The title of the legendary Fellini masterpiece is almost identical to the number of years it took Judge Mike Pinsky to write this review.
Our review of 8 1/2: Criterion Collection (Blu-Ray), published January 4th, 2010, is also available.
"Please…get to the point! It's supposed to be a review, not a creative writing class!"—Actual hate mail
"I thought my ideas were so clear."—Guido (Marcello Mastroianni)
May 21, 2002
I have been stalling on this review long enough. So daunting, this film floats on a wave of accolades, but by itself seems ineffable. At least with Citizen Kane, there was a story behind the story. Jean Cocteau's work transcends its celluloid body into myth. Kubrick's mise en scene. I mean, I talk about these things for a living, in the classroom or online. But this, this film, seems to elude me. With 8 ½, the story is all there, on screen, the ding an sich. It absorbs all criticism, like a gravity well. Even its name—not really even a noun but a number, an abstract non-thing—and not even a whole number at that—pushes back at me.
As stuck as I am, my only real way around the rim of this film is to pour my notes onto the page, my memories of the film, and arrange them in some sensible order. I have to hope that in fact this order is sensible to someone other than just me. But after all this time, I am not sure it really matters any longer.
I wrote this somewhere on page 7: I remember a dream of bodies placidly sealed into cars. Trapped inside his sedan, Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini's doppelganger) struggles against smoke, rides the car into sunlight, drifts, tumbles into the sea.
Guido is sick, caught in the midst of "a film without hope." The doctor prescribes holy water and a mud bath (as if Guido is caught between spirit and libido). All the souls gathered at the sanitarium, in their outdated clothes, seem lost, but Guido's problem is more acute. He has a film to finish—or even to begin—and he cannot find a way to connect its seemingly random scenes of "ambiguous realism."
Outside the film (written on page 1): only Fellini could live in a Fellini film. While most critics approach 8 ½ as a roman à clef, a revision of Fellini's own life at the time the film was made, it might also be said that Fellini's life—and according to Gideon Bachmann, he only lived his life on film—became the real roman à clef of 8 ½ after the film. In the late 1960s, Fellini found himself blocked while working on a grandly-scaled project. He wrote to Peter Goldfarb (in a letter included by Criterion) that "the cinema is still capable of sustaining disproportionate hopes, interests, and desires, unleashing them with a sort of madness whose observation is grotesque, pathetic, and outrageous." Although Fellini is concerned with generating material for what would eventually become Fellini Satyricon, he is really reliving the spectacle of 8 ½, a "true and proper battle" with his own creative energies, a battle that in the earlier film led him to "an enchanted place which offers a dramatic and poetic idea of the mad, improbable, ephemeral world of the cinema."
Returning to the world of the film: Guido is at work, or perhaps only flirting, with a science fiction movie. As with his women, though, he cannot commit to a single genre: "In my movie, I have all sorts of things happen." Ordinary doors seem like faces; ordinary faces seem like statues (this observation from an earlier paragraph). Magic infuses the world. Guido dances through it all, dodging those who seek commitment: reporters asking about his politics, collaborators offering ideas, women—oh, the women. Guido's desperate attempt to center his own sexual identity is at the heart of his need to find a center for his film. From his mistress Carla (Sandra Milo), always overdressed and overwrought, to his doppelganger wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée), always clad in white, with her cigarettes, glasses, and love affairs to match her husband, to his memories of the overripe Saraghina (Edra Gale), Guido seeks to possess every woman around him. But they always slip away, even in his fantasies.
This paragraph is a particular favorite of mine: As a child, Guido is bathed in wine, as if in a Dionysian ritual. Dionysus: the libido released, the imagination triumphant, worshipped by wild women who tore the poet Orpheus to pieces. Guido loves these women—and fears them. As a priest tells him, "You mix sacred and profane love too casually." In one dream of the past, he is sent into reverie by a glorious whore dancing a brash rumba on a beach. But his sacred side, driven by his lingering obsession with the Church, pushes him toward spiritual climes. Guido's mixing of memories is not the truth, in the sense of an objective reality. Rather they are the truth internal, nostalgic allegory of the "Catholic conscience" (as a friend calls it) inside him.
8 ½ is the film where Fellini's imagination becomes all the content he needs. The film becomes purely internal, an impression of consciousness unmatched on screen. Even Cocteau pushed his artistic struggles into myth, and David Lynch still falls back on the structure of the film noir. But Fellini seems to remain entirely Fellini, a genre unto himself, no matter where in time or space his images take him. 8 ½ becomes the pinnacle of modernist film, of the subjective camera, as introspective as Proust in its sensual embrace and as colorful explosive as Van Gogh's swirling blurs of color.
Even Fellini's habit of post-syncing the sound (a technique common in all Italian films of the period, due to the lack of soundproofing in their studios) only enhances the surrealism, as if the sound is always lagging behind the action. But every frame of 8 ½ is perfectly composed, all movement balletic, all performances poetic. If there is indeed a flaw in this film, it may be that 8 ½ is so perfectly about 8 ½ that it becomes pure film, and thus we are forced to accept it on its own terms. There is no negotiating with this film: it is its own subject, at once familiar and alien.
Still, Terry Gilliam provides a short introduction to the film, describing Fellini's vision as the most truthful portrait of a director's experience captured on film, as if 8 ½ is a documentary of sorts. Perhaps it is: a documentary of the inside of Fellini's head, with no reference to anything outside. Even Freud seems to flinch.
But Criterion's stunning presentation of 8 ½ on two DVDs works hard to outdo even their always impressive packaging. This may be among Criterion's best releases yet. Certainly, 8 ½ is one of those essential landmarks of cinema that any serious film lover must have in his or her collection. But that blithe piece of advertising bait you knew already. This print itself glows with soft euphoria: Fellini's habit of keeping everything in slight soft-focus, as if always in a dream, and overlighting many scenes, provides a daunting challenge when mastered for DVD, but Criterion offers a clean and clear anamorphic print with a solid monaural soundtrack. A commentary track consists of an audio essay (read by actress Tonya Zaicon) with inserts from NYU film expert Antonio Monda and Fellini biographer and friend Gideon Bachmann. Zaicon's formal presentation offers readings from critics and film historians on the themes of 8 ½, Fellini's avoidance of politics and his manipulation of actors, the role of the camera, and other fairly straightforward information. Overall, the audio essay provides respectable background on the film, even if it seems at pains to avoid committing to any particular focused reading. Monda's contributions, which are few and far between, focus mostly on refuting the conventional notion that Fellini went wrong when he abandoned neorealism in favor of his dreamlike approach in 8 ½. Indeed, as we have already noted, 8 ½ succeeds so well because it delves into a psychological realm that allows Fellini to venture into pure film, free of the constraints of referentiality.
But without doubt, the most interesting and important contributions on the commentary track come from Fellini's friend, film scholar Gideon Bachmann (who also offers his still photographs from the set of the film in a gallery on Disc Two). Bachmann seems more amiable and relaxed than the other two speakers, and he points out the real life stories behind the film, how Fellini treated his collaborators (and often discarded them callously), and how the director lived his entire existence through the camera.
The bulk of the extra features are loaded onto Disc Two. In the hour-long Fellini: A Director's Notebook, made in 1969 for NBC, Fellini tours the streets of Rome, generating ideas for a modern-day Satyricon, wandering into catacombs, arming slaughterhouse workers in gladiator armor, and developing images that would later appear in his features Fellini Satyricon and Fellini's Roma. In reality, this documentary is less an accurate portrait of Fellini's career than an effort to experiment with ideas and resist the constraints of the documentary's objective form.
Faded and scratchy, like some travelogue for a post-apocalyptic world, the film tracks Fellini's journey to an overgrown field populated by wayward hippies and half-finished façades. Among the ruins, a grounded airplane (like Guido's grounded spaceship) and other detritus of a film Fellini never made: The Voyage of G. Mastorno. Nuclear winter arrives and quickly fades to dusk.
Actually, those images begin A Director's Notebook, and follow with Fellini's trip to Rome, but I switched the two paragraphs because they sounded better in that order. Isn't this all just part of the game of trying to find something interesting to say?
Moving right along: Nino Rota: Between Cinema and Concert. This 1993 German documentary (with English subtitles) by Vassili Silovic chronicles the life of the prolific but elusive composer whose work is most prominently associated with Fellini. We hear friends and collaborators praise Rota's talents and generosity, all in defense of his idea that "art should not be intellectual but intelligent." A child prodigy, Rota studied under Toscanini and toyed with traditional classicism before embracing more popular styles, like jazz and show tunes, incorporating all sorts of music into his more than 140 film scores through four decades. Fellini was easily the best outlet for Rota's rather carefree compositional approach, and Silovic does not balk at addressing the controversy over Rota's habit of recycling his own music from film to film (his famous Godfather theme was originally from his score for the 1958 film Fortunella, a fact that cost Rota the Oscar for Coppola's movie). Although the film (which runs nearly an hour) seems to struggle with the truth that Rota's life is pretty undramatic and his compositions broke no new ground, Between Cinema and Concert does give a strong impression of one of cinema's most notorious composers.
Also on Disc Two, Criterion includes three lengthy interviews. A 27-minute piece with Sandra Milo covers personal life. Milo's affair with Fellini provides the backdrop for her discussion of his defensiveness toward women (he treated them, as he did most of the people around him, as necessary objects). She describes the mercurial director as "a magnet that attracts both good and evil," as she talks about both the turmoil of 8 ½ and their personal relationship.
An 18-minute interview with director Lina Wertmüller, who began her long career working on 8 ½, covers the notion that Fellini's films are an attempt to recapture the play of childhood. Wertmüller discusses Fellini's tendency toward improvisation, and offers some feminist critique of Fellini's notion of a pure feminine ideal.
While famed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who worked on Apocalypse Now) did not actually shoot 8 ½, his 18-minute interview does cover the film's inventive use of light and shadow to indicate the fusion of memory and imagination, as well as the influences on Gianni di Venanzo (particularly Gregg Toland) and the connection "between technology and creativity" in cinema.
Two fascinating galleries of behind-the-scenes stills offer extensive portraits of the cast and crew, some additional trivia about the production, and even shots of deleted scenes (including the train sequence that ended originally ended the film). A thick booklet enclosed with the DVDs includes detailed essays, and a theatrical trailer on Disc One inventively consists of silent images of the film played to the sound of a tapping film projector and Nino Rota's bouncy music. But while it seems like Criterion has included everything short of the kitchen sink to supplement 8 ½, it still never seems like enough. Ten commentary tracks would feel incomplete, swallowed by the abyss of Fellini's vision. Indeed, after all my attempts to transcribe my notes here and arrange them into something like a review, I have found I have cut two-thirds of my original observations out, and I keep generating more thoughts even as I type this (really the final sentence before I send the review off). There is no way to completely wrap oneself around 8 ½. We can only return to it again and again, searching for clues, looking for the stories it can tell.
In the end, as both Fellini and Guido struggle to make sense of it all, Guido can only tell the story he knows: the story inside his heart. As he says, "I wanted to make an honest film. No lies whatsoever." And if his own heart is not true, if it betrays him with memory, then he must learn to embrace the directions it takes him. He continues: "I thought I had something so simple to say. Something useful to everybody. A film that could help bury forever all those dead things we carry within ourselves. Instead, I'm the one without the courage to bury anything at all."
And with all due respect to the author of the hate mail quoted above (sent to me in reference to my admittedly facetious review of Memento: Limited Edition for Daily Reviews), sometimes a story that seems to go nowhere reflects that sometimes life itself goes nowhere. It is only in our memories and fantasies that order arises, even if that order takes the form of a carnival of chaos and desire.
In the symphonic climax of Fellini's masterpiece, all the themes come together. Finally awake—or perhaps more immersed in the dream than ever—Guido abandons his film. But in his silence, his surrender, all his memories return, clad in white, to forgive him. To accept the other, to surrender the ego, is to embrace the great parade of life.
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction by Terry Gilliam
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