Cine-East Film Club Presents #24: 1963, 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini)

by George_East on September 29, 2013

Guido: I thought my ideas were so clear. I wanted to make an honest film. No lies whatsoever. 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. When did I go wrong? I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same

Last summer Sight & Sound magazine published its once in every ten years Top 10 Films of all time.  This is always a major event as it is compiled based on the votes of leading film directors and film critics from around the world.  The gap between polls means that it gets a very high response rate from those invited to vote and is taken seriously in the film world.  It is as close to a definitive list as is possible with these things.  I wrote a post on it at the time giving my briefest of thumb nail sketches of each of the films in the list.

8 ½ was the only film in  the list in respect of which I expressed serious doubts.   This was based on the fact that I had only seen it once, when I was 19 or 20 and still at university. It was more than two decades ago and it is fair to say that I hated it.

Part of this was the conditions under which I saw it.  It was shown at the National Film Theatre (in the now long gone Museum of the Moving Image, what is now NFT3).  However, at this time the NFT would show some foreign language films without subtitles, but with instead what was called Ear Phone Commentary.  This involved a pair of headphones being provided on every seat which you could choose to wear and if you did you would get simultaneous translation of the dialogue by someone in the projector room.  This would have been annoying enough as it was, but when, the film, as with 8 ½ is 2hrs 20 minutes long and does not involve a straightforward narrative story arc, it becomes frustrating to the point of being unbearable.   At times, where there was overlapping dialogue between characters, it would be difficult to know which line was even being said by which character; one bloke doing all of the translation in the same monotone voice.

At the time I saw the film I had only just started going to see classics at the NFT.  I think it may have been the third film I ever saw there, after Billy Wilder’s peerless Some Like It Hot and Hitchcock’s deeply fucked up late masterpiece Marnie.  I thought I’d found a treasure-trove of delights and 8 ½ was to be my first venture into the European art house canon on the big screen.   One of the reasons I wanted to see it was that it is the inspiration for Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) (the film which has the line about ‘preferring the early funny ones’).  I was a huge Woody Allen fan at the time and he was a gateway to Fellini in the same way as he was a gateway for me to Ingmar Bergman.  However, that gateway proved to be used somewhat more regularly and to somewhat more success by me in the case of Bergman.

I said I needed to see 8 ½ again to be fair to it and I have now.   I now realise that it was not just the conditions under which I saw the film, which caused in me such a negative reaction, but also the subject matter and the way in which the film is structured.  I was too young for it and had too few reference points or experience of art films to really get it.   It is this week’s Cine-East Film Club Presentation – not only the first of the Sight & Sound Top 10 to feature, but also ticking two other boxes, the first Italian film (one of the great national cinemas) and the first film from the 1960s.

The film is a loosely autobiographical tale of a  successful and critically acclaimed film director Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) who is going through the film-maker’s equivalent to writer’s block.  The 8 ½ refers  to the number of films that Fellini (and presumably Guido – though it is never mentioned in the film itself) had made by that stage in his career, 7 features and 3 parts of multi-director films.

Guido is 43 and going through a full blown mid-life crisis, in which his marriage is breaking down (over his constant infidelities), he has nothing to say artistically anymore, is haunted by his childhood and past, and has become incapable of love.   His expectations of himself and the expectations that others have of him are all piling in, as he begins to face his own disappointment in himself and psychologically starts to unravel.

The film opens in a dream sequence in which Guido tries to commit suicide in his car on a crowded ferry.  It will end with the sci fi film he is making on a huge set being abandoned and there being a party involving the entire cast of 8 ½ dancing around the site.

Structured around dreams and flash backs from Guido’s childhood, the present and past, real and fantasy meld into each other.   Fellini’s previous film had been the hugely successful La Dolce Vita (also with Mastroianni as something of an avatar for the director) – it had been a scathing satire of the self-indulgence, pretension and emptiness of contemporary Roman society.

In 8 ½ Fellini turns that same critical eye on himself.    The sycophancy and easy lays of his world.  Everyone looking to him for a new job or an opening in the film world.   The expectations for him to deliver and deliver on schedule – but deliver what exactly? The pretentious conversations about Marxism and Catholicism that spew from the lips of the party goers in his circles at their lavish bashes.  The common social circles of cardinals, ambassadors and show business; the corrupt and casual interfaces between the supposedly serious and the indulgently trivial – all of this is Fellini’s subject matter.

And at the centre of this is Fellini himself (as Guido) – a man who started out making social realist films, now the most self-indulgent of all.  One baroque fantasy scene towards the end of the film has him being pampered by all of the women he has ever known in a multi-floored harem.  When women reach a certain age (25) they have to move up a floor, where they will be looked after but no longer Guido’s sexual partners.  All of this is lovingly over seen by his adoring wife, Luisa (played by the wonderful Anouk Aimee). This daydream fantasy contrasts with the bullshit and casual cruelty of the reality, in the way he treats Luisa and his mistress, the gaudy Carla (Sandra Milo).  It is a reverie provoked in his mind, by Luisa’s decision finally to leave him.

The film shows through the flash back sequences, the poor background Guido came from – sharing a bath with other young kids from his building.  It shows the influence of catholicsm on his upbringing through his schooling and his discovery of sex, through the eccentric La Saraghina (Eddra Gale), a middle aged portly woman (possibly prostitute) who lives in a hut on the beach, but who will do provocative dances for the young boys of the school if they request them.    The priests at the school having caught the young Guido watching La Saraghina, will make him kneel on ball bearings in a dunce’s cap in front of his breakfasting school mates, as a humiliating punishment.  The priests describe her as ‘the devil’.  Guido’s inability to form lasting relationships and his pathological lying to the women in his life are, it is suggested, rooted in catholic guilt about sex.

Guido will have moments of catharsis but they are more about self-awareness rather than indications that he is going to be able to get through his creative and personal mid-life crisis.  He will turn down the  gorgeous actress Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) towards the end of the film because he ‘doesn’t feel like telling another pile of lies’.  For the same reason, I suspect, he ditches the big budget sci fi film he is due to make, but which forms no more than the most marginal part of 8 ½.  It is not him.  It is also ‘a pile of lies’.

8 ½  represents Fellini’s full embrace of the style that would come to dominate his films and for which he is famous, a carnivalesque fantasy world full of circus entertainers, freaks, buxom women and infantilised men.   It is one of the most visually extraordinary films ever made – the camera fluidly flows, dances around and focuses on the faces of this unreal world.     The soundtrack mixes huge classical pieces like Wagner’s  Ride of the Valkyries (16 years before Coppola’s iconic use of it in Apocalypse Now) with an extraordinarily cinematic score from Nino Rota (9 years before he would score The Godfather for Coppola).

It is a film that expanded the boundaries of what was possible in cinema.  It is truly a masterpiece.  Just not one that you should see until you are old enough to share in Guido’s disappointment.

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