Saturday, August 23, 2008

"There is no film. There is nothing, nowhere."

This is part of the Movies About Movies Blog-a-thon hosted by goatdogblog. You can read the rest of the entries here. There's some really good stuff there, check it out.

The words in the header are uttered by Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), the director of a movie in a movie by Federico Fellini, and they set the audience up for the films main theme: that through the darkness and uncertainty of not knowing what's to come, we can look to our memories and it is this nostalgia that can lift us up and break free the chains of reality we are immersed in everyday. For Guido there is "nothing, nowhere" at the particular time he speaks these words, but as the film progresses we see a man change; dwelling on past childhood memories, rites of passage, male fantasies, and the value of life itself, Guido doesn't just represent the obvious self-reflexivity of filmmaker Federico Fellini, but also the audience. Fellini is inviting us to partake in this explication of past memories like Guido does, and if we the audience give ourselves to genuine contemplative moments, then we too can change and that there is life to be lived. Something, everywhere. 8 1/2 is that rare film that is a masterful film about a film, but it has the ability to penetrate the screen and creep into our psyches and affect us like no other film can; but like all film hopes to do. That is the power of film, and the power of 8 1/2.

8 1/2 was the moment when director Federico Fellini was starting to hear the jeers from the ultra-serious Italian neo-realist crowd. Having his roots in neo-realism Fellini made a stark departure from the grounded realism and Truth many Italians and film critics found in films like The Bicycle Thief and the Fellini penned Rome, Open City. When Fellini broke free from the shackles and limitations of neo-realism (emotionally it's a great movement and there are some great films there, but it's pretty aesthetically dull) with his brilliant La Dolce Vita all bets were off. Then came 8 1/2 and most critics and lovers of neo-realism thought Fellini had completely lost his mind.

The film shows Fellini's own frustration with the film industry as is masterfully displayed in the famous opening dream sequence. Right away Fellini is telling the viewer that this is a self-reflexive film. We are introduced to Guido while he is being asphyxiated by some kind of gas and trying to kick out the windows of his car, when he suddenly appears outside floating above his car. Guido then floats through his world and eventually above a beach (which we are given the information for later in the film) only to be pulled down by one of his associates (a producer, no doubt representing reality and the decisions Guido must make) who have a string tied around his leg. As Guido struggles to break free from the rope the producer tugs harder and Guido falls, then he wakes up.

The effect of this opening sequence is twofold: from a strictly aesthetic standpoint it's some of the best visual work (all the dream sequences are filmed beautifully, they are also the most fantastical moments of the film) Fellini ever did, showing that he was done with the neo-realist approach to filmmaking. The other effect the opening scene has is the self-reflexive nature of the scene. Since Guido is Fellini it can safely be interpreted that this must have been how Fellini felt while not only making 8 1/2, but any movie after the extremely popular La Dolce Vita. Fellini is telling us that the life of filmmaker working with all these movie producers and people employed by the studios is the same as the opening scene. The obscurity vs. clarity polarity is obviously there with the asphyxiation scene (studios wanting something creative from you even if you have nothing to offer them, another theme of the film), but also the fact that Guido is able to soar in his dream just a little bit, but when he flies by his set (notice how it's for a science fiction film) towards the producers on the beach, they want him down; who surely believe that you can only allow a creative force (like Fellini) so much time in the day to dream things up. A frustration that pulsates throughout the film as the need for decisions and deadlines weigh heavy upon Guido the only thing he can do is think about his childhood while everything around him in the present (the film, relationships) crumble.

The other scene I want to talk about is the origin of the moment where Guido probably decided he wanted to make movies. There is a flashback to Guido's childhood triggered by the password "Asa Nisi Masa" which Fellini explains in an interview is a game him and his friends used to play where they would add the suffix -si or -sa to the first letter of something they wanted to turn into a coded word. In the film one of Guido's friends tells him a story that if they don't utter those words at night before they sleep a picture on the wall will come to life. The correlation of making pictures move and making movies is brilliant and one of the best scenes of the film. If you break down the word further like Fellini explains it then you find a kind of password like Welles' "Rosebud". "Asa Nisi Masa" becomes anima meaning soul or force, but also some of the repressed female characteristics that can be found in men. This is portrayed in the brilliantly wild and funny Harem scene where Guido has all of the women from his life waiting on him hand and foot. It's as if he has them bottled up in his psyche, they are a major part of who he is.

The film excels on the deep interpretive level, no doubt, but it is also just a joy to savor all of its beautifully imagery and the amazing musical score by Nino Rota. It's a film that can lift your spirits by the sheer brilliance of which it was made, yes there are a lot of underlying themes, but more than anything its a film about filmmaking that excels in everything a film should be; which is important since everything we're watching is about what we're watching. The art of the film about a film is often lost on many filmmakers today who are too interested in the easy satire or in-jokes (Fellini was funny too, he kept a sign on the camera throughout 8 1/2 that read: "remember this is a comedy.") of Hollywood, but with 8 1/2 Fellini is interested in something much deeper.

No other film about filmmaking has as much depth as 8 1/2. Here is a man who is seeking all kind of cure methods while he's ruining relationships, meandering on the set and delaying the film (the scene where he is being forced to talk about what the movie is about is hilarious), a man who would rather contemplate on the past then do anything about the future of his film. And this is the point of the film and what makes it the best film about filmmaking. When Fellini was asked what he wanted with 8 1/2 he said he wanted to depict the "three levels upon which our minds live: past, present, and conditional." As a film professor I had once pointed out, notice how Fellini isnot the future, but instead the possible, the potential, the fantasy (think about the end of La Dolce Vita, it's not what his life will be like if he leaves the beach with his dream girl, it's all about the potential, the could of the situation is deafened by the breakers that drown out her voice).

Fellini's major films are more surreal, expressionist, postmodern. Some fault him for this, calling it willfully exhibitionist and aesthete. So the quote I threw in the title of this post makes the film sound nihilistic and teeming with the postmodern nonchalantness and irresponsibility that many of Fellini's detractors accuse him of. That is often the mistake with postmodern art, be it film or literature or whatever, the knock on it is that postmodern art is too nihilistic and doesn't care about the future. This assessment couldn't be more wrong, because the people who do postmodern art correctly understand what it truly represents: that through an explication of our past we can change how we are in the here and now. The future is always in question with postmodern art, much like it is with Guido and his film. He can't answer questions about the future of his film because he doesn't know what the future holds. Why let the future rule your life when you don't even have control of what's happening in the present? And this is what's at the heart of 8 1/2 and postmodern film and literature: how can we change the now to a better now. Yes, the film is exhibitionist (as is evident in the wonderful screen test scene where the theater acts as a confessional), but it's never exclusive; the invitation is there for us to be contemplate on life like Guido in the movie theater watching screen tests.

The above quote in the header suggests that there is something beyond the screen that is more important. 8 1/2 is a perfect example of how a film can use its techniques and moments within its story to evoke past memories -- nostalgia that makes us feel good about the present, the here and now. By exploring our past histories we can uncover newfound truths about ourselves we never knew; opening up parts of our anima, our soul or driving force, we never thought were possible. And isn't that the most wonderful and ultimate goal for all film, to move us and provide us with those moments of reflection?

As mentioned earlier 8 1/2 is the greatest film about filmmaking ever made; I also find it to be the greatest film ever made. It resonates with me the more I watch it. It's one of those rare films that excels at both being about as aesthetically perfect as a film can be and having a powerful and poignant narrative that never grows tiresome. This is the power of the film: like a good epistle or contemplative prayer by the great Thomas Merton, I can return to 8 1/2 numerous times because both its aesthetics and its narrative put me in a deep state of the contemplative. And isn't that the goal of most films? To resonate with us so deeply and on such a personal level that it becomes almost a religious text for us; opening up new worlds of personal discovery and epiphanies that help us learn from our past so that we can become better people today.

8 1/2 contains the power of a film that is, on the surface, a self-reflexive exercise by Fellini who threw everything on the screen for this movie, even having some fun with film criticism as the critic in the movie is the catalyst for the death of the film; but beneath its surface lies an invitation for the audience to think about our own pasts, think about how we treat the ones we love, and how to be an original thinker in a world that wants you tied to a string so at any given moment they can pull you down from your moment of reverie. It was about five years ago that I accepted this invitation when I sat down and watched 8 1/2 for the first time. Watch it by yourselves first, then watch it with friends -- freeze framing certain scenes and discussing the power that lies in each frame; this is a film of tremendous power and poignancy, a film filled with beautifully lighting and cinematography, a film that has some pretty funny satirical comments on the movie making business, and more than anything it's just an entertaining, wonderful film experience, unlike anything you have likely seen or will ever see after. It's the greatest film about filmmaking, yes, but it's also the greatest film of all time.


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