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Clowns, The

Raro Video // G // October 18, 2011
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 10, 2011 | E-mail the Author
"After many appearances by the circus in my previous movies, it was inevitable that I would dedicate an entire work to it."
- Federico Fellini

It seems as if every review and retrospective over the years that I've come across of The Clowns takes pains to emphasize just how minor an entry it is in Federico Fellini's filmography. Perhaps that's
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true; though I've seen my share of the director's films, I would hardly consider myself to be a scholar. Even though it by design is rather slight compared to the best of Fellini's work, I see more here to appreciate than is generally acknowledged. It strikes me in many ways as encapsulating and amplifying many of the dominant elements of Fellini's work at that point in his career, and yet it also sets the stage for the less bombastic and even more overtly personal direction his films would go on to take afterwards. The Clowns is an experiment by a director in transition. Standing on one side is the man behind who pulled back the curtain on the filmmaking process and continued to so deftly meld the real and the fantastic. On the other is the writer and director of Amarcord, a wide-eyed celebration of years past that is at times tragic and at others a devilish smirk, setting its sights on a sprawling cast of characters rather than setting so much of the stage around a select few. The Clowns embraces elements of both eras. It doesn't resonate as deeply as Fellini's most accomplished films, no, but the transition I see taking place fascinates me just the same, and I can't consider a film that inspires this much thought to be a slight or minor effort.

The Clowns opens with a young boy stepping foot inside the circus for the first time, and what he sees both fascinates and terrifies him. It's a memory that lingers for decades, and well after that child grows up to be one of the most widely celebrated filmmakers the world over, Federico Fellini sets out to document the faded glory of the circus...of the clowns that defined a form of entertainment that few now can be bothered to appreciate. The Clowns gleefully blurs the line separating truth and illusion. It presents itself as a documentary, and as often as Fellini and his film crew find themselves
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in front of a camera, The Clowns at times seems as if it's documenting a documentary. It is and it isn't. Though at least portions of the documentary segments have been carefully scripted, these aging men and women being filmed really once were the clowns and circusfolk they're touted as being. They do have their noteworthy place in the history of the circus, and when they discuss their acts and how their work influenced other clowns throughout the globe, it's all grounded in reality. As a viewer, it's kind of fascinating to not be entirely certain what's real and what's not...that the assumptions I've made one way or the other could be entirely wrong.

The way Fellini breezes through a seemingly endless selection of subjects reminds me in some ways of Amarcord, which the director would make shortly after this, although that film wanted you as a viewer to really get to know these they helped to shape a greater community. The Clowns has so much to say in such a modest amount of time that it nimbly bounds from one interview to the next, moving so quickly that few of the speakers are able to leave much of an impression, and little of what they say is retained. In terms of being introduced to the personalities behind these many different circuses, The Clowns is wildly successful, but those who hope to learn would likely be better suited to direct their attention elsewhere. It toys with exploring how the circus has changed over the
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years and the steps that may need to be taken to appeal to the children of tomorrow, but that concept is not given more than a casual glance. The reason for that is, of course, that clowns aren't the subject so much as an excuse. The making of the documentary -- Fellini's search for a story -- is what The Clowns is ultimately about. Although Fellini has inserted himself in some form into so many of his films, here he appears on-camera and is directly addressed by name, and that's kind of wonderful. Fellini and his crew are every bit as integral a part of The Clowns as the clowns themselves, and...well, the title characters don't have a monopoly on bumbling around in front of the camera.

Of course, hardly anyone would want to watch a film with aging men and women dryly speaking about life as a clown, so it likely goes without saying that much of the film's runtime is devoted to clowns at work. The material runs the gamut, with some of the routines understandably having aged poorly while others remain wonderfully clever and elaborate. Some are bright and cheery, and a few are surprisingly dark. The Clowns draws to a close, for instance, with a nearly twenty minute long funeral march under the big top, a parade that's equal parts funny, morbid, self-deprecating, self-indulgent, and cacklingly chaotic. I can't help but be fascinated by The Clowns, a film that alternates between the playful and the melancholy...between reality and fantasy...while also setting the stage for an accomplished filmmaker to embark on the next era in his career. Of the six Fellini films I've had the pleasure of seeing, The Clowns is admittedly the one I'd be the least likely to pick up and watch again, but that's not meant to sound dismissive. The Clowns is an experiment, and to judge it in the same way one would a more intensely emotional, character-driven narrative would be unfair. The Clowns may not be an entirely successful experiment, but it is an intriguing one, and it's a more than worthy addition to the Blu-ray collections of Fellini's many admirers. Recommended.

My reaction to Raro Video's presentation of The Clowns is mixed yet generally positive. Its Technicolor palette is robustly saturated, a dramatic improvement over the muddier hues seen in the disc's documentary. The image is predominantly crisp and well-defined, not marred by any damage or wear of note. Compression artifacting and edge enhancement are in no way nuisances either. I will confess that I feel as if there ought to be a far greater sense of texture than there is. Film grain isn't present nearly to the extent I'd normally expect, and upon closer inspection, there looks to be a very thin veil of electronic noise in its place. Medium shots and close-ups reveal a great deal of fine detail, although the further back the camera pulls, more distant elements tend to look unnaturally smooth. For one example of a shot that, at least to my eyes, looks heavily filtered, expand the screenshot below to full-size:
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Again, there's a greater level of detail and clarity than DVD could ever hope to reproduce, but moments such as those just don't look entirely natural and filmic to my tastes. I'm happy to say that this isn't a constant concern, especially given The Clowns' preference to keep the camera closed in fairly tightly. I couldn't find any credits on the disc about which company is responsible for the telecine and remastering, but the overall look is reminiscent of what LVR has done with many of the Italian cult cinema releases on Blu-ray, and I wouldn't be surprised if this is their handiwork as well. The Clowns certainly looks good on Blu-ray, enough for me to continue to enthusiastically recommend this disc, but I can't shake the feeling that there's still a fair amount of room for improvement.

The Clowns arrives on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc. Though the film has been exhibited at a variety of different aspect ratios, it's presented here with the full 1.37:1 image exposed, just as one would expect for a production aimed at television decades ago.

The Clowns features two Italian DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks: the first in two-channel mono and the other remixed to 5.1. This may be the most pointless remix of any film
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I've yet experienced on Blu-ray...or any other format, for that matter. The surrounds remain silent throughout. That's not to say that they're underutilized; there literally is no trace of any sound whatsoever from them throughout the entire length of the film. Though the 5.1 icon is what lights up on my receiver, it's ultimately a 3.1 remix. Even then, I couldn't detect much in the way of stereo separation across the front channels. The subwoofer does nicely flesh out some of the clowns' hijinks, but the LFE is largely reserved for a grating, low-frequency drone in the background of a number of scenes. Switching back and forth between the two lossless soundtracks, bass response is the only real difference of note, leaving the original mono coming across as the more comfortable of the two.

Even after setting the wholly unnecessary remix aside, the audio is merely acceptable. Both tracks are somewhat thin, harsh, and dated -- not to an extent that's unwarranted or even unexpected, no, but the clarity and fidelity aren't in the same league as the other Fellini films I've experienced on Blu-ray, and I did have to dial back my receiver to a considerably lower volume than normal for it to feel comfortable. On the upside, there aren't any intrusive clicks, pops, or hissing. There is background noise throughout a few scenes, but those largely seem to be the whirring of Fellini's mockumentary cameras...a deliberate attempt at revealing the seams in the filmmaking process which should in no way be considered a flaw. Overall, I'd say the lossless audio offered here is unremarkable but adequate.

Optional English subtitles are enabled by default.

  • Un agenzia matrimoniale ("Marriage Agency") (17 min.; SD): The first of the two extras on the Blu-ray disc itself is Fellini's segment from the anthology L'amore in città. In it, Fellini weaves the story of a reporter's investigation into an agency that arranges the most impossible of marriages. He dreams up the cover story of seeking a wife for a friend of his that's one step away from being a werewolf, and, unexpectedly, the agency has just the girl for him...

    Although the short film is encoded in HD,
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    it's clearly been upconverted from a low-resolution source...and not particularly well at that. Patterns with any sort of fine detail are ravaged by moire distortion, and posterization is distractingly heavy throughout.

  • Fellini's Circus (42 min.; HD): Touting itself as a "visual essay", this documentary on The Clowns analyzes the film in both context and form. Seemingly everything about The Clowns, from the length of individual shots to camera movements, is graphed, offering a visual representation of Fellini's technique and how The Clowns quantifiably stands apart from the rest of his body of work. Though the documentary segments of The Clowns are scripted, this visual essay emphasizes how much truth there is to them just the same, overlaying archival photos on top of excerpts from the film. The history of clowns and what they represent are also explored at length, followed by Fellini noting which of his characters and which prominent figures in pop culture would be best described as an "Augusto" and which would be a "White Clown". Comprehensive and insightful, "Fellini's Circus" is well-worth setting aside the time to watch.

    The excerpts from The Clowns are clearly sourced from standard definition -- worlds removed from the remaster featured elsewhere on this disc -- but the remainder of the material is in HD proper. As is the case with "Un agenzia matrimoniale", it's presented in Italian with lossless audio.
The most noteworthy extra isn't on the Blu-ray disc itself but packaged alongside it: the fifty page booklet "A Journey into the Shadow". Virtually every last word in the booklet was penned by Fellini himself, delving into how the project came together, the allure of experimenting with television, more analysis into what the Augusto and the White Clown represent, and, of course, the filmmaker's longstanding fascination with the circus. The booklet is heavily illustrated with sketches and photographs, and it also features excerpts from the screenplay, including a few scenes that didn't find their way into the finished film. In case you're unable to devour the entire 50 page booklet in a single sitting, a Clowns bookmark is tucked inside. The digipak packaging and booklet both slide into a thin slipcover.

The Final Word
The Clowns marks Raro Video's debut on Blu-ray, and by pairing a Fellini film with a reasonably strong HD remaster and an extensive, handsomely designed booklet, they've certainly made a strong first impression on the format. Especially with so many online retailers carrying The Clowns for $20, a purchase is that much more enthusiastically suggested. Highly Recommended.
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