8½ - The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo
(The Criterion Collection; US DVD: 12 Jan 2010 (Limited release); UK DVD: 12 Jan 2010 (General release))
Nothing is more fulfilling than the creative process. Nothing is more tormented, either. Usually, the ends justify the means, the art produced (or in some case, the crass product manufactured) validating all the fears, flaws, and failures. This is especially true in film, where so many collaborative elements have to successfully come together to form the final vision. One sour facet, and forget it. On the other hand, if the vision at the center can’t stand up to scrutiny, no amount of artisanship can supplant it. Indeed, for many, art is all about imagination and inspiration first, it’s competent realization second.
For Federico Fellini, one of the greatest director’s of all time, insight comes from the strangest places. After the worldwide embrace for his seminal La Dolce Vita, the maestro became enamored of Carl Jung’s focus on the “extrasensory perceptions” of his own intuitive muse. Call it gut feeling over preplanned sensitivity. Incorporating said dream logic and imagery into his already established neorealistic style, the resulting “experiment”, the brilliant 8½, (meta-named for the number of films Fellini had “directed” up to this point in his career) would signal the beginning of an amazing run of self-referential, collective unconscious masterworks. It also explained how art not only imitates life, but frequently fuses with and redefines both.
Really nothing more than the simple story of a filmmaker going through a particularly nasty creative block, Fellini found way to manufacture a wholly personal story out of an unusual, insular set-up. Few in 1963 would understand the internal workings of cinema, how movies are produced and politicked over for the sake of a studio or ego. In his version of a serio-comic backstage melodrama, Marcello Mastroianni is Guido Anselmi, a famous filmmaker whose latest surreal sci-fi project is in jeopardy. Surrounded by a producer who wants decisions made, crew members who demand approval and answers, agents looking to position their clients for possible parts, and journalists eager to get “the dirt” on the celeb’s latest enterprise, he is lost and unhinged.
Blaming his current creative block on the pressing personal issues in his life, Guido escapes into fantasy and memory. He looks back at life as a poor but beloved child. He remembers the haggard prostitute that first showed him the ways of pre-pubescent carnality. He grieves for his mother and father, no longer alive and unable to experience his success. But mostly, Guido runs over his current marital and relationship troubles. His wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée) has grown distant and dissatisfied, mostly because of her husband’s pouty mistress Carla (Sandra Milo). Hoping a rest cure at a local spa will help, Guido can’t escape his problems. Not only does he invite his lover up for some sensual R&R, but his wife, and the entire production, soon follow suit.
As much an indictment of what he stood for circa 1963 as much as an indication of where he was headed, Fellini’s 8½ remains a landmark. As director Terry Gilliam says in the accompanying introduction found on the new Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection, it’s the first film about the filmmaking process that actually tells the truth about what it’s like behind the scenes. From the constant feeling of unabashed chaos to the sniggling doubts that make even the simplest decision seem impossible, Fellini found a way to channel his own aesthetic worries and turn them into a basic parable about a gifted man unable to connect, an architect of onscreen amore who himself seems unable to love.
Indeed, when you peel away the layers of creative insecurity and faux fame importance, 8½ is really nothing more than one man’s interpersonal faults run amuck. Within his various nightmares and dreamscapes, Fellini does his own bit of reflective therapy. He looks to parents who should protect, not worship, their children (the wine bath scene remains one of the movie’s strongest selling points). He looks to local loose women who caused his confusion and complexities about gender…and sex. He blames his wife, his mistress, her/his confidants, those old friends who’ve taken much younger girls as their troubled, tempting concubines (in this case, magnificently embodied by Barbara Steele). In fact, the reason Guido’s life is a literal circus - a concept Fellini explored more fully with a new ending crafted at the last minute - is because he does not want to take responsibility for his role in the mess. He may be able to ‘direct’ it all, but not all of his controls are successful.
It’s one of several movies as life/life as movies metaphors Fellini plays with. Indeed, Guido does have a role in this unsettled dramedy. Everyone does, and the movie treats the characters just like parts in a play. The various fictional individuals come on, they speak their peace, then disappear until Fellini finds another need for them. Such an episodic approach was always part of the movie’s design, something we learn in the various bonus features offered on the Blu-ray. The maestro wanted a patchwork approach, the better to mimic Guido’s personal and professional existence. It also gave him the opportunity to use his newfound inspiration as a means of achieving his often outsized aims.
Fellini also wanted to bring as many elements from current Italian cinema into the mix as possible - the haunting celebration of the past, the difficulty in embracing the future, the constant gaze (and influence) of the church, the slick showboating cool, the forced fashion. What he didn’t want was some weepy, staging statement about love and relationships. Perhaps this is why his intended finale (a surreal dining car sequence where Guido confronts all the women in his past) was scrapped for the brilliant Nina Rota-scored outdoor roundelay. Indeed, the way in which Fellini addresses Guido’s problems - turning them into a kind of press conference of shame - flawlessly illustrates the basic themes he wanted to address (public vs. private shame, artist vs. man, affection vs. lust, etc.).
And then there is the look of the film. No one can deny Fellini’s eye, his brilliant use of contrasting monochrome (the dark suits against the white spa walls, the light colored outfits framing the woman’s severe faces, dark glasses on porcelain complexions) maintain the two-sided nature of his narrative. As they do with many of their releases, Criterion preserves this creative distinction flawlessly. The movie has never looked better. Unlike La Dolce Vita, which seemed to exist among all the shades of gray between black and white, 8½ comes across as nothing but. For Fellini, it’s all about the starkness of situations, the whorish look of Carla, the more manly look of Luisa. Sitting in the middle is Mastroianni, a head of salt and pepper hair questioning his claimed age of 43.
In many ways, we are supposed to question everything about 8½. It could all be a figment of Guido’s imagination. It could also be the culmination of elements and events that we know nothing about. The proposed movie, with its weird sci-fi imagery and characters taken directly out of our hero’s life sounds almost unfathomable. How would the two mesh together? What could the genre chosen add to (or perhaps, detract from) the innermost issues he perhaps wants to explore. The amazing ambiguity of 8½ is part of its classicism. It keeps us guessing, always asking for us to fill in the blanks and create the links between what Fellini is showing us and what he is trying to say. And it’s the best kind of puzzle box, one that rewards attempted answers with amazing visual panache and solid cinematic majesty.
In fact, just like the validity one gets from an artistic job well done, 8½ itself provides the kind of metaphysical thrill one receives from such an achievement. As the characters and their creator agonize and explore their reason for being, the audience gets the opportunity to sit back and enjoy the escape. Just like the opening of the film, that sees Guido feeling closed in and claustrophobic about his current situation (symbolized by a traffic jam and a mystery smoke inside his car), we too feel trapped by Fellini’s staging. But then the auteur unleashes his clearly infinite imagination, and the endless possibilities of existence lie before us. Sure, Guido’s usually makes the wrong decision, or misunderstands the meaning of what he’s done. With 8½ we get both the reality and the reflection - and both acts as measures of just how amazing Fellini’s filmmaking is.