12/14/09

8 1/2 (1963): The Bugg Goes From the Grind House to the Art House

I really wanted to bring you folks a couple of Italian holiday movies, but for a country with all the Catholics and Popes you can shake a stick at, they don’t seem to crank out much Christmas cinema. That’s probably because Italian film makers couldn’t find a way to shoehorn gloved killers, mustachioed policeman, or post apocalyptic motorcycle gangs into seasonal films. I do have one for you folks, but you’ll have to wait until next week to see what I’ve dug up. Today I decided to take a look at the original version of a film that’s getting a Hollywood remake opening on Christmas day. The film is Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, and it’s being remade as Nine because Broadway and Hollywood hate fractions. Admittedly this is the first Fellini movie I’ve ever seen, but since I’m interested in the remake, I thought I should take this occasion and step away from the usual genre fare and check out a cinematic classic.

To start this off, I probably should attempt to tell you a bit about the plot of the film. Guido is a director who is having a dilemma over his next project, a science fiction epic. He is no longer inspired by the material, and his relationship with the writer, producer, and actors is not helping at all. He retreats to a health spa to receive “the cure”, but he is constantly hounded by his associates. As if he didn’t have enough troubles, his wife and his mistress are both in town, and he keeps having dreams about his relationship with all the other important women who have affected his life.

In a way, the plot is kept very basic. It's nearly inconsequential because Fellini mostly tells his story using imagery and conveys much of its meaning from his actor’s physicality rather than their spoken performance. In 8 ½, a character’s position in the frame, stature, or movement could indicate as much about the plot as the words that are scripted for them. This is a film chock full of interpretive imagery, and it feel overwheming to impose my amateur views on a film that has been much debated in the last forty six years. I don’t usually choose to cover art films or impressionistic directors because I often find their work dull or well over my head, but there is a reason that I feel this film is important to genre film fans.

Before I get too deep into the film, I want to take a few minutes to talk about that connection. The films of Fellini have been massively influential over the years, and mainstream critics have often talked about how they have influenced cinema. What I have never seen is anyone discuss it influence over Italian genre directors. While watching 8 ½ and clips of other films such as Satyricon I have seen in the documentary Fellini: I’m a Born Liar, much of what struck me as really interesting was his use of camera movement and dreamlike imagery. Those are two words often used to describe many directors, but when it comes to Italian genre film, I have often used those same descriptives in talking about the films of Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and, to a lesser extent, Lucio Fulci. Surely these directors, all contemporaries of Fellini, would have been influenced by his work. When you look at a film like Dario Argento's Susperia, it is just as impossible for me to discount the influence of Fellini as it would be the works of Alfred Hitchcock.

What makes much of Italian horror films so special is its the use of style coupled with the more traditional horror elements. The opening scene of Fellini’s 8 ½ shows a man trapped in a frozen world, his car filling with smoke, and he is unable to escape. If you took the same scene and dropped it into a nightmare sequence in a horror film, it would feel just as at home. There are a great many elements of Fellini’s film which border on the horrific because they deal with the alienation of self. This is a theme that reoccurs often in his contemporaries’ genre films though their illustration of similar themes may come along with vats of blood. If you’re like me and don’t really go in for art house fare, I can understand that. However, I think 8 ½ is an important film to watch because of the spectrum of its influence as well as its technical and directorial verve.

I’m not going to spend much time in this review lauding the film for its greatness. That has been done many times by critics who are more studied than me, and people who have seen the film more than once. While I don’t always agree with him whole heartedly, anyone interested in a great critique of the film should check out Roger Ebert’s review for some great insight. I do have a few thoughts though. I have read much about the themes of this film, and from what I understand Nine focuses on the director and his relationship with the women in his life. While this is obviously an important element to the film, it was not the part that was most interesting to me. As a writer, I was more moved by the parts of the film that dealt with the creative process, how it is informed and hindered by those around you. Guido is clearly a stand-in for Fellini, and 8 ½ feels as much like an artists journey as it is a look into his psyche.

The film itself is self referential. After all the title 8 ½ refers to the six films that Fellini had made a and the five short films and co-directing efforts that he only counted as a half each. Throughout the film you hear criticism of Guido’s science fiction film, and it the majority of the critique could be applied the film in progress. I thought it was most interesting to read that Fellini posted a note under the camera’s lens piece that read “Remember, it’s a comedy.”, and it really was. Throughout I found myself very amused by Guido’s tribulations, and those that take this film to be a somber discourse on the "fictional" director’s life are missing the point. 8 ½ feels playful, and it seems just as intended to entertain as is it to convey a message. This is something that is severely lacking in many art house films that have followed in its wake.

Before I close out, I have a couple brief things to say about the acting in the film. Marcello Mastroianni was incredible as Guido. Moving from drama to comedy quite effortlessly, he was the lightning rod for the whole film. He projected an essence of cool from behind his Prada sunglasses, and Mastroianni still maintained a vulnerability that made him sympathetic even though he was an indecisive womanizer. Speaking of women, I have to mention that the film is chock full of some of Italy’s finest looking women. Madeleine Lebeau, Anouk Aimée, Claudia Cardinale, and Caterina Boratto all displayed great acting skill as well as looking quite lovely. They also benefited from the beautiful Italian fashions that add an extra layer of style to the film.

While 8 ½ may not be to everyone’s taste, it is surely a film that needs to be seen for its importance in cinematic history. From commercials and music videos to the cinematic mainstream and the outer edges of the film world, the style of Fellini’s 8 ½ can be seen far and wide. For many years, I avoided it because I thought it would be more of a chore than a joy to get through it. I was pleasantly surprised to find it visually fascinating as well as featuring a narrative that relies more on comedy than dour drama. No matter if you plan to see Rob Marshall’s film Nine or not, 8 ½ is a film you should check out. I’m not going to be giving this one a top grade because it felt a touch long and I don’t honestly know many times I would re-watch it. Those are really my only reservations about the film. At one point in 8 ½, Guido says, “Happiness consists of being able to tell the truth without hurting anyone.”, and I can be a very happy man recommending this one to you folks.

Bugg Rating

2 comments:

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  2. Great review. I haven't seen this one in years. I'm going to have to give it another view. It's not a movie I watch very often, but it's still a great film.

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