddities once again. They seem a little listless this time out. A transsexual talks about having a womb implant; a dozen midgets tumble out of a bus; and aspiring impersonators of Marcel Proust, Woody Allen, Rita Hayworth, Ronald Reagan and Clark Gable, among others, mill about and primp. Gable and Proust are rooming together.
The level of invention seems minimal. The old gang lacks its former gaudy fire. Fellini appears to have soured on the Fellinians, as if he's bringing the whole flock on for one last fling. Mastroianni may be the Fellini alter ego again. Old and rumpled and a little bitter, he suffers the freaks with world-weary resignation. He is hounded by thoughts of his own mortality, and he is wondering whether the good fight can really be fought anymore.
He says he plans to use his time on television to warn viewers they are "videoholics" and "sheep," but of course, when the time comes, he turns compliant and a little sheepish himself.
What Masina does most is pose for Fellini's reaction shots. It begins to seem there are 400 of them, all of Masina looking bemused. And yet she looks bemused intriguingly. After all these years, the little waif of "La Strada" is still a waif. Mastroianni has the showier role. He's the epitome of glamorous decay, slithering around the premises and spouting prurient couplets.
Together, Masina and Mastroianni are not only charming; they are film history. But the film seems enervated until the big show begins. A voice from a loudspeaker interrupts the prefatory bedlam to announce that the broadcast is three hours away, then two hours away, and it really does seem like a whole hour passes between the two announcements.
Fellinivision, which is something like television, is glimpsed frequently. There are giant bowls of pasta and alluring women's lips and feet kicking soccer balls and a concoction called SpritzSauce and, literally, baloney. Television may have nothing to say, but it always has something to sell. The old vaudeville stars are relics in a new age of merchandise.
The television studio where the show takes place is a glittering neon Colosseum, the linear descendant of the original, with the audience on curved raked bleachers surrounding a circular stage. Whether this garish video revue -- a kind of "Real People" crossed with an old Ed Sullivan show -- really resembles anything on Italian television is irrelevant, considering its exhilarating tackiness.
Fellini's screenplay, written with Tonino Guerra and Tullio Pinelli, neglects to give the title characters much real interaction until the TV show starts, so the writers are obliged to stop the story artificially -- a power blackout knocks the show off the air -- so Amelia and Pippo can talk and reminisce and bring each other up to date. This is where Masina and Mastroianni emerge from the panting throng and sparkle.
The host of the television program, played by Franco Fabrizi, is a glitteringly solicitous barker, unflappable in his lust for banality, wound as tightly as a shiny mechanical toy. The whole bombastic extravaganza is a magnificent Fellini hoot. If there really were such a show, it would be worth watching every week. For two or three weeks anyway.
Television is "a giant with feet of clay," Mastroianni observes. Not a very original thought, but it isn't necessary to be original when condemning television; it's enough merely to keep up a sustained resistance. Fellini realizes television can't be defeated, and can barely be escaped. What he does in "Ginger & Fred" is to muster fusty indignation, only some of it persuasive.
Ginger and Fred finally do dance on the television program. Disaster is averted. The dance is not witty but it is endearing, in part because the two performers are so warm and venerable; they share a parting scene that is spun gold. "Ginger & Fred" is no laugh riot, but it might be considered a smile riot, if there can be such a thing. It's a hard movie to love, but Fellini retains enough of the old irreverent bravado so that it would be a much harder one to hate.