Monday, May 23, 2011

Film #56: 8 1/2 (1963)

Director: Federico Fellini

Initial Release Country: Italy

Times Previously Seen: once (about 5 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Star film director attempts to balance the manic production process of his current project with his own flights of fancy and real personal problems.

Extended Summary (A more complete plot synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning)

Star film director Guido Anselmi (Marcelo Mastroianni) is surrounded by chaos. He is in the midst of producing his latest movie – a high-budget monster that has his creative team scrambling to and fro, trying to meet their distracted director's insufferably vague demands. Wannabe actors and actresses constantly badger Guido for parts in the movie, financial backers seek to know more about the mysterious project, and critics, religious figures, and journalists from all over the world nag him for his views on everything from love to politics to religion. In the middle of the maelstrom, Guido, suffering from poor health, goes to a spa, bringing the entire circus with him.

In his mind's eye, Guido dreams himself a balloon about to be brusquely yanked back to earth.

Added to all of the hoopla surrounding the movie itself are Guido's personal problems. He asks his mistress, the pretty but hopelessly dense and materialistic Carla (Sandra Milo), to join him. She offers a bit of escapist comfort, but only for a short while before the pressures of the film start to weigh down on Guido once more.

Throughout the dizzying tap-dance, Guido often finds his only respite in his own fantasies. He recalls past loves and scenarios, painting them with the exceptionally vibrant palette of his revisionist imagination. From floating above the crowd as a balloon, to interactions with past lovers, to conversations with his dead father, Guido loses himself in his own mind as easily as he lights up a fresh cigarette. However, just like the cigarette, each fantasy burns down to its end, leaving him back in reality.

The ever-chic looking Guido, taking in the world around him. What the mind behind the shades does to that world is anyone else's guess.

His reality becomes even more muddled when, after his desperate plea for mature companionship, Guido's wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee) comes to visit him at the spa. The reunion is amiable enough at the start, but soon turns sour as Luisa realizes that her husband is still the same immature dreamer who has cheated on and left her many times in the past. Their 20-year marriage seems completely destroyed when, at a set of screen tests, Luisa sees that her husband has used their most intimate conversations as fodder for his movie script. She storms out of the screen tests, with only marginal protests by Guido.

By this time, the pressures on Guido to become more active in the filming process, respond to critics, and answer to his financial backers finally get to him. At an ill-conceived tea party at one of the movie sites (with scaffolding for a massive rocket ship), Guido is put on a dais and commanded to give answers. In his mind, he escapes by imagining himself crawling under the table, pulling a gun and shooting himself. In reality, he merely cancels the entire picture and sends the entire hoipaloi packing.

In his final waking dream, Guido stares at the now-useless scaffolding and imagines an entire carnival of characters being led about by a little boy in all white, with a flute. The boy directs everyone off of the stage, remains for a few moments more, and is the last to leave.

My Take on the Film

This is a movie that will divide viewers into 2 clear camps: those who find it incomprehensible, Eurotrash nonsense, and those who find it a phenomenally skillful, humorous and entertaining look at the life and mind of an artist. When I first watched this movie about five years ago, I was probably more in the former group, but I am now with the latter.

If you are a movie viewer who demands a plot-driven story that follows the classic hero/heroine overcoming obstacles to prevail for truth and justice, Federico Fellini is not the director for you, and the film 8 ½ is probably the ultimate Fellini film. This is not least of all because it is certainly the most auto-biographical of his many films. I suppose some may say that a film director making a film about a film director making a film is the height of narcissism and self-aggrandizement. This thought did occur to me, but I dismiss it. For any person who has ever attempted any artistic endeavor, it is not hard to understand the character Guido Anselmi's desire to leave behind the trappings of the material world and vanish into any number of fantasy worlds of our own making. Therein lies the emotion of 8 ½ – the desire of escapism. After all, what are most of us looking for in films but to escape?

That attempt at intellectual analysis aside, the most striking thing about 8 ½ is the portrayal of Guido's daydreams. On my past viewing, I simply wasn't paying enough attention to see how they were related to everything else going on in the film. Now, however, I see the very clear connections and why each and every one of his flights of fancy are touching and/or hilarious. This is part of what is captivating about this movie – the viewer is waiting to see just when Guido will warp the world around him into his own vision, and exactly how he will do it. From the very beginning, in which he imagines himself drifting out of his car stuck in traffic and up into the air like a balloon, to the very end in which he sees his role as director symbolized by the little boy leading around thousands of strange characters, it all points to the absurdities that swirl around the world of art.

This is not to equate the absurd with the useless. Absurdity is the ocean in which many comic treasures can be found, and Fellini was the Jacques Cousteau of finding such. He had a such a great eye for the strange, silly, and wonderful moments in life that entertainers can provide. From the little, insensitive comments towards babbling actors to the hilariously ridiculous visions of Guido as the head of his own harem, 8 ½ runs a spectacular gamut of humor.

The ocean-side prostitute, Saraghina - One of the countless indelible images in the movie.

Not only could Fellini find this great variety of humor, but he could present it in such an appealing, eye-catching way that his films are often a pleasure to watch. Even someone who has no time for the fanciful nature of 8 ½ has to admit that the film is captivating to look at. From the cast, all striking either for their beautiful or singular looks, to the sets, locales, and shot framing, everything is in its proper place in the movie. It all further reinforces the notion that art can provide the order and pleasure that real life rarely offers.

A final merit to be pointed out is that Fellini cut himself no breaks in this movie. While the character who represents him, Guido, is fairly likable and, but the accounts of the ancillary characters, an artistic genius, his failings as a man are made plain for all to see. Once his wife, Luisa, and his sister show up, it becomes clear that, emotionally, Guido is nothing more than a scared and selfish little child. He lies to cover up his infidelities and uses his and his wife's most intimate moments as little more than fodder for his own movie script. What you get is a man who represents many a great artist – brilliant in his medium but sorely lacking when it comes to the quieter, closer moments of life.

I suppose if I can knock this film at all, it is that it ran out of just a little bit of steam by the end. Coming in at over 2 hours and 15 minutes, I found myself flagging a little bit by the time the end was near. I felt that I had received a near overdose of Guido Anselmi's perpetual mental fluctuations and just wanted the end to come. However, I must say that this may have been because it was late at night, and I was probably just tired. Turn my experience into a cautionary tale – set aside the right time to watch this movie.

The final image of the movie, with the little "band leader" boy symbolizing the director himself.

That's a Wrap. 56 shows down. 49 to go.

Coming Soon:Charade (1963)

This one may be a bit of an effort. Despite having some kick-ass actors in it (Cary Grant and James Coburn, to name a few), it also contains one of my least favorite leads – Audrey Hepburn. Come an back to see if I can stomach it.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.