Although Federico Fellini made it here for the premiere of his latest film, "Ginger and Fred," he was still upset that a sudden leg injury prevented him from being one of the illustrious director-presenters of the best film Oscar.

"The Oscars have the kind of nostalgia, spectacle and stardust that you see in 'Ginger and Fred,' " he said in English. "I would have liked to be there before my definitive mummification."

But his 16th feature (which opens in Los Angeles next Friday) suggests that this recipient of four Oscars of his own is hardly on the brink of retirement.

"Ginger and Fred" teams, for the first time on screen, Giulietta Masina--Fellini's wife and star of such classics as "La Strada," "Nights of Cabiria" and "Juliet of the Spirits"--with Marcello Mastroianni, star of "La Dolce Vita" and "8 1/2." They portray a pair of aging dancers, who used to perform imitations of the world's most beloved dance team, reunited after 30 years for a holiday TV broadcast.

Although the title suggests that the film might be about the world of Astaire and Rogers, Fellini's focus is more contemporary, zeroing in on the raucous vulgarity of television and the values it represents. Indeed, "Ginger and Fred" is less sentimental about its two protagonists than parodic of the new world to which they're briefly invited.

The larger-than-life creatures, exaggerated faces and stylized images that have become Fellini's trademark are abundant in this film, from dancing midgets to a lascivious transvestite, from a senile admiral to a sleazy emcee with a pasted-on smile. They have all been gathered to appear on an exceedingly tacky variety show.

"I tried to balance the story of what is going on around us with the one of two individuals who are not merely witnesses," explained the 66-year-old director. "They come from another kind of picture--not only as human beings, but as performers--more old-fashioned, with pathos and comedy. I follow them without too much sympathy because of my satirical intentions. In the background is TV, which I present objectively."

Although the gaudy proceedings might seem hyperbolic to some viewers, Fellini insisted on this objectivity: "It's impossible to exaggerate when dealing with TV--to present anything more stupid, cynical or demented than what's on the tube. It's like describing the disaster of an insane brain while using an insane brain--a game of mirrors. The real difficulty is that my parodic intentions become almost impotent because it's hard to parody something which in itself is already a parody."

Part of the director's anger stems from the way that television lacks the magic of the film-going experience. "Cinema is like a ritual," he observed, occasionally using a translator. "In its communication of a message, it respectfully leaves more interior space for the viewer. To have gone there, leaving the others outside in the street, is a testament to personal choice--'I want to go see this'--rather than succumbing to invasive dependency.

"The individual remains alone with the message, walks out of the dream and returns to his life," he continued. "The ritual has a religious moment. It's not senseless, disrespectful and dangerous like teledependency, where you watch while you're on the phone, yelling at your children or switching from channel to channel while eating. The best way to watch TV is while you're asleep."

One would assume that Fellini consequently hates films on videocassettes, which can be watched with the same lack of respect. But here his view is more benign. As he explained, "It's nice that you can keep a film you love like a book, to re-create the cinema in your home. Hopefully, you'll turn off the lights! Then it's an imitation of the theater ritual. You can even have popcorn!"

Ironically enough, the origin of "Ginger and Fred" was a TV episode in which Fellini was to direct his wife. "The series fell through," he recalled, "because of the arrogance of a producer who said, 'Why should a director like Fellini do a little TV episode? Just write a few more lines of script and make a feature.' He was right."

Fellini had not intended to use Mastroianni who "hardly has the physique of a dancer," Fellini said with a laugh, "and was heavier than usual. He said to me, 'I've made so many films, but would love to do one in a tuxedo, tap-dancing.' I answered, 'Well, my friend, it will remain a dream.' "

But when Fellini told Masina about this, she begged her husband, "Please take him. He's such a nice guy." In Fellini's opinion, this was "hardly the thing to say to a director who's trying to be rigorous. But finally, it was perfect."

Pairing these two icons of the Italian cinema fit in with what Fellini called his "puppeteer nature: I've put together two of my favorite puppets, each representing a different aspect of my cinema. This is the trick--an honest one--of the entrepreneur who offers two stars together for the first time."

An additional irony is that one of the producers of "Ginger and Fred" is the RAI--Italian television. "Oh, I like that," Fellini said with a hearty laugh. "This confirms my optimism that everything is possible. It's right that Italian TV should produce a film parodying TV. This is very Italian: despite our rhetoric or dogmatic aspects, there's the possibility of turning things around--of dogmatically doing something anti-dogmatic."

(Indeed, despite Fellini's indictments of the tube, he has accepted a television offer for a one-hour program: "It will be a director's notebook," he revealed, "a visualized chat--between the indiscreet and the narcissistic--on how I make films.")

Fellini's delight in paradox and refusal of despair can also be seen in two elements within "Ginger and Fred": the heroine's doggedly cheerful view of things, and a monk's remark that "Everything in the world is a miracle: We just have to discern it in all we survey."

"I agree," declared the stocky director while moving his crutch around. "Not only in the mystical sense but in the scientific. We're living in an era where science has become a religion. We have discovered that soul is energy. I don't want to say that my film is profound, but I share the monk's view . . . because it's comforting for mental health."

It is precisely the miraculous aspects of the cinema that Fellini finds vulnerable these days. "It seems that movies have lost their seduction, authority and prestige--weakened by the fact that everything competes with it," he lamented. "Life itself rivals cinema. We live in a society of images which gratify the masses--like billboards which use sex just to sell cheese. Rome is full of big posters in which Renault or Fiat is so richly visualized that a story is told."

This is a far cry from the cinema of the 1930s, which played a seminal role in Fellini's life. "For those of us who lived in Italy, in the provinces--under fascism and the church--in the '30s, Fred and Ginger were a symbol of the American cinema. It comforted us to know that a different kind of life existed. When they danced, the characters of Ginger and Fred were a joyous confirmation that life wasn't just militancy, brutalizing wars, or the first Friday of the month. Similarly, my aging dancers remember that childish need to believe that there's another world in the face of TV and the decayed urban landscape.

"But cinema is no longer a precious gift," he continued. As for its exotic appeal, he went on, "Even a poor family can take a weekend safari in Africa today." And as far as its erotic appeal, "woman has been demystified. We are no longer in a masturbatory society: As soon as a child can walk, he can make love. That works against movies too."

Moreover, Fellini believes that TV has brought in lower standards, "weakening the tradition of crafting pictures, by working quickly with little sense of professionalism. This is the way an old director starts to reason," he joked, "one who feels excluded. But I'm an optimist and think that when an artist is curious--a witness to his confusions and hopes, and able to find the money to make something!--there will always be someone who wants to listen."

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