Edited 8/4/12: I wrote this a little over a year ago, and, in light of the recent S&S polling, I thought I would repost my thoughts on what I feel is the greatest film ever made (in lieu of new content while I'm on vacation). Enjoy.
"His film is as whole, as simple, as beautiful, and as honest as the one that Guido, in 8 ½, wants to make."
From its first surrealistic seconds of asphyxiation, synec doche, and eerie silence that hovers over the action, Federico Fellini's 8 ½ states its thesis clearly: Fellini is cutting the umbilical cord to his neo-realist ways and introducing his postmodern, dreamlike (not to mention carnivalesque and farcical) motifs that would be found in all of Fellini's films post-La Dolce Vita. Fellini's style would venture into the baroque with films like Roma and Juliet of the Spirits; however, it was with 8 ½ that the auteur was at his most Jungian. It is within the dream world of 8 ½ that Fellini becomes a cartoonist (Terry Gilliam, in the Criterion DVD introduction to the film, says this, too) who mixes the absurd and dreamlike aesthetic with a narrative that is poignant and effective. Yes, the aesthetics are impressive (I believe whole heartedly that Fellini's film is just as important a visual textbook as something like Citizen Kane), but for this viewer it is the narrative that continues to impress and affect with each subsequent viewing.
So what is it about Fellini's film that keeps me coming back? What is it about the film that makes me continue to consider it my favorite movie? What does it stir within me when I watch it? As I mentioned, it's more than just the masterful aesthetics (which are reason alone to see the film multiple times); it's the fact that Fellini's film is, well, astute about life and true. Yeah, that sounds a bit trite, and I had problems forcing myself to keep it on the page, but damn if 8 ½ isn't the greatest film about how messed up and wonderful life can be – the original title for the film was La bella confusione ("The Beautiful Confusion") – and just accepting that fact. Indeed the film is the best film about film, but it's also about getting your shit together. The film is not a matter of either/or (that would be neo-realist Fellini); it is definitely a film that is both/and (that is the postmodern Fellini). The film is objective and incredibly wise in its observations all-the-while being wholly autobiographical. Fellini's self-reflexive film is not just about the filmmaker, but it's the filmmaker inviting us to re-examine our own lives by looking to the past – and the people who inhabit that past – to figure out how to navigate the present. I think this is why I have such a strong reaction to the film. Even for someone like me who isn't all that creative, the film still resonates.
8 ½ is indeed the greatest movie about the struggle to create art and to navigate the choppy, existential waters of life. It is a film with so many layers that it baffles me when I read something like Pauline Kael's criticism of the film calling it a "structural disaster" (which made me think of the problems Guido has with his spaceship set), or Judith Crist's claim that the film "didn't touch the heart or move the spirit." Other American critics complained at the time about the exhibitionistic and narcissistic tendencies of the film. Indeed the film was not as warmly received then as it is now. However, American critics (and other filmmakers) were much kinder to the film than Italians, who, more than likely, just wanted the Fellini who penned Rome: Open City or directed La Strada back. Critics wanted the Neo-realist Fellini to return much like the critic in 8 1/2 who chastises Guido for assuming people want watch a film about the director's struggles.
One thing that has always stuck with me about the film is just how much it works on a structural level and how even though the film is about Fellini, its themes are universal for the audience. I always think that its messiness is part of its charm, and I want to yell, "of course it's messy!" And I think Fellini would say, "Yes, life is messy, and so is making a movie, so what's wrong with my film being a little messy." In fact, to invoke Terry Gilliam again, he calls 8 ½ the "essence of what it is to make a film." Whenever Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) "tap dances," as Gilliam puts it, through the film, it is Fellini brilliantly showing all of the "tap dancing" one must do in order to elude all of the diversions – all of the "stuff" – that pop up on a movie set to distract the filmmaker from achieving their vision. I also cannot understand the notion that the film doesn't "move the spirit" as Crist claimed. This reminds me of the snide comment one of the doctors that in the film asks Guido, "Well, what are you cooking up for us? Another film without hope?" The difference between Neo-realist Fellini and Postmodern Fellini is that there is nothing hopeless to rub our noses in. I love Italian Neo-realism, don't misunderstand me, but I feel like the real Fellini can be seen in La Dolce Vita and on. This is the Fellini that is more absurd, baroque, and elusive, sure, but it's also the Fellini that is more hopeful. So yes, I think there is hope here. I think that Guido's existential journey is one that does move the spirit. No matter how impressive the aesthetics in 8 ½ are, it's the narrative that continues to strike me every time I revisit the film. The film is not distant and cold; it is a film about a man trying not to just create something, but it's also about a man trying to connect to the world via his past.
I suppose I could rattle of the list of things that the aesthete in me loves, the cerebral stuff like: the self-reflexivity of the film (film acts a mirror throughout); the postmodern aesthetic that beautifully visualizes the seemless transition between the dream world and reality (I love the opening tracking shot at the thermal spa; the spaceship set; the descent into hell when Guido goes into the steam room; the harem scene); the opening dream sequence which acts as the catalyst for Guido's literal and figurative reawaking and ends with Guido being "pulled down" by all the 'real' stuff he doesn't want to deal with ("down, down"); all of the dichotomies found within the film (dream vs. reality, silence vs. sound, clarity vs. obscurity, disconnection vs. community, spiritual/transcendent world vs. the sensual/human world; liberation vs. restraint); the music (more on that later) by Nino Rota; the beautiful black and white cinematography by Gianni Di Venanzo; the lighting (specifically the steam room scene and the car-as-confessional scene with Claudia); the masterful framing (I especially like the early scenes in the hotel); the Jungian codes (Asa Nisi Masa = Anima; it is also Fellini's version of "Rosebud"); Guido struggling with all of the female archetypes in his life (mother, virgin/angel, and whore…again, more Jung); and I could keep going. The point is this: those are all the elements that have been talked about by people smarter than me (even though I think they are important to talk about), but there's a reason why I felt the urge to break the lull in blogging with an essay about this film. It's the other stuff that Fellini does in his film that stirs within me such a strong emotional reaction.
I think one can boil the film down to its most simplistic by seeing that it is indeed a film about this very basic tenet: overcome the seriousness of life with humor. Fellini even had a card taped to the camera throughout filming that read "remember, this is a comedy." The film exists in dreams; it's about making sense of things with the help of the subconscious (Fellini began keeping a dream journal around the time he was making La Strada); or, better yet, it's a dream journey – albeit a fragmented one – a la Bergman's Wild Strawberries. However fragmented the film may be, it is still fluid in how it gets to its conclusion. The film seamlessly transitions between reality and fantasy (the film was a huge influence on Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth) until it all comes crashing together in the film's denouement. Guido, accepting the chaos of life, gathers all of the players of his crazy existence as they dance around him in a celebratory manner. The final image makes me again think of Bergman; however, this time it is a carnivalesque flip of the dance of death at the end of The Seventh Seal. It's a beautiful moment that gets to me every time. I think it's Fellini just saying, "go with it all – the craziness and uncertainty and the sacred and profane – and enjoy life."
One element to the film that makes it so easy for me to be moved is the score. Nino Rota's music is one of the great scores that show the importance of a composer working with a filmmaker. Rota uses music like Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" brilliantly (and this was quite rare to use another piece of music on a film's soundtrack), but he also creates a score (especially that last carnival song that plays over the child dancer in a spotlight) that is a perfect melding of the ironic, whimsical, carnivalesque, and poignant tone of the film. Fellini and Rota's relationship (Rota scored all of Fellini's films from The White Sheik on) reminds one that music – and its impact on one's overall experience with the film – can be just as important as the visuals or the dialogue (Carter Burwell springs to mind when I think of a recent example of the impact a composer can have on a film).
A more cerebral way to view the film (one of its many charms to me is the multiple levels one can read and enjoy the film) is with an existential lens. The film asks throughout the most basic Existential question (why are we here?), and it's quite brave of Fellini to have Guido, his doppelganger, not be a heroic, sexy, suave figure who has it all together; rather, he hides under his hat and shades and retreats to his fantasies at the first sign of adversity and challenge (my favorite, and I think the consensus opinion as well, being his retreat to the harem of his dreams where all of the women of his life gather where he tames them with a whip…the film is about control, and the only time Guido has control of anything are in his adolescent fantasies). Guido is somewhat of a coward; he is too afraid of what the answers might be to his existential quandary. When he must face his critics at the end of the film, Guido can't bring himself to answer even the simplest questions, so he ducks under the table (like a child playing hide and seek) and tries to shoot himself in the head in hopes of escaping it all by taking the easy, irresponsible way out.
In the film's most powerful scene, Guido is watching the screen tests of actresses trying out for the parts of the women in his life. As Guido watches and axes performance after performance (while the producer loves it, of course), his poor wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée) must watch as all copies of Guido's mistresses pop up on screen in a moving scene that acts a kind of confessional for Guido. It adds to the self-reflexivity motif and succeeds in making Guido a sympathetic character. After all, this is a character that just can't stand up to it all (the pressures, life, whatever it may be), and we shouldn't be all that surprised that he can't face it considering the way we're introduced to the character (choking and gasping for air while trying to escape all that makes him feel like he's drowning); it's not the most confident introduction to a protagonist I've seen. The screen test scene is not the end of the confessional for Guido, though. As he leaves the theater, he meets up with his dream girl Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) who rushes him away from all of the craziness. During the car ride, Guido's eyes are lit and the rest of his face is black as if he were in a confessional booth. It's a brilliant piece of lighting, and what makes it more interesting is the sense that Guido is given the perfect opportunity for salvation. He's with his dream girl, and she's offering him wisdom and truth, but his ego continues to get in the way; he still refuses to hear the wisdom of those around him. In what should be a defining moment for Guido, it turns out to be another almost-there moment of salvation that is stunted by his Solipsism – he is unable to see how he and the women in his life can coexist – and then ultimately interrupted, again, by the film industry.
It is those two scenes that I always return to, that I always think about when I think about 8 ½ because for me they encapsulate what is so damn great about the film's narrative. Guido must overcome his ego to allow the others in his life to enter. It all coalesces perfectly at the end when he invites them all into his film for the final dance of celebration. The ending is key because unlike La Dolce Vita the invitation and subsequent acquiescence to life's mysteries is not an either/or decision for our protagonist. Guido, unlike Marcello the protagonist of La Dolce Vita, doesn't ignore the calls of the dream girl calling across the beach; there are no breakers to drown out the invitation to the sweet life; rather, Guido seems to just accept the wackiness of life – with all of its ups and downs – and celebrates the arbitrary nature of it all. "All this confusion," Guido says at the end of 8 ½, "It's me, myself. As I am, not as I would like to be. And it doesn't frighten me anymore." Guido finally accepts his faults, his ego, and he finally accepts the responsibility of being someone who can exist in community with others. And as his spaceship and set are being destroyed, Guido is being rebuilt into (hopefully) a better person. The ending is a both/and situation: Guido has changes and he has not changes. I don't know if there's happiness for him and Luisa, but I think there is an understanding of the self and of the two together that was lacking before Guido's epiphany. It's a beautiful, powerful moment as all of Guido's past and present – all of what's good and insecure and sacred and profane – swirls around in a celebration of the uncertain, contradictory nature of life.
There is a moment in the film when Guido utters these words something to the extent of, "There is no film. There is nothing, nowhere." And it's true that at that moment, there is "nothing, nowhere" for Guido; however, as the film progresses we see a man change. We begin to see Guido 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; he also represents the audience. Fellini is inviting us to partake in this explication of past memories like Guido does, and if we give ourselves to genuine contemplative moments, then we too can change and see that there is a "sweet life" to be lived. By exploring our past histories (like Guido), 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? Shouldn't films seek to resonate with us so deeply and on such a personal level that it becomes almost a religious text for us? This is the power of Fellini's 8 1/2. 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 contemplation. The very best films open up new worlds, get me to ask new questions, and put me in a state of reverie that opens me up to personal discovery and epiphanies; 8 ½ will always be my favorite film for those reasons.