Sincerity soaked in ironic fantasy and insincerity masking human failings: these are the essential ingredients of 8½. Did I miss anything? Some people proclaim 8½ to be the greatest film about filmmaking ever made. I’m not sure what ironic fantasy these people are floating in, but no film gets begun, let alone made, in 8½. The film is so convincing of the impossibility of making a film about Guido’s life that I find myself lamenting the fact that the film was never made, the film I just finished watching. It’s a strange paradox, but it’s more a matter of premonition than fiction (The Journey of G. Mastorna). Of course, it is difficult to imagine that the film is about anyone other than Federico himself, so its accuracy in predicting the course of his life makes sense. This self-referentiality introduces an interesting wrinkle in the film. Just as the author in the film repeatedly criticizes the film Guido is seeking to make the film plays like Fellini is constructing a self-satire. In and of itself this means little, because a flippant self-satire can turn into narcissistic self-aggrandizement and an overly critical self-satire can border on pathological neuroticism – which is not to say that either extreme is bad. I, justifiably, am capable only of the former, but no mode is inherently superior in my mind. Self-satire is a special case of satire, though, because its satirical function doesn’t require public exhibition. There is no ‘in-kind’ response to a self-satirist for anyone but the originator, so it seems to me an inherently introspective method of discourse. For an outsider to even engage with the film as a satire of the originator seems excessive and frivolous. Instead of viewing the film as a bullet aimed at a target it seems more sensible to view it in the context of a wounded victim, albeit a self-inflicted wound from an imaginary gun. There are unavoidable aspects of voyeuristic examination in this sort of work, a social commentary of one, but I find the most fruitful element of such a work lies in the recognition of elements of my own self provoked by the film. That the film aims inward instead of outward seems to me both a modest and effective gesture as it both avoids the troubles of commenting on others and renders any personal bias essential rather than problematic. The problematic element of such a work is the difficulty of determining whether it is a self-satire at all. I’m not too troubled by this possibility, though, and I don’t see any distortions or embellishments of ‘facts’ as anything other than an element of essential personal bias. To loosely categorize the film I think it comes down to determining whether it rings true – if it does ring true then the film will almost certainly contain a powerful tension between the comic nature of airing the satirizing of one’s own failings to the world and the tragic truth of the human failings being bared, a perfect example of tragicomic black comedy.
After my first viewing of 8½ I knew I had never seen another film quite like it – an unfortunate truth partially rectified now by exploration and recognition of its widespread influence – and I didn’t seem to prefer any other film to it, either. The most fitting statement to represent my initial and present thoughts on the film is, “It’s just so good!” This is a statement full of depth and nuance, I assure you. Its succinctness spares the redundancy of listing off its wealth of ‘good’ elements, the ‘just’ even implies the amazingly consistent amount of goodness within all of the film’s elements which excludes exceptions, and the ‘so’ implies that an exceptional level of ‘just good’ness is present. To prove to you just how efficient and expressive that statement is I will provide you with an inferior alternative: From its opening silence to its concluding trumpeting 8½ beautifully interweaves atmospheric fantasy with imaginative fantasy, to say nothing of its tangible realism, in a tapestry whose detailed artistry augments its alternately spectacular and intimate scenes played out among a variety of backdrops new or old, dense or spare, open or enclosed, a variety of contrasts which matches the tense confrontation between blistering comic assault and touching emotional resonance captured by strikingly composed and lit cinematography which rations space and shade in shares perfectly proportionate to the film’s modulations and matched by the oft-ironic implementation of classic musical compositions and by-now-classic original compositions which in themselves contrast with the film’s aforementioned silences, silences which the agonizingly indecisive protagonist equally fears and covets as a result of the perfectly measured tragicomic balance between impulsive indulgence in and petrifying fear of the women in his life who carry him along, wrapped in the cloth made up of his life and the film, to an achingly uncertain but equally touching concluding celebratory fantasy, followed by some credits. You see, it’s basically the same thing. If I’m going to be vague and unspecific I’ll do it the most vaguely unspecific way I know how. 8½: It’s just so good.
For all of Fellini’s fanciful dips into fantasy 8½’s core facsimile of reality is a suffocatingly bleak environment for Guido. Every memory and fantasy in the film in some way reflects on his current state, but I think none more accurately expresses his state of mind than the film’s opening nightmare. Paranoia and confinement lead him to a desperate scramble for escape, but the escape he finds is merely an illusory freedom that can be revoked on another’s whim. In this nightmare it is his production staff, but these feelings clearly mirror his domestic situation, as well. Like the troublemaker of his memories he can never obey any rule presented him and his misdeeds always end in chastisement. There is a peculiar detail of this memory, though: once he is told that Saraghina is the devil he defiantly returns to see her. The church becomes the wife, but Guido never changes. The wife is not the church, though, and Guido’s troublemaking represents a serious betrayal, compounded by his lies. In his youth he was at least penitent, but as an adult he has mastered the art of evasion and seemingly lost all understanding of compassion. His idealized fantasy of Luisa as an obedient and understanding maid is unabashedly cruel as he extends no common courtesy her way. When Luisa chastises Guido for never letting her into his thoughts she is probably lucky that she is prevented the luxury – in a late fantasy he pleads for her to accept him as he is, but Fellini has already portrayed the sad state that she would be reduced to if she were to accept this fate. There is no trace of this honesty in Guido’s reality, of course, but his deeds still demand such self-flagellation from his acquaintances while he is incapable of denying himself a thing. The fantasies and nightmares are all outcroppings of Guido’s real life, forever commenting on his faults and reinforcing his perverse ideals. That the film remains so consistently funny is a testament to the deft touch which Fellini employs to portray events which all refer back to a dark, rotten core. After watching the film again I was struck by just how dark the film is. Guido sees recurring images of Claudia dressed in white representing some hazy ideal, and her beauty enraptures, but she seems the most distant of all of his fantasies. She never becomes sexualized, never ends up in his harem, and he probably wouldn’t know what to do with her. When he actually meets Claudia he is just as clueless, completely at a loss as to what her perfection could mean to him. When she repeatedly condemns the abstraction of himself that he relates to her as not knowing how to love it merely recalls Luisa dressed as a maid, scrubbing the floors, increasingly distant to him as he gets closer to his ideals, and this seems to be the inevitable fate of Claudia were he ever to figure out what context she belongs in. The dreariness of Guido’s life can be summed up in the sinister implications of this phrase which he hesitates in uttering even in fantasy: “Happiness consists of being able to tell the truth without hurting anyone.” In his life he is unable to tell the truth and hurts everyone, and in his fantasies the undamaging truth condemns everyone to a life of subjugation and servitude. Don’t worry, though, it’s all fiction – perhaps.
Moving on from the dreary underpinnings of the film, it is a shock to me how blatantly funny the film is despite the dreariness – and without resorting to frivolous asides. Perhaps the most important element of this effect is the aforementioned self-satire – if we can’t laugh at ourselves, who can we laugh at? This sort of extreme negativity with adjoined lightheartedness is found in the comic roast, a tradition which always features as its centerpiece a lengthy period of self-flagellation. 8½ may be the most personal roast on record, with all those who most affect Guido’s life invited to roast him in proportion with how damning their material will be. It makes sense, then, that Guido is in almost every frame of the film because nobody’s presence is more damning than his own. It is fitting for a roast that there is little time for sentiment, little time for showing Guido in a positive light, and thus the darkness examined in the previous paragraph makes its central figure stand out all the more under the spotlight. And what a show! This is not to say that David Copperfield shows up and miraculously disappears. The film’s magic act is cinematically rapturous, exposing people’s amazement at and fear of having their inner thoughts revealed. The gold-digging girl is the most terrified of having her thoughts exposed, a moment rendered all the more comedic by her fiancée’s earlier admission to Guido of knowing her motives full well and accepting her anyway. She is not the center of the scene, and yet her situation becomes both the central joke and a strong parallel to Guido’s own situation while he develops an entirely different thread. The multifaceted nature of every scene enriches the overall effect of the film by its conclusion in ways which no single punchline ever could. Because so much of the film’s humor is buried in implicit parallels and delayed payoffs, like when the grown Guido relives his childhood bathing experience as a grown man in his harem fantasy, the film is probably deceptively dramatic on first viewing. The harem scene may be the film’s most explicitly comedic scene, but its penetrative effectiveness rests on the power of layered mockery developed by Guido’s well established callous, libidinous, childish behavior – the last point greatly enhanced by the scene being set in his childhood home and repeating his bathing. It’s impossible to fully separate the comedic effects of all of this layering from the sheer artistic marvel of a film being threaded so densely, and it is just as difficult to separate the troubling damage that Guido’s fodder for mockery inflicts, and that’s alright.
When Luisa first steps into the film as herself, not Guido’s mother, she exudes a delight and charm that generates an admiration free of cloying from the passive onlookers inside the film (and out), all of which emphasizes Guido’s comic folly of not appreciating her, the purely blissful feeling generated by the film’s portrayal of such a glowing woman, and the tension of her inevitable letdown. Guido’s treatment of Luisa is the centerpiece of the film’s mockery of Guido, the tragedy of his misdeeds, the resulting irony of this duality’s reflexivity on Fellini’s own life, and the moments of the most devastating empathetic ambivalence. I have already addressed Luisa’s place in the harem, which is an important instance of Guido’s insulting fantasies, but her role in the screen test scene is among my favorites in all of cinema for its depiction of the tenuous line between constructing a fantastic facsimile of reality and reality itself and the troubling effects of attempting such a feat at all. It is common for a character to vocally admonish a film’s artist whenever there is a work-within-a-work which abstracts little from reality, but Luisa’s writhing discomfort when watching footage of the women cast to play herself and Guido’s mistress conveys the same meaning but provides me with a much greater platform for vicarious identification in what I think is the film’s key moment. Without his responsibility to Luisa Gudio’s failings are far less ruinous, but without her he may be totally lost, and this moment allows Luisa to see some semblance of truth from Guido, a truth that proves too much to bear. There are a lot of compounding factors which make this scene so powerful on her psyche – that he seems only able to approach the truth through his art rather than by directly addressing her, that the full force of his past lies overwhelms her, that even in this truthful representation she may sense only another set of lies, this time about rather than to her – and expressing them concretely will only weaken the scene’s vicarious potential. That this scene utilizes cinema and self-referentiality and a director making a self-referential film to provoke very real empathetic responses in me is a testament to Fellini’s mastery of the cinematic apparatus to provoke what is in the end only a recognition of my own feelings on the situation – which in itself is a testament to the film’s ability to provoke introspection even if Fellini happens to be making a film about himself.
I could talk about this film for many more paragraphs, but I’ll save that for a future discussion. I should certainly say something about the film being among the most extraordinarily designed and shot films I have ever seen, but I don’t feel like getting bogged back down in another lengthy but in the end superficial utterance of praise so I will return to my old standby; 8½: It’s just so good.