Fellini Satyricon
dir. Federico Fellini
Egyptian, Wed-Thurs Sept 5-6.

According to The Wall Street Journal's August 16, 2001 article "NASDAQ Companies' Losses Erase 5 Years of Profit," the NASDAQ Composite Index, the best indicator of technology-industry value, fell from 5,048.62 in March 2000 to its current spot at 1,918.89. According to the Seattle P-I's macabre layoff tracker, this monumental fall has resulted in the loss of over 16,000 jobs in the Northwest. Dot-com has shown itself to be not only an emperor without clothes, but a disaster; the efforts of the last decade to revamp society in the colony of cyberspace will be remembered as one of the blindest, drunkest periods of ambition in American history. What a perfect time to revive, if only for two days, Fellini Satyricon, the Italian director's film about a lustful and intoxicated Roman Empire splitting apart at the seams.

Based on the Petronius book of the same name, Satyricon follows the young poet Encolpius as he travels (or is transported in captivity) through city, country, and by sea within the Roman Empire. The story begins in an urban world (presumably Rome), where theater, painting, and rhetoric dominate the script and people argue about the importance of money versus art. However fiercely the artists argue, however, the whole of society doesn't give a damn about art. In our dot-com drama, this was a common complaint, as artists bemoaned the e-conomy's hungry acquisition of their spaces (Pioneer Square, all of San Francisco). But as the film progresses and financial power begins to backslide, art does not rise; in fact, art becomes impotent, as it has always been in a money-obsessed society.

However ridiculous the difference in scale may be, there are other parallels to draw between dot-com and Rome. The most easily acceptable theory of Rome's decline is that it had too much land to cover with too little ability to communicate, that it went too far beyond its means. Analogously, the dot-com fully committed itself to the conquest of cyberspace, without a thought that the colonizers might be going too far and too fast, until the day people were laid off by the hundreds. Dot-coms hired too many people for projects that were too small, or worse--like toothpaste delivery (Webvan.com) and dog-walking (mylackey.com)--that never had a realistic prayer.

The character development in Fellini Satyricon points to the more presumptuous (though popular) theory that Rome weakened because its rabid lust for land and money rendered the empire morally and artistically bankrupt. In one scene, Encolpius and Eumolpus, an older, jaded poet, attend an enormous feast for Trimalchio, a poet turned wealthy landowner. Trimalchio applauds the actors who perform at the feast: "I like to hear Greek when I eat," he says. To the money-lustful, art is an incidental decoration, something to complement a plate of expensive meats. While briefly employed at Kozmo.com, a video-delivery company, I was surprised that fellow employees talked more about Kozmo's IPO than about the films they were peddling. The employees were more grateful for the Internet than for the cinema for making their jobs possible. No one was there for the sake of cinema; they were there to make a killing in cyberspace.

But art isn't haplessly overlooked in the haze of prosperity. Fellini Satyricon demonstrates how art is rendered useless, flaccid by the power obsessions of a moneyed society. Toward the end of the film, Encolpius is thrown into the labyrinth with the Minotaur. Our poet-hero runs panicked, making quick decisions to turn left or right, buying time before he's literally up against the wall, trembling. Encolpius takes a few swings, but breaks down, yelling that he will not fight, that he is a student! A man of letters!

Amazingly, the Minotaur desists, a victory for the art of reason. But not quite: Although he disarmed the murderer in the labyrinth, when Encolpius is rewarded with a brazen hussy, he tries to have sex with her but can't. She throws him off, cursing him as a "dead fish" and "bad luck," and Encolpius spends almost the rest of the movie trying to cure his impotence.

That impotence is what artists fear the most. This fear is strongest not when times are bad and there's no money around, but when business is booming and no one gives a shit about art as anything more than a possession. In a society obsessed with money and power, Fellini Satyricon suggests, art may survive by begging, but is neither potent nor important. Now that the dot-com dream has dissolved, the unemployed masses will look to art for explanation and meaning, and art may regain its potency. In this season, Fellini Satyricon could have been the most popular rental from Kozmo.com if only the company hadn't been devoured by the flames of its ambition.

Support The Stranger