Like I said in The Room review, I’m generally of the attitude that most filmmakers, regardless of skill or genre, imbue some part of themselves and their psychology in their art. After all, the way an artist chooses to shape their object doesn’t come from just anywhere, it comes from inside (it’s for this reason I don’t judge anyone who chooses to avoid Roman Polanski or Woody Allen movies, etc., though I don’t). Now, I don’t know how far back openly self-reflexive cinema has been happening, but Federico Fellini’s Italian masterpiece 8 1/2 strikes me as the most audacious dirty laundry-slinging you can possibly get away with before losing me as a viewer. Everything meta- after 8 1/2 seems trying to catch up, whether New Nightmare or Annie Hall or Birdman. They just can’t hold a candle to 8 1/2 for me.
Its very opening scene is the kind of shocker that puts you right into the headspace of its lead character Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) and does that by putting us in a point of view shot for the majority of the time that he’s being asphyxiated by leaking gas in a car stuck in bumper to bumper highway traffic in the patronizing eyes of the other cars. He escapes through the sunroof and begins to glide and fly up into the sky before being caught in some rope from a shore below and the movie has already taken up a surrealist nature that overwhelms the viewer, pulled out of it once the person holding the rope tugs and Guido falls into our view and us out of what was presented as a dream. A cold awakening that sets the heightened theatrical tone of the film (though it should be noted that 8 1/2 is in many ways much more grounded than most of Fellini’s other works like Satyricon and Amarcord), the feeling of lack of self-control or freedom that fuels the frustration Mastroianni guides us through all within the film, and it aligns with Guido’s perspective irrevocably.
All of this is tied to the fact that Guido, a film director (obviously representing Fellini himself), is in the middle of a big epic spectacle production that he has no clue what to make it about, a half-constructed rocket ship one of the major setpieces Piero Gherardi provides as towering monument of Guido and Fellini’s uncertainties and insecurities. He’s also in the middle of a break ostensibly for his health in a Catholic spa that Gherardi and composer Nino Rota craft as a hypnotising carnivalesque white block (even more solid in the black and white stock of which 8 1/2 is shot by Gianni Di Venanzo) of “supposed” salvation and real confusion, the kind that you don’t really mind living in because it blankets you well. Meanwhile, he’s dealing with his imminent separation from his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée) while his mistress Carla (Sandra Milo, Fellini’s real-life mistress) is staying right next door at the spa. And while the plot circles and circles with Guido’s inability to make any creative decisions walking right past all of his assistants in the hotel or appease his clearly tired producer (Guido Alberti), any real attempt to present a solution is way too hard for Guido and he retreats into his hat or sunglasses to indulge himself in a memory of his childhood – like being punished for witnessing a prostitute’s dance – or a fantasy that is extremely telling of his flaws – such as the chauvinistic harem sequence.
Guido’s not a good guy, he’s spineless, he’s creatively bankrupt (at this point in his career), he’s a liar, he’s an adulterer, and that’s just the things that Fellini wants us to read into a character who is essentially meant to represent him. Even if 8 1/2 is eager to forgive Guido’s faults by the end of it, I can’t pretend this decision on Guido’s personality is a brave move on Fellini’s part and it’s even more miraculous that 8 1/2 can be so entertaining as a movie, swinging around Rota’s big marches and fanfares to make start seeping in between Guido’s real circus of screen tests and press conferences and his fantasy escapes within his mind, so that by the end of the picture it becomes so overwhelming you can’t tell where one begins and one ends.
But I’m almost getting ahead of myself, for what makes Guido still so tolerable a protagonist in spite of his faults is how humane and willing Fellini is to go backwards into his psyche to find the root of his problems with women, his art, his inner guilt, and the honesty behind 8 1/2‘s revelations end up feeling relatable as a result. The other big deal is how every cast member no matter how cartoonish he or she is presented by the film, they’re so involved in their own lives that it’s clear we’re witnessing real people only given a distorted lens by Guido/Fellini, most tragically towards Luisa who looks probably more like a stern killjoy to Guido, but Aimée is not willing to play along with that ruse and even before the screen test confessional where Aimée gets to do the best work out of everybody in the movie, she gives Luisa a sense of pain and embarrassment so sharp it’s impossible not to understand her frustrations. Fellini as a filmmaker intelligently stays out of the cast’s way so that even Carla has inner life and we can imagine where she goes when not in the presence of Guido. Or Claudia Cardinale being pictured on the spot as Guido’s ideal woman (standing out in black amongst a sea of white in the resort) despite her clear ailings that brought her there to begin with and are exacerbated by Guido’s fetishizing of her. Fellini may not have an idea of how to craft these women, but the cast does and it only puts more perspective in how small Fellini/Guido’s own ailments are.
Nevertheless, while I wasn’t wrong in claiming 8 1/2 may be one of Fellini’s most restrained films, it still announces itself as theatrical even without all the fantasy sequences. Moments are full of metaphor within them such as Guido’s attempt to clumsily direct Carla in a love scene between them or Guido’s descent into a sauna steamed white hot wisps like Hell itself despite meeting with a cardinal in that very sauna. The connection that can be made between Guido’s inability for creativity and his sexual impotence is implied by his own mind. All of this, when we’re reminded they all come from our alignment with Guido’s perspective, suddenly tell us that these real-life scenes are no less fantasy escapes than Guido’s mind-harem, they’re all Guido trying to rectify the fact that he doesn’t have an authority over his own life by visualizing them as big moments and himself as a big character in the center of his life. And who doesn’t see themselves that way, director or not? Which is how the movie and Guido arrive to the final revelation that Guido doesn’t need to direct his life the same way he directs his movie, although whether or not Fellini truly believes that is up for question as even when Guido relinquishes absolute control around the end and is willing to start over, we see his younger self guiding his own life literally and figuratively in a dance I find impossible not to associate with the finale of The Seventh Seal, albeit a bit more optimistically.
I don’t want to say 8 1/2 is an impressionistic movie. I don’t think think it’s ambiguous at any point about what it’s about or what it’s trying to say, but I don’t know. Maybe I just respond so well to that because I want to be a filmmaker myself. Maybe I just respond to it well because I’m a straight guy who has similar neurotic hang-ups. Maybe this essay is my own great big sloppy 8 1/2, for I have started and stopped over and over again writing this not knowing how or what to focus on (and indeed 8 1/2 is the sort of movie where there is so much about Fellini to unpack that I wouldn’t have known where to start), and so that will leave me with some sort of dissatisfaction about what I’ve had to say. But I can’t lie to myself about how I feel for 8 1/2 and how sometimes I find myself trying to escape even the slightest antagonism by dreaming within my own shades.
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