Friday, January 21, 2011

8½ (1963)

Italy/France, 138 minutes
Director: Federico Fellini
Writers: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi
Photography: Gianni Di Venanzo
Music: Nino Rota
Editor: Leo Cattozzo
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Rossella Falk, Barbara Steele, Madeleine Lebeau, Caterina Boratto, Eddra Gale, Guido Alberti, Jean Rougeul

Italian director Federico Fellini's 8.5th film (after seven features and a short, though IMDb would seem to count it a little differently) is a great big shaggy dog of a movie and arguably a critical point where consensus art film starts to lose any chance for a broader audience. I recall the first time I saw it finding myself completely impatient with it—it just seemed like so much meandering self-indulgent crap. More recently I'm more forgiving. I still think it's meandering self-indulgent crap, but observing it repeatedly and closely discloses how carefully crafted it is to be exactly that.

The story: an attempt in media res to make a film, a production bogged down in chaos. Director Guido Anselmi (played by a brooding, pained, masterfully controlled Marcello Mastroianni, by all appearances standing in for Fellini) has become increasingly lost in the details and his own messy personal life. A man generally introduced throughout as "the author" (played by Jean Rougeul), a writer brought in to help salvage the project and a kind of one-man Greek chorus, lays it out in the first 10 minutes: "You want to talk about the film?" he snidely says to Guido, above the pumping strains of Beethoven. "On first reading it's evident that the film lacks a problematic or philosophical premise, making the film a series of gratuitous episodes, perhaps amusing for their ambiguous realism. One wonders what the authors are trying to say. Are they trying to make us think? To scare us? From the start, the action reveals a poverty of poetic inspiration. Forgive me, but this might be the definitive proof that cinema is 50 years behind all the other arts. The subject doesn't even have the merits of an 'avant garde' film, but it has all the shortcomings."

Thus, you can't say you weren't warned.

Practically everything shows up here: nuclear anxiety, existential ennui, the Catholic church, Marxism, the sexual revolution, science fiction, the usual European preoccupations with women and fidelity and the good life, endless self-referential filmmaking, and, located in Rome, a rich stew of classic culture presented largely as detritus. The faces of the cast (mostly the glamorous, beautiful women with whom Guido is variously mixed up) are arresting, even players with the smallest roles. Music boldly tramples the action. It's absolutely gorgeous, frame to frame, shot in translucent black and white, composed flawlessly, with no small degree of sure-handed technical achievement in terms of our old friends: deep focus, mise en scene, and fluid camera movement. The editing alone brings an almost musically rhythmic component to bear.

But the surfaces are resolutely slick with themselves; it's practically impossible to gain a narrative purchase on anything passing before one. It is all too easy to turn off and disengage from it, at least for middlebrow viewers such as myself who generally expect some effort in that regard by filmmakers, else it might as well be a swirling photo album in motion. Which raises the question, of course: What's the matter with that?

A train arrives, brief homage to the Lumieres. Guido's mistress. She talks about reading "a good Donald Duck" the week before, and begins to summarize the story. Then she moves on to pitying her husband. "He knows all of Roman history by heart." Smoking in bed. "Your makeup needs to be like a slut." Repetitive train whistle. Dreams. Guido's mother. His father. Strange regrets. Implicit recriminations. Guilt. A priest's collar. "I'm Luisa, your wife. Don't you know me." Somber chords on a distant organ. "I was up all night with the idea for the spaceship." Gossip columnist. Auditions. Casting. "They aren't old enough." "What? This one has one foot in the grave." Gigolos. Dancing the twist, the way they did in Pulp Fiction. A Pinocchio nose. A master of ceremonies in top hat and cane, prancing and cackling. A woman blindfolded, a mentalist. She identifies items in a volunteer's handbag. "No drugs, I hope." Guido's mistress is sad. Telepathy. The boy loved by all. Bath time. Baptism. Where is the cat? The girl thumbs her nose and runs away. An old woman complains. "Little Guido, get under the covers." Bedtime. Even the old woman smiles to see him asleep in bed. Asa Nisi Masa. "Bye, Mr. Alienated. Good night." Sumptuous hotel.

is deeply organic in its structure and movement. Practically every vignette pays off one way or another but it's not easy getting there. As you find frequently pointed out in discussions of it, and its spiritual forerunner by Fellini La dolce vita (and Michelangelo Antonioni's work as well, but we'll be getting to all that), it requires nothing less than an almost entirely new way of watching movies: an attentive gaze that proceeds moment by moment, patiently taking in the images and actions and words as they pass before it, internally denying expectations of narrative connection and meaning, which are only frustrated otherwise, even as the whole comes to cohere powerfully in the fullness of the film's landscape on profound subconscious levels (when this works).

For myself, I tend to think it's asking an awful lot, which is probably why I count myself more among those who better appreciate Fellini's '50s work, such as La Strada and especially Nights of Cabiria. I don't know how, as just as one example of the problems engendered, that people can absorb this in a theater without already knowing it well, or without at least speaking the languages used—I find it notably difficult still to both follow along with the subtitles and observe the detail of the images, and must frequently stop and rewind and look again, and again, slowly. Thank God in this case for DVD technology.

At the same time, I can't deny there's something powerful going on here for all the difficulties and obstructions imposed. If I can't experience it the way I am more used to typically experiencing my favorite movies, in a kind of giving over and resulting loss of myself in image and story, I can't necessarily say that's a bad thing in and of itself, though obviously not for everyone.

And in the end, for all my impatience getting there, the closing scene of seems to me astonishing, perfect, and utterly moving. Nino Rota's music, which has been a critically important and constantly charming element throughout, really steps up in the last 20 minutes, helping to turn it into perhaps the purest distillation of hedonistic joy in any movie I know. I don't know how Fellini gets away with this, but it's nothing less than magnificent in the end.

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