Where to begin with this one. It wasn’t nearly as intimidating as I‘d heard, not difficult to follow or understand. It is certainly dense and deep and packed full of image, symbol and meaning, but it’s accessible, easy to follow and the whole spectacle is entertaining, funny and moving.
Federico Fellini’s 8½ is the first of my dozen classics to watch this year, and I picked it through the highly scientific method of closing my eyes and pointing at my list. I’m thrilled it came first because its themes and lessons apply to life and art and creativity and even to a little old blogger. With movies, especially the “Great” ones, you love to watch but wonder what more can possibly be said that’s interesting and worth a reader’s valuable time and you definitely won’t say anything new given the amount of special snowflakes pouring words about movies onto the internet. In 8½, long before everybody had a blog, famed director Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) speaks that same truth: “I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same.”
He’s in pre-production for his spectacularly ambitious sci fi apocalypse survivor epic, and the thing isn’t moving an inch because he’s artistically stuck and suffering a midlife crisis bigger than the towering luanchpad set being built for his film. As his movie falls apart and his cast and crew of bloated egos drive him insane with their chattering and demands, it looks like he’ll lose his marriage, mistress and career as well. He’s taking the cure for stress at a spa and searching for an ideal muse (Claudia Cardinale) who’d bend to his will, looking for one perfect sentence and a little spark of inspiration that is somehow going to put all the stray bits of his life together and into perspective and inspire him all over again.
Guido escapes into memories and dreams, thinks back to the sources of his guilt, disappointment, humiliation and education, and fantasizes about possible futures (or impossible ones, like the harem of all the women he’s loved before). The childhood episodes and dreams decode cryptic statements in other scenes and all of it helps us understand and like Guido. It’s very clear when he’s dreaming and fantasizing and when he’s dealing with the far more ridiculous reality around him, and as a graying, wrinkly elegant gent he has the same playful and mischievous wink and smile, the same immature flight from responsibility and safe way of coping with tedium and depression.
Everybody wants something from him, and he wants all the answers from all kinds of authorities–religious, medical, creative–and that’s a big part of his problem. He wants it all, is paralyzed by too many ideas and things to say and has lost the plot of his movie and his life. His intelligent long-suffering wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée) tells him he’s a man of lies and wants him to just stop telling them, but fiction is an essential skill for his job as a director. There are many of those types of lines and loaded moments to list here, along with all the inspired uses of music and beautiful images (yes I’m coming at this backwards but now I see where things in Pulp Fiction, The Great Beauty, Birdman and so many other films came from). I liked how the camera strolls around the spa grounds, picking up the odd conversation in different languages, again at cocktail hour with the magician’s act and at the frenzied press conference where a woman screams out that Guido has no answer. Celebrity and fame suddenly makes people authorities on every possible issue, so silly reporters bombard Guido with questions about everything from his views on Marxism to the meaning of life.
I liked the screen tests starring the bland, unremarkable actors standing in for the real characters in Guido’s life, repeating actual conversations from previous scenes. I loved the critic (Jean Rougeul) who drones on about the tsunami of pompous, shallow art and opinion and the constant flow of worthless entertainment. He says the critic’s true mission is to disinfect, to destroy thoughts and statements that have no right to exist, and that he values silence above all. Of course he’s the one whose incessant chattering has Guido and the viewer fantasizing about hanging him. The whole affair is a farcical traveling circus, a parade of bootlickers, yes-men and groveling, self-centered, egomaniacal, greedy wannabes, plus the airheads who just want an ice cream come and comic strips.
Making the movie and trying to balance all those plates is like life, where you are constantly performing on a stage, creating your reality like a director, picking and choosing what to listen and react to, what past details to remember and allow to shape you, which goals to aim at and how to make all of that work together in a way that feels like hope and happiness. Like that colossal launchpad set, like Guido’s idea that will never achieve lift off, life can get so distracted, overloaded and complicated that the whole thing needs to come down and the important bits picked out of the wreckage. 8½ is about that, about honesty in relationships and the creative process, getting unstuck and making something meaningful when it’s all been said and done before. Great movie, but that’s not saying anything new.
This is part of the Blindspot Series hosted by Ryan McNeil of The Matinee