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I, Clown: Circular Expressions of Life’s Comic Tragedies

Federico Fellini’s quiet masterpiece

Have some respect for the dead. Watch I Clowns. I mean, if you give a f*ck about Fellini. You don’t have to go in having any feelings about clowns.

Recently the world celebrated the 100th birthday of the late Federico Fellini. RIP Father Federico. See you in art heaven someday. I hope you appear to me as an Augusto and maybe hold me for a while since you made me cry like that. Until then, I’m sure I’ll continue to enjoy many more viewings of I Clowns as I make my way through the rest of your oeuvre. Thanks for being awesome and making me cry (f*cking La Strada).

Love, Katie.

the circus is dead clowns are dead

Stop reading.

The astonishment, the sense of dismay, of unfamiliarity and familiarity at the same time…is it all in the movie? The mysterious gloom under the tent, the excruciating music, the vibe of game and execution, of party and slaughter, of grace and foolishness—one one word: the circus—is it all in my movie?

For those of you who’ve yet to see Fellini’s 1970 mockumentary I Clowns, this will all just be too much. The film itself is—it’s an experience all its own. I don’t know where you can find it. I found it at my local library. Remarkably, each of four branches here in little ‘ol Durham, North Carolina has a copy.

i clowns


Fellini’s Circus, an excellent, informative video essay included in the 2011 DVD released by Rarovideo, explains the content of the film. While thorough, there’s a hint of the magic, the distortion, the chaos, the curiosity that can never be recaptured the way it can be seen going in cold. Fellini’s lament cited above, concerning what he hoped to achieve and was able to achieve, was unfounded. Apart from the smells of the sawdust and animals (which did actually occur to me after he mentions it), he hit his mark precisely.

I won’t.

hand over mouth fellini circus


There’s nothing I could write that would be better than watching I Clowns. Surely there are many who have never seen it, so here I am screaming into the void. Like my clowning forebears staring dreadfully into large, dark shapes of empty seats, I cling to what is meaningful for me. Movies, mostly. Equally, from the accounts expressed by the clowns of yesteryear (as written by the filmmakers), the circus and the art form of clowning was a meaningful occupation indeed.

i clowns compared to other fellini films

i clowns compared to other fellini films

i clowns compared to other fellini films

graphs explaining i clowns
graphs explaining I Clowns occur throughout Fellini Circus

Don’t you see? Now you have too much information.

The film itself is part fiction, part reality. It kills the experience for me to inform you of the scripted nature. It makes it seem more…fake. But scripted it is, and it’s all the more real for it. The circus and clownery were their own artifice, and there’s no good reason that verité-style would be a more just or “true” extrapolation. There’s even a funeral sequence for the death of the clown. Beautiful, too, thanks to that old rogue Fellini.

Hell, I didn’t know there was a script when I first watched this. It blew my mind.

How else does someone get to be the way I am except by having their mind blown a few times over? Is my fever dream related somehow? Am I a clown without the benefit of a face? I was once a child…

clowns work as couples
from Fellini Circus: Comparing White Clowns and Augustos


Framing the action of the film, a small boy daydreams in his room considering both the disarming and traumatizing experience he witnessed at the circus. A Fellini insertion? Maybe. Since the director is himself another character in the film (the director of the film-within-a-film and this is all quite meta), that’s up for grabs. I think it might be anyone. You. Me. Here we are, watching (and now reading about) the passion and pain of observing existence. The real Clowns. But – there are real clowns, who play characters, and are themselves, each other, actual famous clowns. There is also the fake crew (clowns…!) and the important history of the Augusto and White Clowns.

the white clown undisputed deity
The White Clowns are the undisputed deities.

White clowns. You know what I’m talking about. The Orderly. The Right Ones. Basted in their self-righteousness, they are the best and the worst of the Apollonian in us. They may be artists or aristocrats, but what they do they do well, and by the rules they themselves have set. Beautiful, angular, unforgiving. White clowns.

fellini considers himself an Augusto clown
“I certainly consider myself an ‘Augusto’ ” says Fellini. (And a White Clown. Indeed, perhaps the Ringleader.)

By contrast, the Augusto Clowns are the loyal opposition. Equal and opposite, Dionysian, and with a similar amount of value in the popular purview, the Augusto clown is often sad. Drunkards, anarchists, beloved of children and continual scourge of the White Clown; they can be useless, but are often kind. They are the proles, and often, the audience.

Augusto clowns
Undisputed deities vs inebriated anarchists

Each according to his own nature.


What clowns are left for us? Demonic Augusto clowns, mostly. Dead ones. Documentaries with legitimately terrorizing trailer ones.

What naiveté the audience once had died with the circus. Now the only clowns we have left are scary. They’re a horror film trope, a scrambling to remember that one friendly children’s show clown on PBS, McDonald’s.

The shadow will always be there
So scary.

They’re a woman I met in New Orleans (only in New Orleans) who is Sunshine the Clown and was really mostly pleasant if neurotic. But that makes me think of the wheelchair-using tarot card reader who hustled me for $20, some cinnamon-ginger bread, and quality beer (“Something Belgian!” she said), while it took her 8 hours to half-read my tarot because she and Sunshine wouldn’t shut up.

The Clown is Dead
He died, after sneaking out of the asylum and watching other clowns.

Are we so frightened of our own shadows that we have forgotten our dual natures and allowed I – Clown – to die? Or have we so effectively suppressed them, individually and collectively, that the only way they escape is through violence, deceit? Darker? Does it eke out in seemingly random acts of violence? Abuses of power?

What have they been replaced by? Indifference, mostly.

their intense memory remains

The clowns are still there. They are just caged like yesterday’s animals.

As for me…

the tramp
“The Tramp is a happy cat that shrugs and walks away.”

One more thing. Doesn’t Victoria Chaplin look just like Rey (Daisy Ridley) from Star Wars?!

Victoria Chaplin
Seeing Victoria Chaplin was more exciting for me than seeing Anita Eckberg *shrug emoji*

Written by Katie Magdalene

Katie Magdalene hails from the American Southeast. She studied Visual Art at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and achieved B.A.’s in Film Arts and Philosophy from the University of New Orleans, in addition to lifelong autodidactic pursuits. She currently authors the weekly antifascist newsletter for Scalawag Magazine, This Week in the South.

Her primary research interests are all things wonderful and strange, inspired by the work of Leonard Shlain (Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light; The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image; Sex, Time, and Power: How Women’s Sexuality Shaped Human Evolution); and the study of Gnosticism (Nag Hammadi Library, Greek fragments of The Gospel of Mary, the Coptic Gospel of Judas, and the Pistis Sophia).


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  1. Wonderful article. I also thank Fellini for 8 1/2 and its inspiration for Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories and for La Strada for introducing me to Giulietta Masina and making me weep.

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