Look And Learn: Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963) – Blu-ray review
Fellini’ instruction manual on how to watch an art-house movie is a primer to cinema’s possibilities, and a reminder that even highbrow can be playful.
(Federico Fellini, 1963)
As every textbook on cinema will tell you, the specificity of 8½’s title refers to the number of films Federico Fellini had directed before he embarked on this project: seven features, plus three shorts in multi-director movies. The thing is, at no point is this fact referenced in 8½ itself. It’s an in-joke that Fellini – already an icon of the European art-house cinema that flourished in the post-war years – was confident enough to think his audience would understand and appreciate.
So 8½ instantly leans towards the self-absorbed and self-indulgent, even before we factor in its story about a film director suffering creative block, whose inability to decide on the most basic elements of story or casting send him scurrying into memories and fantasies. Films about filmmaking had existed before this, and many more have been made since. Yet few are so inextricably linked to their own conception – this isn’t merely about how to make a film, but how to watch a film, as well.
Specifically: 8½ is the ‘how to’ guide for comprehending – and, just as crucially, enjoying – art-house cinema. Since Fellini’s last full film, La Dolce Vita, he was in danger of losing his status as Italy’s most exciting director to Michelangelo Antonionio, a much more serious and austere figure. Add to that the rise of Ingmar Bergman and Alain Resnais elsewhere in Europe, and the fun was getting sucked out of cinema in favour of gnomic, elliptical treatises on existential angst.
8½ turns the tables on such films. Is it a coincidence that a key character in the film – the director’s screenwriter, a sloganeering intellectual who treats cinema as an affair of the head, rather than the heart – looks like France’s hippest filmmaker of the period, critic-turned-director Jean Luc-Godard? As Guido absent-mindedly imagines the writer being hung, it’s a riposte to a whole wing of cinema has tends towards the analytical. In contrast, 8½ is playful and on-the-fly.
Isn’t it? The film’s status amongst critics as a mainstay of all-time best lists would suggest that there’s more to this than casual doodling with a film camera, and of course it contains multitudes – about men and women, about the sacred and the profane, but mostly about the creative impulse. Yet Fellini wants to deconstruct the carefully-wrought enigma that the likes of Antonioni thrive on, by hinting that instinct plays as big a part in shaping art as deep thought. Whether drawing from real life, or tapping into the wellspring of past experience, a director – any artist – is driven by something unique to them. Film is a feeling rather than a theorem.
Arguably, the ‘story’ here is weak: like so many of Fellini’s films, we’re expected to feel sorry for how many women the mercurial Guido is stringing along, either in adulterous relationships or the equally untrustworthy promise of a great role in one of his films – and, incidentally, Fellini’s study of the link between movies and prostitution is trite compared to the film Godard made on the same subject in 1963, Le Mepris. But the ‘what’ matters less than the ‘how,’ and Fellini films the banal wish-fulfilment of a middle-aged lech in a way that is ravishing, whether in the famous fantasy where all of the women in Guido’s life are living in a harem, or the tender, poignant flashback to the director’s youthful dalliance with a voluptuous, rumba-dancing woman.
The creative indecision on which Fellini frames the story is a smokescreen because the guy behind the camera is clearly no slouch when it comes to creativity. Rather, Fellini’s self-portrait is of a guy who has such abundance of ideas he is helpless to impose choice, at the mercy of a tumble of images and associations. At one point, Guido remarks, “in my film, everything happens,” and that is practically a manifesto for the era in which 8½ was made. Many of the high-modernist masterpieces of the 1950s and 1960s like Wild Strawberries or Last Year In Marienbad thrived on creating their perceived ambiguity through the refusal neither to marshal nor pigeonhole their material into obvious shapes.
That’s certainly the case with 8½, a film bursting at the seams with activity. With it, comes Fellini’s instructions on how to watch such films – not to sit back in chin-stroking solemnity, but to lean forward and immerse yourself in what’s going on. The signature shot of 8½ is a pan along a crowd into which new faces will appear, looming, in the forefront, shifting the perspective from something that is being watched to a vision of somebody doing the watching. It is carefully choreographed, even schematic if you stop to break it down – but Fellini doesn’t stop. These shots are so fast and busy that they give the impression of wild abandon, cinema as a hearty feast.
And then there’s the film’s most staggering piece of set design: a huge scaffold, designed as the launchpad for a spaceship in Guido’s film-within-a-film. We never see the spaceship, which will be projected onto the scaffold should filming never get underway… but then we never see any of Guido’s film. The scaffold is a metaphor to creativity, a hook onto which anything can be hung. And, of course, the fact that we can see it on screen is proof that Fellini is busy having his cake and eating it, inspiring awe for visualising something so impressive and tactile yet allowing the audience to project our own emotions onto it.
At the centre is Marcello Mastroianni, an actor whose self-regard usually leaves me cold but who is perfect here as, literally, the centre of his own world. Mastroianni’s louche, quizzical reaction to life, an arched eyebrow peeking from behind his sunglasses, is the look of a man who is taking everything in, assimilating his entire life so that he might beam it back at us later – if he could only decide which bits to show us.