Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Blind Spot 2016: Fellini's 8 1/2


"...But we intellectuals, and I say we because I consider you such, must remain lucid to the bitter end. This life is so full of confusion already, that there's no need to add chaos to chaos. Losing money is part of a producer's job. I congratulate you. You had no choice. And he got what he deserved for having joined such a frivolous venture so lightheartedly. Believe me, no need for remorse. Destroying is better than creating when we're not creating those few, truly necessary things..."

So says Carini, the film critic, to Guido, the hero of this story, a film director at the end of his rope (literally) in Federico Fellini's eighth-and-a-half film, 8 1/2. A film that has eluded me for years and multiple attempts (I usually fall asleep within 20 minutes.) until now. I have finally watched it all the way to the end.

The scene at the end that contains this monologue from the critic, a character who pops up randomly, just as the majority of the characters do in this film, is talking about chaos. The pressure of, in this case, making a film, a venture that seems to pull its makers into utter turmoil just as any art would once the artist's art has found praise and the artist himself success. So, it certainly makes sense that Fellini's masterpiece should be chaotic. But the question for me, as someone who has struggled with this film, is Do I want to watch something so obnoxious enough times to "get it"? 


To explain... It is well-known that 8 1/2 is one of those movies that, due to its unusual structure and lack of tells in shifting between fantasy and reality, requires at least two or three viewings to fully grasp, thus becoming intimidating and/or frustrating. And this is true. My first full time through it is enough for me to know what I like and don't like about it, but it is not enough for me to decide whether I really love it or not. I'm leaning towards just not trying again...for one simple reason. It's...obnoxious.

In case you don't know, it is an incredibly simple movie on a basic plot level. A successful, really handsome Italian filmmaker (nice try Fellini!) named Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) is trying to take a break from making decisions about his new film, an expensive sci-fi sort of picture (very vaguely developed), at a spa outside of the city. There, he can't find the alone time he needs (and seems to not really want) and thus ends up having to juggle his wife, his mistress, this beautiful woman he keeps imagining (?), actresses, musicians, his producers, his partners, critics, press, on and on, while introspectively pondering, fantasizing, and remembering key moments from his childhood.


Having seen Woody Allen films in large quantities, I easily make connections with this narrative. And it's no secret that Allen, whom I love very much as a filmmaker for the most part, is a Fellini fanatic. He made plenty of movies that deal with the very same themes using similarly unusual narrative structures, including an almost blatant 8 1/2 ripoff in his 1980 bomb Stardust Memories. I like the Fellini better, but then I think about something like Annie Hall, which does many of the same things with narrative that 8 1/2 does. It's a far better film. It is because it is more relatable on a comedic level, and it features a character that isn't so rich and good-looking. I have trouble feeling for Guido, trouble buying, in Mastroianni's performance, that he is actually upset about anything. Poor him. He has half a dozen of the finest women of Italy in 1963 at his disposal and all the money you could ask for and gets to work as a film director and it's all poor Guido. Mastroianni plays him in such an aloof manner that it is impossible to connect to him. I don't identify.

And maybe I just don't get it because of the language barrier. It's hard to watch movies in a foreign language, especially ones that talk so much and so loudly. And why is it so jarring when people speak in Fellini's films? Simple. He (and most Italian filmmakers of his day) didn't shoot his movies with sound but went back and dubbed in later. This is just annoying to me. I get that his goal was to get the best possible visuals out of the camera, honing in on the intricacies and movements of each shot, but at what cost? The dialogue is too loud, unnatural, and it creates a type of artifice I don't really like. It makes the movie chaotic, but this time not on purpose. The sound dubbing is just the way Fellini thought he should make movies.


I don't mind to praise this film visually. It's a bona fide masterpiece as far as that's concerned. To look at 8 1/2 on Criterion Collection Blu-Ray is to see a picture without flaw. Not one. Not a skip or a jump but smooth, gliding camera work in every single shot, as if it was shot with the finest only yesterday. It doesn't feel 50 years old. And it isn't all surface...it's clever. For instance, the only scenes I will focus on in this reaction are two that match and that are probably considered the best the film has to offer apart from the very end. The flashback sequence in which Guido is transported to his childhood, bathed in wine, wrapped in a towel by the women who raised him is just heavenly. It is immaculately well-filmed and ever so true to the ways of memory. Then, its counterpart, a fantasy sequence in which all the current women in his life bathe him then turn on him, is equally fascinating and just brilliantly put together. It's welcomed chaos.

But not everything worked that well for me. For a movie that is really so lively, it's just hard for me to focus on it. I had to watch it in three sittings of about 45 minutes each. It's exhausting. During the second sitting, I actually fell asleep. And I wasn't even tired. I had slept nine full hours the night before and done pretty much nothing all day. I don't know. Filmmakers love this film. I get it. I even get the delight of it all, especially visually. But is this a film (while knowing I won't ever make a film myself) that I feel I need to watch more times, a film to study? Not really. Though, when I look at stills or screencaps from 8 1/2, I instantly want to go back to it. I don't know. Maybe I'll see it again one day, maybe not, maybe soon, maybe some curiosity will strike me, or someone who comments on this post will convince me. Maybe then, I will go back and will fully make sense of it all and write a new post in which...I don't know...I get it.


17 comments:

  1. Excellent review, Kevin! I have always planned to see this movie at some point, but I've always felt a bit intimidated by it. Frankly, it doesn't sound like something I'd enjoy. And although I do like Woody Allen's work (and try to separate it from his ugly mess of a personal life), I have to be in the right mood for Allen's films. Sometimes they strike me as overly angsty and self-indulgent. *LOL* Although, to be fair, Annie Hall is always great.

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    1. Thanks. I agree. The things you hate about Woody Allen (the angst and self-indulgence) are invented here, seen for the first time. It's a beautiful film to look at. No doubt well-made. But I just don't care about the character in the slightest. Movies have to have that for me. I'll never love a movie if it doesn't contain at least one character or situation I relate to. Here, there are none of those. It's just loud eye candy.

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  2. Well look at you, all catching up for the time you were gone!

    I too finally watched this for the first time all the way through this year. I didn't dislike it but perhaps it was its reputation that left the film an underwhelming experience for me. Visually it's a treat but it seemed endless for what it was showing about the characters. Perhaps it does take multiple viewings to embrace and find the fabled lyricism it supposedly contains but I didn't like it enough to put in that sort of time.

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    1. Yep. Caught up!

      Exactly! It's too long with not nearly as much substance as it thinks it has, certainly nowhere near the amount most people give it credit for. The visual greatness can't be argued with, but that only takes it so far. I've come to the decision that I probably will watch it again one day, if only to simply see it.

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  3. Haven't seen this one, myself. It keeps coming up so I'm seriously considering putting on my Blind Spot list for next. You sound perplexed by it which intrigues me even more than everyone just praising the hell out of it. Great review.

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    1. Thanks, man. Part of it, for me, is the old thing where everybody loves it so much, that gets in the way of my appreciation. But it really doesn't have much more than just being a really great looking movie.

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  4. Great review! I haven't seen this one, I've thought about it from time to time, especially around the time when Nine came out.

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    1. Thanks! Probably all film lovers should see it, but I'm not sure it will do anything more than confirm that it's a great looking movie.

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  5. I saw 8 1/2 a few years ago and also started to fall asleep but i kept giving myself whiplash. This film is all visual to me but would I want to see it again? Like you...maybe but I think i would rather watch Dodgeball again than this film. Actually I find it snobby. I equate this film with those art pieces that the critics and so called art experts say is glorious but when i look at it, all I see is a white canvas with a red dot in the middle and think it's stupid. I then realize these are the same people who were tricked in thinking a modern piece of art was done by some famous artist. They rhapsodized about it until it was found out the art piece was done by an elephant! I am not kidding. I feel like these art house films are made this way and if we don't like it then we just don't know movies and we are looked at in disdain. I know this film is considered a masterwork but if we are all nodding off, then what does that say?

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    1. Lol. Great comment. You know? I think the real test would be to watch this film with someone...or even an audience. I watched it by myself. I would like to see a room full of people watch this film. It might enrich the experience by forcing me to stay awake and with it. Even so, I would most likely feel the way I feel about it. I straight don't like the main character, don't see anything in him that would make him a great artist, and I don't identify with any of his "problems." It's just a visual movie, like you said.

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  6. Nice review Kevin. Too bad you didnt like it that much because I actually love this film and think it's everything people say it to be. But respect your opinion, all your reservations are definitely valid.

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    1. Thanks. I can see why people love this. I just wasn't blown away by it.

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  7. I've always wanted to watch this, but I'm still working my towards it since I want to go backwards through the years in film. It's piqued my interest ever since they mentioned it in Ghost World. It was a scene where a guy was at a video store asking if they had a copy of 8 1/2 & the video store clerk looked it up & said "Yes, we have it! 9 1/2 Weeks with Mickey Rourke! That would be in our "Erotic Drama" section." I thought that was hilarious. But I will try to find the Criterion Blu-ray soon.

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    1. It's not hard to find. Criterion prints the hell out of Fellini's movies. It's like a rite of passage I never met...until now, and I'm not that impressed. Haha! Enjoy, man.

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    2. I might pick up the Criterion. Thankfully, Barnes & Noble is currently holding a 50% off Criterion sale, & there's a lot of Criterion movies I desperately need.

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  8. I'm SO SORRY it took me so long to read this. I keep putting it on my agenda and then...life...I tell you, but GREAT read buddy.

    You know that I love this, a great deal, but I can see where you are coming from with the chaos aspect. It's a jumbled film, but I feel the passion come through each layer because this was a film that obviously meant a great deal to Fellini. I can see his soul and is disparity and his obvious love for his craft even within the confines of frustration over the pressure. And Mastroianni is just brilliant, but he always was.

    Love that you draw the Woody Allen comparison. Allen (and even Altman) seem to have been heavily influenced by Fellini, and I love that. I personally think this topples over Annie Hall, but I love that film too so I can't hate on you preferring it.

    I will admit that the dubbing always annoys me with these films too, BUT I just love them so much that all their good qualities trump the annoying for me.

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    1. No problem, man. Thanks for taking the time to read it. And for your kind words.

      I think I could stand another watch now that I've made it through. And I appreciate the fact that this film is really meaningful for Fellini personally. I didn't connect with him though, Fellini or Guido. Allen's films really make me connect, mostly because of the humor. That's the difference.

      Thanks again, man.

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