My friend recently told me his girlfriend had to watch 8 ½ for a film class, but she had to turn it off halfway through because she had “no idea what was going on.” Some films just shouldn’t be presented to beginning film classes, which attracts its fair share of narrow-minded Transformers lovers. Hell, people in my class called 2001: A Space Odyssey boring and My Life to Live “really, really weird.” There were even students who couldn’t quite understand Do the Right Thing, which is as clear with its message as a cloudless day. If my teacher had shown 8 ½, I’m sure people would have just walked out of the classroom.
The story itself isn’t inaccessible. It follows filmmaker Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) amidst the pre-production of his current film. Suffering from extreme director’s block, Guido is continuously pressured and pestered by actresses, agents and studio executives to begin production. Guido is unable to focus, with his thoughts racing between childhood memories, elaborate dreams and fantasies, grappling fears and the various women in his life. As he builds towards the first shoot of his film, Guido attempts to find the proper mindset and win back his wife, who has become fed up with Guido’s adulterous outings.
You’ll hear people say 8 ½ is the best film ever made about filmmaking. It’s probably true. But really this film isn’t so much about filmmaking as it is about a filmmaker. The pressures surrounding a director seem insurmountable, and like any of his films, Fellini completely immerses the viewer into the protagonist’s world. People constantly confront Guido about receiving parts in his films and critique his methods and writing. Fellini likes to bury the important dialogue in strands of incessant chatter, enclosing the central character in a mass of selfish people just using Guido for their own advancement. He’s met with cost pressures, religious figures who question his films and time constraints, when all Guido really needs is some alone time to sort out his collective memories and fantasies.
But in reference to 8 ½ being about filmmaking, the biggest issue it covers is self-indulgence, which has become taboo for directors and a direct attacking point for critics. But self-indulgence is a detraction only when it fails to relate the film’s central character. Fellini began his fantasy trips starting with La Dolce Vita, and 8 ½ almost feels like an autobiography. A fantastical, autobiographical film—why did critics originally scold this film? But with time comes understanding, and we now see that Fellini managed to make a self-indulgent film about self-indulgence without ever sacrificing Guido, a factor he disregarded with Juliet of the Spirits.
While Juliet of the Spirits was about a single idea surrounding a character, 8 ½ focuses on a character with an array of issues. Self-indulgence comes full force when Fellini transports Guido into a past memory where he is scolded by his Catholic teachers and mocked as a child for paying a woman to dance (and display her shoulders) for him. The scene is supposed to relate the pressure he receives from Catholic priests and the religious community about using film to portray faith. One Cardinal tells Guido he can “educate or corrupt millions of souls.” Talk about pressure. In more autobiographical fashion, Fellini relates his own encumbrances as a filmmaker, with constant reviewing and critiques coming from all angles, telling him what he can and cannot do. All the things he’s forbidden from doing also permit him from delving into his past, which is a crippling blow to his inescapable mindset and tools as a filmmaker. He needs the ability to express himself, and his attempts to recreate childhood memories on screen fail in comparison to his ostentatious fantasies. What 8 ½ becomes is a film within a film: people berate Guido for making his films personal affairs, but Fellini himself then turns the fantasies Guido is unable to create into full-blown cinematic reproductions, dripping with masterful camerawork and impeccable flow. Fellini is able to show that there is a place for self-indulgence; he is able to advance his own character while defacing the arguments made against self-indulgence at the same time.
The women throughout Guido’s life bring out his deepest flaws. One woman tells Guido that he’s unable to “tell a love story.” Guido promptly agrees with her, because he himself cannot communicate with his own wife, Lusia (Anouk Aimée). Guido holds disdain for any time he spends with his selfish mistress Carla (Sanda Milo), but relishes the time spent in the bedroom. He’s drawn to this aspect because there are no tie-downs; she constantly babbles about her husband, who she seems to legitimately love. Guido feels no need for attachment because she is taken, therefore he holds no qualm for sleeping in the same bed as her. However, he and his wife each take a separate bed when she visits. Guido himself knows his own faults, but is unable to overcome them even when he confronts them. He envisions the perfect actress for his star role, who happens to come to life in his mind as the actual actress Claudia Cardinale. She questions Guido, asking, “I don’t understand. He meets a girl that can give him a new life and he pushes her away?” “Because he no longer believes in it,” he responds. “Because he doesn’t know how to love,” she replies.
The film’s most infamous scene comes when Fellini…I mean Guido, gathers all of his women in a single room. Women he loves, women he sleeps with, women from his past and women of his desires. They walk around and pamper him, catering to his every need. But then one woman, a flash dancer from his childhood, is sacrificed to make room for the women currently coddling his mind. She is sent upstairs with the other women who have left his thoughts, which causes his current women to furrow their eyebrows and attack Guido for his inability to love. Guido grabs a whip and comically keeps them back, but the scene is sort of tragic with its message. In the end, Luisa starts to clean the house and relates she understands why Guido felt the need to be distant all those years. Instead of sounding like a defensive wife, she comes across robot-like, only repeating what Guido has transcribed. At this point we realize that Guido doesn’t really defend his own actions, but is simply a man who believes he is incapable of change.
But like every Fellini film (minus La Strada), there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. If there’s anything outside of camerawork that Fellini can be admired for, its his tightly constructed scripts. Even the misguided Juliet of the Spirits had a distinct destination it reached, and 8 ½, with its sprawling nature and random dream sequences, has a clear path from beginning to end. At no point do we feel like we’re floating away from the central character or his story. We’re always learning new things about his past that directly coincide with his current problems. Fellini’s only fault, which can be found in most of his films, is his sometimes-too-blatant dialogue. Fellini is amazing in his ability to relate a character’s thoughts through shots and images, but sometimes the characters flat-out state what’s flogging Guido’s mind. It almost feels like a step back, as if the same point is being beaten over our heads. But its not something that completely burdens the film, like it did with Juliet of the Spirits.
But no words are required for 8 ½’s final scene, which features a parade of people that Guido directs with childlike enthusiasm. Parades can be found in just about every Fellini film. They are never planned, but randomly thrown together by people with a common destination. In 8 ½, they parade solely exists for Guido: they come down the ramp and line up for him. He choreographs them, painting their movements with his hands and directing traffic. After abandoning the film he spent so many months fretting over, Guido finds solace in the simple joys of filmmaking, which doesn’t require poring over your past and discovering much-needed amends. Guido learns to exist in the moment, and in turn, learns he has the ability to love.
Read more reviews at http://cinemabeans.blogspot.com/