AKA Otto e Mezzo; Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2
CLAUDIA: Let’s leave this place. It makes me uneasy. It doesn’t seem real.
GUIDO: I really like it. Isn’t that odd?
DIRECTED BY: Federico Fellini
PLOT: Full of doubts and very near to suffering a breakdown from stress, a director is planning to make his next movie, never making much progress. The story is continuously interrupted by flashbacks to his boyhood and dream sequences, including one where he imagines all the women in his life living together in a harem. The production is complicated further by the arrival of his wife on the set, who is humiliated to find that his mistress is also there.
- By Fellini’s count, this was the 8 1/2th film he directed (counting shorts and co-directing gigs as 1/2 of a movie each).
- This was Fellini’s first feature after the incredible international success of La Dolce Vita (1960). In the movie, Fellini’s alter ego Guido has just come off of a great success, and everyone around him is expecting him to produce another masterpiece.
- After making La Dolce Vita and before 8 1/2, Fellini became involved in Jungian psychoanalysis and started keeping a dream diary.
- 8 1/2 won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1964. It played out of competition at Cannes, because the Italians split up their two 1963 prestige pictures, 8 1/2 and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, between Cannes and the Moscow Film Festival (a successful strategy, as Visconti took Cannes and Fellini Moscow). 8 1/2 has since far surpassed its companion and become a staple of “best movies of all time” lists. It ranked #9 on the 2002 version of Sight & Sound’s critic’s poll of the greatest movies ever made, and #3 on the director’s poll.
- The “dance” ending was originally intended as a promotional trailer, but Fellini decided he liked the optimistic tone of this sequence better than the dark ending he had originally planned.
- Unaccountably, this intellectual meditation on artistic doubt was adapted as a Broadway musical (!) called “Nine,” which was then made into a mediocre Hollywood musical.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: It is with great reluctance that I select the image of Marcello Mastroianni flown like a kite above the beach as 8 1/2‘s representative image; not because it isn’t a fascinating and beautiful invention, but because I have to pass on so many other worthy candidates. In particular, I would have loved to pick a shot of Guido with a whip trying in vain to tame the women in the harem of his mind; but that ten minute sequence flows so beautifully and seamlessly from polygamous bliss to infantilism to feminist rebellion that it unfortunately can’t be summed up in a single still.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Watching 8 1/2 is like being dropped inside Federico Fellini’s brain and wandering around inside its convoluted folds. As self-centered stream-of-consciousness filmmaking, this wonderfully masturbatory masterpiece has never been equaled. The film flows smoothly from anxiety-ridden nightmares to wish-fulfillment daydreams to some state we could safely call “reality” (although some new magic is always creeping up on even the most mundane moments of Guido’s confused existence).
Opening scene from 8 1/2
COMMENTS: Expressing my disappointment with the middelbrow conventionality of 2009’s misbegotten, soapy musical remake of 8 1/2, incomprehensibly entitled “Nine,” I wrote “…what else would you expect from a movie whose title announces its intentions by rounding up an inconveniently weird partial number to a nice, easily digestible integer?” Although I was being glib in my dismissal of the remake, it occurs to me that there really is a strong thematic importance to fact that Fellini titled his self-psychoanalysis on film after “an inconveniently weird partial number.” Yes, it’s true that the title serves as an opus number, a reference to the fact that this was Fellini’s 8 1/2th film. The notion that the maestro would give this grandiose experiment such a generic title implies a false humility; there is also an ironic joke in that the writer/director, who is making a movie about an obvious alter-ego who fears he’s out of ideas, can’t think up a real, descriptive title for his movie. But there is perhaps even more to it. The title is not whole, just as Guido, film’s protagonist, is not whole. The title implies imperfection; we instinctively prefer round numbers (although that preference, on deeper reflection, is arbitrary). And the title implies incompleteness, that the movie is eternally locked into a state of becoming; it’s caught in transit, beyond eight, never to reach nine. This awkward, in-between title is the perfect heading for a movie whose themes are confusion, fallibility, and doubt—and ultimately about the necessity of accepting imperfection, in life and in art.
The self is a deep sea, and as self-psychoanalysis, 8 1/2 resists a complete analysis. It would be hopeless for any critic to try to “explain” the movie, especially since what 8 1/2 wants most to express is the magnificent, interconnected randomness of life: when fans asked Fellini what the movie meant, he responded, “What do you mean, ‘mean’?” Instead, I’m going to restrict myself here to examining three crucial (and weird) sequences from 8 1/2; the opening dream, the virtuoso harem scene, and the closing parade. Hopefully, this procedure will give the uninitiated some notion of what to expect from this sprawling film, while recalling fond memories for those who are already fans of this classic.
As a diary of a self, it’s appropriate that 8 1/2 begins in a dream, the space where the individual both reflects and creates its internal reality. Guido’s dream begins in a traffic jam. We only see Marcello Mastroianni from behind, as a silhouette of the director’s trademark fedora. He gazes at the stalled traffic around him; the faces are expressionless. Suddenly, a gas is filling up the cabin of his car; for the first time we hear sound, the sound of a man gasping for air. We see his fellow motorists again: a line of passengers with their arms hanging out a bus window, their faces hidden; an old man stroking the shoulder of a much younger woman (though we don’t know it yet, the woman is Guido’s mistress); and others who simply stare at him disinterestedly as he struggles desperately to open his window. Suddenly he escapes and finds himself on the roof of his car; he spreads his arms, his cape flares, and he glides over the roofs of the automobiles. Then he’s flying off into the clouds; he has escaped! But his flight to freedom is short-lived, as he soon discovers that there is a rope tied around his ankle. We see two men on a beach; one holds on to the tether, the other, on horseback, says “Down, come down.” A sharp yank, and the caped figure is tumbling towards the sea.
The main purpose of the dream may be to perform an emotional trick on us; we begin the film locked into Gudio’s perspective, sympathizing with his desire to escape from the ordinary and to soar free. Since we begin by seeing this world from Guido’s subjective perspective, in the future, when he’s accused of being weak, indecisive, or deceitful, we will feel a little bit like it’s us who is being accused; his flaws become ours. But the dream also sets 8 1/2‘s wistful tone: the yearning to escape the horror of the mundane, and the inevitable brevity of our escapes into fantasy. The men on the beach are the producers of the film Guido is directing, and they must drag him down from his artistic flights to deal with the sordid minutiae of casting, budgeting, and marketing matters. In the dream Guido is trapped halfway between two worlds, between servitude and freedom, unable to tolerate the lower one but too weak to permanently escape to the higher one. He is discontent, but powerless to change.
In the movie, most of Guido’s earthly distractions take the form of women. There are only a few men in the story, and only the critic has any real importance; the other males are all shallow creatures, accountants or clerics. There is his dream girl (Claudia Cardinale), who represents the beauty he hopes to incarnate in his next film; his flighty mistress (Sandra Milo), who he sees as a sexual necessity and a social embarrassment; his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée), whom he loves but fears because she has the moral leverage in their relationship; and the coven of signoras and signorinas—his mother, nursemaids, “the Saraghina,” the grotesque fleshy prostitute who danced the rhumba for his boyhood self—who inhabit the corridors of his memories. They all come together in 8 1/2‘s greatest sequence, the harem scene (or the “farm of women” scene, as Gideon Bachmann refers to it in the DVD commentary). In the film’s typical stream-of-consciousness style, the daydream develops out of a real life event; Carla, Guido’s mistress has strolled into the same outdoor cafe where he’s lunching with Luisa. The situation is awkward; the floozy tries to pretend she hasn’t been spotted, even though with her enormous white feathered hat and matching muff and her arrival in a horse-drawn carriage she’s the most conspicuous woman in the world. The wife is mortified, even more so because she’s not at all surprised to see her rival at the spa where Guido has been “recuperating.” But Guido can’t help but imagine the two reconciled to each other; he pictures them trading compliments, kissing each other on the cheek.
Suddenly the scene dissolves and we’re in a house, the house from Guido’s youth, and it’s full of women cooking: Luisa, Carla, his producer friend’s college-aged mistress, the Saraghina, his star actress, and a host of others, including an exotic black import (from “Hawaii”). Giudo comes through the door carrying wrapped presents for all of them, and they welcome his arrival and prepare a bath for him. The women bathe and pamper him, swaddling him in linens and powdering him and treating him like a child. But things turn sour. There is a ceremony to be performed that night; one of the women, a showgirl, has turned thirty. According to the rules of the house, she now must be sent “upstairs,” where she will be treated as well as any of them and left to bask in her memories. She cries and objects, begs for an extension, but Guido is firm that his rules must be obeyed. But the concubines begin to murmur and complain; and soon, it appears that Guido has lost control of his own daydream. The women are revolting, hissing like cats and swinging from the chandeliers like Errol Flynn in a pirate movie. An unseen band strikes up “Ride of the Valkyries.” Wrapped in a towel and wearing his black cowboy hat, Guido grabs a whip and gets to work taming the shrews (half of whom appear to orgasm when he strikes them with his weapon). Women run about and throw accusations at him and ostrich feathers from the showgirl’s shredded boa fly in front of the camera, until order in restored in the seraglio (complete with a round of applause from the crushed rebels). “He needs to act this way. He does it almost every night,” explains a calm and understanding Luisa, as chaos reigns in the household.
The harem sequence is a beautiful burlesque staged with elegant costuming, camerawork and cinematography. Fellini’s attitude towards women here is positively prehistoric, but the fantasy is so honest, so ironically self-aware and self-deprecating, that it becomes a hilarious satire. Fellini acknowledges the power and mystique of the feminine, and admits that he can’t tame or control it, even in his fantasies. Despite the fact that Guido has created the scenario—the entire thing exists only in his mind—the mood keeps changing uncontrollably. The women still express their individuality; their attitudes shift from moment to moment, from subservience to defiance to sadness to jealousy, and their reactions are frequently out of harmony with events. By the end Guido speaks to the assembled harem and admits that his experiment in alternative living has been a failure, even in his own fantasy. He can’t arrange things satisfactorily, he can’t create a perfect living arrangement for himself and a dozen women. The problem is beyond his strength to fashion a solution, even with the powerful whip of his imagination. The women are the welter of the world bearing down on Guido, wearing on both his conscience and his consciousness. Just like in his dream, he has glimpsed an imaginary paradise but he can’t make it stick; he’s called back to the problems of reality, to the wife who soon will announce that she’s finally had enough and that she’s leaving him.
The carnival ending of 8 1/2 has sometimes been criticized as too pat, too lovey-dovey, too deus ex machina, but, given the film’s theme of confusion, I believe it is the only way Fellini and Guido could end the film. It’s also, more importantly, a strikingly beautiful finale. Guido has been falling deeper and deeper into a morass; he still doesn’t have a script or even know what his story will be about. The producers have demanded he build a spaceship for the movie. A massive rig has been constructed in a field, a giant grid of girders stretching towards the sky like a postmodern tower of Babel—but there’s no prop, just a grandiose infrastructure supporting nothing. The moneymen demand Guido meet the press and announce his new movie with that boondoggle as the backdrop; the auteur can’t answer the papparazi’s cacophony of questions and, in another reality mangling moment, he crawls under the table and explores one possible solution to his problem.
The next thing we know, the set is being disassembled and Guido is returning to his car, despondent. By his side is the character of the critic, an intellectual, the materialization of the director’s rationality. The critic consoles Guido and assures him he has done the right thing in abandoning the project. “We’re smothered by words, images and sounds that have no right to exist,” he reminds the director. “No need to add chaos to chaos. What monstrous presumption to believe that others could benefit from your squalid catalog of mistakes!” As the critic continues his spontaneous monologue, his line of thinking turns to nihilism; he convinces himself that, since the artist can never devise something perfect, it’s better to destroy than create. But then something odd happens. As Guido sits there listening to the dismaying voice of reason, a white-faced character in a top hat carrying a baton—a magician, a ringmaster, an entertainer, the antithesis of the rational critic—casually approaches him and says, “We’re ready to begin.” Guido has an epiphany. He’s confused, but in a flash of Zen clarity he realizes that “this confusion is me.” Once he accepts the bewilderment and mystery of his existence and stops trying to force it into a shape he can comprehend and control, his confusion with his life ceases to become the obstacle to his art: it becomes its subject. Nina Rota’s dance theme strikes up in the background and a marching band of clowns appear, together with a boy playing a flute (presumably Guido as a child). Suddenly, there is a circus ring surrounding the set. Guido grabs a bullhorn and begins directing the clowns’ march. The magician pulls back a curtain hanging over the balustrade, and the entire cast of the film appears, descending down steel stairs. Mistresses jostle cardinals and stars rub elbows with extras in this jumbled procession of the sacred and profane. Guido directs them all to the raised ring of the circus and they join hands and begin to circle around as the band of jesters plays on. Finally, he takes his wife’s hand and they, too, join in the swirling parade of life.
Voltaire famously advised that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Guido’s critic, known by the bad advice he delivers, pontificates, “if we can’t have everything, nothingness is true perfection.” Guido, soaring towards heaven but tied to earth, wants to make a great work of art that’s perfect and true, but he realizes that he can’t. He can’t even manage his own love life. He’s weak, duplicitous, and imperfect; he’s painfully aware of his own limitations, and that knowledge paralyzes him. He is confounded by obligations and doubts, with his confused relationship with the Church he has abandoned but still longs for, with the producers who need him to deliver what he has promised, with the wife he has betrayed. He’s not a whole man; he’s fractional. He is unable—and too honest—to resolve all of these conflicts and tie together all these loose ends in a tidy script where the spaceship launches, the villain is destroyed, the boy gets the girl, and everything is explained. But once he accepts these facts, and embraces the confusion, he can move ahead. The working title of this movie’s script was La bella confusione (“the beautiful confusion.”) I like 8 1/2 better; it’s a more confusing title, and a more beautiful one. Once Guido/Fellini decided that he did not have to produce something perfect with his first post-La Dolce Vita script, he was free to make something good. The irony is that he did make something that, on its own imperfect terms, is indeed perfect.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Someone’s fantasy life is perfectly good material for a movie if it is imaginative and fascinating in itself, or if it illuminates his non-fantasy life in some interesting way. But 8 1/2 is neither; it’s surprisingly like the confectionary dreams of Hollywood heroines, transported by a hack’s notions of Freudian anxiety and wish fulfillment.”–Pauline Kael, “I Lost It at the Movies”
“If you thought Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita was a hard-to-fathom film, random and inconclusive, wait until you see 81/2… It has no more plot than a horse race, no more order than a pinball machine, and it bounces around on several levels of consciousness, dreams, and memories as it details a man’s rather casual psychoanalysis of himself. But it sets up a labyrinthine ego for the daring and thoughtful to explore, and it harbors some elegant treasures of wit and satire along the way.”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“…this film personifies what people associate with the term ‘Felliniesque.’ Buxom women bouncing across the screen, eccentric people galavanting through fields and carnivalesque settings, and bizarre fantasy sequences pepper this sprawling foray into the mind of a director unsure of how to progress with his next film.”–Mondo Digital (DVD)
IMDB LINK: 8 1/2 (1963)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
8 1/2 (1963) – The Criterion Collection – Here you can find the trailer and Alexander Sesonske’s essay “8 1/2: A Film with Itself as a Subject”
8 1/2 / Eight and a Half::rogerebert.com::Great Movies – Roger Ebert’s essay on 8 1/2 for his “Great Movies” series
Federico Fellini: 8 1/2 – Derek Malcolm of The Guardian’s reflections of Fellini’s masterpiece, part of his “Century of Film” series
8 1/2: Fellini’s Moment of Truth – Critic Alan A. Stone argues that 8 1/2 transcends all possible critical interpretations in this piece written for The Boston Review in 1995
8 1/2 (BFI Film Classics) – D.A. Miller argues that the greatness of 8 1/2 essentially lies in its view of the artist as shameless
8 1/2: Federico Fellini, director (Rutgers Films in Print) – This compendium contains essays on the film and an annotated shooting script
DVD INFO: As befits such a jewel in its crown, the two disc Criterion Collection DVD of 8 1/2 (buy) is packed with intriguing extras for the Felliniphile. Most important is the commentary, which is handled by a team (as befits such a complex film). The majority of the analysis is delivered via an “audio essay” (of uncredited authorship) read by an actress, while NYU professor Antonio Monda adds his thoughts on specific scenes and Fellini friend and 8 1/2 extra Gideon Bachmann chimes in with personal recollections. The other featurettes include Fellini fan Terry Gilliam supplying his thoughts on the film; interviews with co-star Sandra Milo, assistant director Lina Wertmuller, and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro; one documentary that seeks to reconstruct the lost alternate ending and another on composer Nino Rota, each nearly an hour in length; A Director’s Notebook, a fascinating Fellini-directed peek at the creative process showing the director scouting locations and holding auditions for Fellini Satyricon; and the usual collection of stills and trailers along with the standard booklet of essays and interviews.
The Criterion Blu-ray (buy) fits all the same features onto a single disc.
If you’re not interested in the special features and want to save a few dollars, you can purchase the single disc “Essential Art House” offering instead (buy).
8 1/2 is also offered as part of the Essential Art House, Vol. 5 collection (buy), randomly paired with Brief Encounter, Floating Weeds, Jules and Jim, Kapo, and Loves of a Blonde.
Finally, the movie can be rented online or purchased digitally (rent or buy online).
(This movie was nominated for review by “David.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)