Film: 8 1/2
Director: Federico Fellini
Format: Criterion Collection DVD
Every time I see 8 1/2, I feel I’m seeing a new film. When I was a teenager I saw it bemoaning the life of a film director and an artist. A few years ago, I saw it and I kept focusing on the technical aspects. It’s a word that always seems to be in motion, stillness is only allowed through hideaway character reactions.
Today, I found my blend and I found my favorite viewing of this major accomplishment to cinema. It’s not as easy as it looks to portray misery in film. You can scream and cry and beg for your Oscar. In the case of Marcello Mastoianni’s Guido, you simply smile. The opening sequence gives us the first real clue into his internal pain, but then he’s rarely allowed to be alone again. It’s then all about his small actions that show a cry for help.
Guido is directing a new movie, which despite his reputation, appears to be a silly science-fiction movie, all of which is known is that it’s about a rocket that flies into the stars. As they work on pre-production everybody from every department is asking him a vital question to get the film made on time. And through cunning and misdirection, he mostly avoids answering anybody. It’s not that he’s a jerk (but he isn’t a saint); he just appears to be wound up with anxiety that he can’t focus on any of this right now.
What gives him comfort are the women in his life. It may be as superficial as their beauty that inspires him, but it also appears to be the want for another connection. Is he a playboy or is he just always looking for time away to feel something real? That’s why his marriage seems to be falling apart. She has become another stressor without joy in his life. In fairness, she wants what all the people on his film want: Guido. And he’s not giving it to them.
Since this is a Federico Fellini film, all of this is constructed with a smile and plenty of grace. The surreal aspects remain iconic wonders like the idea of him floating high in the air above all his troubles like a balloon. The small little tap dance down an empty hallway. And, of course, what he would really want: a home away from it all, filled with women all serving roles of comfort, passion and strict rules to maintain that illusion.
In this fantasy, his mind turns against him as the women rebel against the idea in being in his harem until a certain preposterous age. As one of them cries, they all deserved to be loved until they are 70. In his own mind, he can’t stop all the women in his life from turning on them at a certain age, leaving him alone and dissatisfied, once again.
Then the sunglasses go back on and the day continues but the anxiety remains. Once the film starts, he can’t escape. The pressure has built in the world and not until it all leads to a sense of unity over all of his foils, not something we’ve seen as someone playing the role of a beloved auteur / social fascist. The beauty provides a sense of hope for Guido, who has remained an agent of sympathy through every screening. In this sequence he is excited to direct again and the result remains delightful through every viewing.
That serenity implied, to me, that this happens before every film. Perhaps this rocket movie will be just as good as his other ones. These are just the insecurities that Guido (and Fellini) experiences before every work of art and the only way to calm them is to produce something of personal value, no matter how metaphorical. For this is not his first film; it’s his eighth and a half.
Terry Gilliam Introduction – This was at a point in his career when Gilliam had only made a few films and it’s a lovely personal introduction. He personally refers to the shot of Guido dancing down the hallway as an example of how accurate the film is about being a director. He refers to the opening scene as one of the greatest opening scene of all time. Gilliam said he’s been trying to capture that himself, ever since. He thought that Fellini was a fantasist until he actually went to Rome and saw it really seemed like he was filming the world he saw. I liked this commentary because it was nice to see a director’s point of view, but it also added as small personal and articulate commentary of the “shrapnel” that has stuck in his brain all these years from watching this film.
Scene Specific Commentary – Wow. This is setting the bar way too high for future commentaries. This felt like a wonderful and accessible film lecture from the masters of education. From what I can understand, actress Tanya Zaicon read the exquisite essays from NYU Professor Antoino Monda and then other scenes had one of Fellini’s friends, Gideon Bachmann, providing of the moment commentary. Each of them brilliantly look at what the film says and doesn’t say about Guido and Fellini. They’re not just counting the parallels but showing how Fellini is telling his expressions through visual storytelling. I loved the focus they put on how things in the background can compliment or distract from things in the foreground. It’s always a circus going on.
Also they provided a great insight to when the film chooses to introduce Guido into a scene, when he’s hiding, and how the camera is moving around him as a counter to Italian neo-realism from that time. Each scene had more context for me which made me want to watch the whole thing again. Especially with the beautiful last moment of the commentary from Bachmann who says, almost with a sigh, “I love this film.”
Fellini, a Director’s Notebook – This is a strange one. The DVD suggests that this 50- minute television special Fellini created showed how 8 1/2 was prophetic in his own struggles later in his career and this shows him wrestling with that. This special comes with a letter that Fellini wrote that laid out his intentions. Yet that letter—perhaps imperfect because of translation—rambles so much and is hard to tell exactly what he’s pitching. After seeing the special, I’m still not sure. He wanted this to be a notebook filled with ideas and themes, not a traditional journey. That’s definitely true, but it lacks all of the confidence that is seen in 8 1/2 that makes any of this coherent. It’s a weird slog that I really have only seen in Fellini in his later films…which is when he made this. It also doesn’t help that the whole thing is dubbed with thick Italian accents and there is no way to put on subtitles.
Nina Rota: Between Cinema and Concert – Beginning with footage from the premiere of 8 1/2, this documentarian takes note that the composer of the film is no where to be seen. What results is a quaint little movie as he searches for more information about Nina Rota. It’s not exactly Searching for Sugar Man, because he’s not looking to really intrude onto his life. He just wants to learn more about the man who produced such amazing scores, like the circus-esque tunes of 8 1/2 that I can’t get out of my head. There was a fascinating part when it talked about how he frequently plagiarized himself without any thought. It lost him his nomination for The Godfather (but he then later won for The Godfather Part II).
Interviews – There were three new interviews with actress Sandra Milo, assistant director Lina Wertmuller, and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The stories about how they worked with Fellini are really fun especially his eccentric way of finding the right people for the role. Yet I really enjoyed how the editor was using film clips to further draw the parallel between Guido and Fellini. Also I liked how the editor would line-up the faces to go from them in the 60s to today. Not as a form of showing age, but appreciating the timelessness of the actresses. My favorite part of the Milo interview was the light in her eyes as she talks about this character she helped create for Amarcord that never made it to the movie. The other two interviews were really interesting. Wertmuller would talk about the themes that Fellini was creating on set and Storano didn’t work on the movie, but can comment on the genius of the cinematography. But they couldn’t compare to the vulnerability of Milo’s longer interview.
Photographs by Gideon Bachmann / Stills Gallery – These were wonderfully stunny photographs. They displayed the beauty of all the actors and all of the locales they filmed at. Also it amusingly showed Fellini as an exhausted genius. I liked that there weren’t many captions for the pictures, except for when to highlight important people like the cinematographer. One of the coolest sets were seeing the cut ending set inside a train car with all of the women.
22 Page Booklet – This is actually something that would be best read before watching the movie. It’s four short essays, two of which are from the book I, Fellini. They really get you into Fellini’s headspace as he went into making 8 1/2 including a fun annedote about him attending a grip’s birthday party. The other two essays provided great critical context into the film and more history into Federico Fellini.
Trailer – This is a goofy trailer. At first it’s just a lot of images from Guido’s fantasies with no music, just a film reel. Then there’s that realization that the really loud film reel is the music and it’s supposed to be focused on. Then the random shots continue with reassurance from long pull quotes from publications like The New York Times. Not a word is spoken but the trailer sure likes to pop the title image in like an excitable child. The only context for what the film is about is the only words on screen at the end: “The story of a man…his imagination…and the women who are so wickedly a part of it.” The whole thing is strange and not in a good 8 1/2 kind of strange. More of Tim Burton’s school project. I wouldn’t be sold on it aside from Fellini’s recognition and the hyperbole from the critics.
NEXT UP…12 Angry Men