Fellini’s 8 ½ is a triumph of filmmaking, truth, and the examination of the human experience, frailties, anxieties, and relationships. Fellini manages to create one of the most exploratory and visionary films of all time (and certainly genre-shattering for everything that happened in cinema up to that time) in its two and a half hours. This film seems to be everything at once – and what is most glaringly obvious is that for all of Guido’s anxieties that he is not making a film that is genuine enough, full of bizarre overlays between fantasy, history, and reality, he has made one of the most human films of all time. There is a lot happening, perfectly observed by Jean-Michel Frodon in Schneider as a “story about the anguish of a director having to make a film, about an artist having to make work, about a man having to deal with women, about a human having to face life and death…playing on the frontier between reality and dreams with humor and fear, interrogat(ing) everyone’s relationship with the world, with our parents, our children, the people we work with, the difficulties of getting old, or getting lost, or returning to childhood terrors.” 8½ isn’t simply a film about an anxious filmmaker, but rather, is a film about the sleepy dream of existence and the drowsy, clawing escape called art.
I watched 8½ on Criterion DVD (#140), and enjoyed the second disc of extras which included some really enlightening Fellini and documentaries.
As I watched this film, other works of art and directors came flooding at me. I found myself turning to Jenn and exclaiming, “this is basically the musical Nine” (the musical Nine is actually 8½), “wow, this reminds me of that movie I watched last year, All That Jazz” (it was based on 8½), “David Lynch/Tarentino/Charlie Kaufman/Terry Gilliam/etc does (this thing) all the time!” (they most certainly do – they are vocal about how they are influenced by 8½), and “wasn’t this exact same character in Amarcord in a few different ways?” (they were, duh). It was easy to examine this film in terms of the major impacts it has on cinema as a whole – and it seems almost like a fruitless endeavor as over and over again it is inescapable that a frame-by-frame analysis would do nothing but lead to connections, connections to connections, and everything in between as the meta-analysis of the art form in all of its modern incantations is connected back to this film once-and-for-all.
But the point of this is only partially to talk about the many, many ways in which a lot of what I have seen and what I enjoy is influenced by this film. I spent days after watching it processing what wonders I beheld in it. There are a few things that really stand out to me as reflective of my life, and I think I can easily organize them into modes of experience.
Art. As a writer and an artist myself, the struggle to create something at an intimate, honest scale is truly a struggle. This film explores that to an almost obsessive-documentary level of accuracy. The paralyzing self-doubt leaks into every avenue of my life, and every element of my life leaks into and tramples on my art no matter what I do. In making something true and honest – something original and real that can essentially portray the entire human experience – one can’t avoid the fact that everything tried to undermine this, from time, to people, to topics, to obligations… In this film, the answer never comes, and yet it does in the very existence of the film itself. Because the film exists and because it is so honest and because Fellini had so many anxieties, by virtue of what the film is, it is exactly what he set out to do. He doesn’t point it out, it just happens. There is no analysis, it just happens. Perfectly.
Women and relationships. There is nothing to be said here except that we are who we are because of everyone that has come before us. Women and men are such different creatures, and in this essence, the femininity and masculinity Fellini presents in this film holds the mirror up to our desires, our fears, and our shortcomings. What we get is the portrait of one man’s experience that is just as relevant to every man’s experience no matter how you cut it – and this honesty was likely a difficult one to face on camera. Fellini took a chance at portraying modern manhood as a protean study of allegiances and definitive exploration into desire and diversity (metaphorically and cringeworthy-literally) because he wanted to portray not what men and women should be, but what they are. In the end, he succeeded at this regardless of how we wish things were.
Family and childhood. There is no doubt that family and childhood have a great influence on the social, emotional, and sexual beings (and artists) that we become. This is all apparent in this film, and while my childhood is nothing like the one in this film, the brilliant little flashes of memory in their high-walled, architectural wastelands and scaffolding is a perfect metaphor of the dreamlike existence of what we are – stark black and white glimpses into our past contrasted against our now-self.
God and mortality. Perhaps this is the biggest difference between Fellini’s film and my experience, but mainly only on the religious front. Every element of faith and one’s place in the world is laid out and hotly debated against the strict guidelines of the Catholic Church. But the sea of characters contains atheists and humanists alongside the believers, and all of them question what it all even means. Death is the final destination of all of the characters in the film, and ourselves. What matters most is the intrinsic drive to accomplishment and happiness where one finds meaning, and in return, that intrinsic reward. The artist’s (and Guido, and my) fallacy, though, is the insatiable hunger to achieve the thing we will never achieve, playing God with our work and never reaching the seventh day. All we can do is try.
This film is truly a masterpiece – one that I will be thinking about for a long time and should revisit now and again. As with Amarcord, Fellini’s ability to capture the human spirit on film is unparalleled. A true masterpiece about life, love, and existence. Most remarkable is the fact that he answers all of these questions without answering any of them… The answers exist within the hearts of his audience, whether artist or art consumer, man or woman, faithful or secular. It is simply a true film – exactly what he set out to create.