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“…what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art”. — Vladimir Nabokov, 1964
I promised in the first entry that I would also write about films. This is the first one.
Perhaps you can relate to this: you are supposed to write a piece of writing but have no idea what to write, so you end up writing about not being able to write anything. That’s what Federico Fellini did with his film 8 ½ (1963), and it turned into a masterpiece.
The term Felliniesque has been associated with images that have dream-like, surreal qualities but are also grandiose like Baroque paintings. These qualities are fully flushed out in Italian director Federico Fellini’s quintessential film. Suffering from a severe director’s block after the enormous success of his previous film, La Dolce Vita, Fellini is desperate to make the new “masterpiece” that everyone expects him to make. “They called me the Magician. Where was my ‘magic’?”, he remembers years later in his biography. Creativity finally struck when he decided to tell exactly that story: a director struggling to make a film.
The main protagonist of the film might be indistinguishable from his creator and so is illusion from reality. The whole film weaves between the fantasies of the famous director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) and the realities that he is caught up in as he struggles to make his new “masterpiece”. The cast eagerly awaits his instructions, the producer desperately nags, the writer mercilessly criticizes, a million-dollar set is built and Guido still has no idea what his film is going to be about. In his personal life, he juggles between his failing relationships with his wife and a lusty mistress, shamelessly lying to both women.
With both his creative and marital/sex life crashing in around him, Guido brings us into the monologue of his mind through flashbacks and dreams. We are caught in reminiscences of his warm, magical childhood and his youthful adventures involving a monstrous prostitute. We are entranced by his or nightmares about his deceased and disappointed parents and a hellish vision of the Pope (influenced by his traumatic Catholic upbringing). And finally, we are amazed by his fantasies, in which all the women in his life worship and obey him with complete devotion and are literally whipped back into conformity if they dared to rebel.
All these images are interlaced with unavoidable reality. We cannot help but sympathize with Guido, but we also cannot help but agree with the accusations towards him for being a unloving, self-absorbed jerk and liar. Desperately trying to infuse his own memories and fantasies into the film, he ultimately finds that he’s unable to express anything. His last well dried up when the actress he thought was his ideal woman – pure, innocent, beautiful, uncritical – turned out to be just as regular and banal as any other woman. Finally, in an imaginary suicidal scene, Guido gives up on his film.
That is the biggest difference (besides being an adulterous, selfish jerk) between the Guido character and its creator: while Guido failed, Fellini triumphed with a masterpiece of creativity. He painted a lurid, fluid painting, a crystallization of dreams that pulls the audience in and out of reality with breathtaking ease. His unmatched virtuosity with the camera mesmerizes and strikes life into each scene and character. The light and shadow plays are as rich and beautiful as the contrasts between the film’s most grandiose moments and the most quiet and poetic. Fellini truly made dreams come to life, sending chills down people’s spines as he did it.
After a first viewing, many people might not know what to make of it. I could imagine people saying, “It was plotless and trippy, and if it was ‘artful’, then what was it trying to tell us?”. In my opinion, if it’s truly artful, then it doesn’t tell you anything. The art of the cinema is pure images and sound, and the greatest artists utilize them in the highest level. We can watch a movie for the sake of the pleasure of watching a movie that the maestro has created for us and willingly submit ourselves to the manipulations by the magic. The only “central messages” or “main ideas” that should be present in cinematic works of art should tell us that the artist is a talented and creative artist. 8 ½ does that extremely well. Fellini found his “magic”, and it is stronger than ever in this his 8 ½ nd film. Have fun dreaming.
In Italian cinema at the time, many studios employed a technique where the sound and dialogue is completely dubbed in afterwards. It is common for films to have off-synch dialogue. For me, this adds to the overall dream-like atmosphere of the film and doesn’t seem distracting at all. Marcello Mastroianni, who plays Guido, has amazing presence and is able to convey much more with body language, making up for a nominal technical shortcoming.