November 20, 2009 / Filmwell
Moving past the “inspiration” film to the unsanitized story.
(Join Jeffrey Overstreet and Michael Leary as they discuss the Top Ten films from the recent Sight & Sound Greatest Films poll.)
JO: Michael, thanks for recommending that we set out on this ambitious ten-movie journey. I’m glad we’re starting out with 8 ½. I feel like we could spend a whole year discussing it, but we’ve got nine great films ahead of us in this discussion.
ML: There are a few on the list that I am dreading, and a few that I am looking forward to revisiting. 8 ½ is one of those I have wanted to return to for a while, but it is even more interesting to do this together. I hope others join in via comments as we go along.
JO: 8 ½… Where to begin? How about the beginning. The film opens with a horrifying dream sequence – a man trapped in a car in a rush hour that resembles Night of the Living Dead. And I was immediately drawn in.
ML: These first shots are a marvel of camera placement and movement. I kept rewatching this sequence, trying to sort out how they were able to position the camera in such a tight space as it sweeps across the traffic in every direction. The whole scene lacks any plane. Up and down, back and forth. And then, free from the car, he makes a transcendental beeline out of the scene. In Salmon Rushdie’s recent New Yorker piece he recalls Amis describing his instant notoriety as “vanishing on the front page.” This is a good approximation of the shock we feel in this intro. It is a very modern form of shock, isn’t it? Our identities, especially those of the artist or pop culture hero, have become a valuable public commodity. In his dream, he is able to shrug off that insanity – even if just for a moment. The edit between his escape and the following shot of the rope tethering him to his fame may be his one moment of respite in the entire film.
JO: You’d expect him to show an escape—even a dream sequence escape—at the end of the film. But by starting with it, he accentuates the increasingly claustrophobic quality of the rest of the movie. Guido seems truly trapped, by the press, by the women in his life, by the rigid moralism he perceives in the church, and by his own habits.
Recently, I’ve found myself struggling in my creative endeavors, and that opening scene showed me images that felt familiar. They “rang true” in an emotional way. I wouldn’t call it “writer’s block.” I’d describe it as a kind of paralysis, or a kind of starvation, during which attention from outside, emotionally demanding relationship troubles, a sense of homelessness, and the demands of the “business” side of art all conspire to distract, fragment, and exhaust the artist’s energy. He cannot rest, he’s misunderstood, he’s exploited, and yet he goes on inviting more and more chaos into his life. He turns to the church out of instinct, but finds only the same cold, dry legalism that seemingly drove him away. He turns to women, but finds only frivolous and fragmenting distraction.
I wouldn’t compare myself to Fellini, of course; I’m not a famous artist or a celebrity. But I’ve found that even a modest level of success can be the worst thing for a creative person.
ML: The moment at the end of the film where he describes the stress of taking every opportunity available for fear of missing something important… That is something I can identify with. There is one spot where I think he gets a glimmer of a way out, which is that lengthy flashback to his first memory of women as sexual objects. He and his school chums are watching a large, outlandishly curvaceous woman dance on the beach. They are busted by the fathers, but only little Guido is caught. In a set of frames straight out of Joan of Arc, he is forced to wear a dunce cap back into class.
This flashback is posed as a representation of his experience of the Catholic Church. He is confused. Why is what he witnessed on the beach “a deadly sin”? As an adult, this confusion has taken an aesthetic shape. Why is he not able to translate these fundamental experiences of life, spirituality, and love into film? That is all he really wants to do. These images and memories keep bubbling up, but no one is willing to accept them as legit creative urges because they are not financially viable or philosophically interesting.
JO: I felt a lot of sympathy for Guido as the film unfolded. Here he is, expected to deliver on a project in which many people have invested, and he is bound up in the snares of business, of a “mid-faith crisis” (he has left the church, but he is clearly haunted by a sense of Sacred Mystery… you might say “the Holy Spirit”), of his own promiscuity. While I cannot say that I relate to his problems with women – for better or worse, I’ve never had crowds of women competing for my attention – I could easily see the women representing the various opportunities that do compete for my attention, that divide my loyalties, that distract me from committing my intellect and imagination to a vision.
For Guido, the good is clearly the enemy of the best here. And I’m inclined to see “the best” as his wife Luisa, who has every right to be as monstrously angry as she is in this film.
ML: She certainly does. I think Guido does too. The nature of his crisis is curious. Films that depict personal crisis tend to make things simple for us by linking one key emotion: despair, regret, etc… with one set of events or experiences. A divorce drives a man to grapple with a feeling of inadequacy. The death of a child forces a mother to wrestle with loneliness. But this is not how things actually happen. In real life, we are all constellations of feelings and emotions that are hard to pin down, and we are not always sure where they are coming from.
This film really gets that. It is an honest film because it doesn’t attempt to fix Guido or explain his malaise. Toward the end, Guido says: “I wanted to make an honest film, with no lies of any kind… I thought my ideas were so simple. That would help us to bury all that is dead inside us.” While Guido’s attempt fails, it seems that Fellini’s hasn’t. When Guido’s wife shows up, everything starts to get a bit Certified Copy, doesn’t it? Guido’s “divided loyalties” begin emerging in the film as digressions and fantasies. It becomes harder to tell where Fellini is drawing the fantasy line at times.
JO: Yeah, it does. But I was surprised at how much was plausibly “realistic.” It’s been about 20 years since I’ve seen 8 1/2, and I realized that my first impressions had all been wrong. I remembered it being primarily surreal and confusing. This time, even the fantasies made a lot of sense to me.
Further, I remembered it being an expression of despair and meaninglessness, but this time it felt more like a confession in which the artist exposes his own guilt and acknowledges his own helplessness to save himself. Like a modern Ecclesiastes, he seems to feel that all is vanity, but only because he has squandered the blessings given to him. He has allowed himself to accept the adulation of a world whose affections are questionable at best, and at worst, for sale.
ML: The last scene in the spa reminded me of the spaceship in Wall-E. He is here at this place of healing, but all the steam and mineral water are mere placebo. The film is not mere self-criticism, it is the indictment of a culture that makes people like Fellini possible. Right at the end he is picked up by the real movie star that has come to audition for the film. They are sitting in the car together and he begins to narrate a scene for her. Fellini sets it up so that his face is hidden in shadow while hers is brightly lit. She then traipses off, acting out his narration. This composition gives us the impression that he has disappeared from the film, escaped or trapped in the ideas he has been acting out for us. A truly harrowing moment.
JO: Yeah, that scene came as a shock to me for a couple of reasons. First, he’s unable to seize this particular temptation… the one we’ve been anticipating through the whole film. And second, this mediocre talent he discovers is played by the same actress who embodied purity and grace earlier in the film. (By the way, that shot of his “dream girl” making up the bed for him early in the film… those moments were breathtaking. So beautifully lit.)
I have no argument with anyone including this in Top 10 of All-Time list. I assume you’ve seen it more than once. Did it show you something new this time?
ML: Yes. This time I picked up on a theme about revealing and disclosing things. Starting with the introduction we have talked about, the camera is very loose. The depth of field is typically deep focus. The camera itself does a lot of moving, observing, and searching in each scene. In addition, the actors are typically looking out of the frame rather than at each other or something within the frame, which is a very complex and disorienting effect. There is much within the film that we as the audience can’t see, even if we know that the actors can.
And then there are many moments which involve the unveiling of figures or faces. A hat covers a woman’s face until the last moment, and then her eyes and smile dawn upon us. In another shot a woman’s profile is shrouded by sheer cloth until she tilts it back across the frame. His wife with glasses and without. In housemaid garb and not. The large woman begins to show up in his fantasies again.
Taking these two formal elements together, Fellini seems to be evoking his or Guido’s inability to see things properly. Every now and then a glimmer of something breaks through. But then we are quickly shuttled back to the constant circus which is this film. There is something almost Gospel of John-like about his formal use of light and darkness, revelation and concealment.
JO: For me, it’s a measure of great art that it shows you something new every time you visit it. I never expected to arrive at this conclusion, but contrary to my first impressions, I now see 8 1/2 as an inspiring engagement with questions about faith, art, and even marriage.
Moreover, I find it to be one of the most consistently enthralling works of cinematography I’ve ever seen. For an artist who depicts himself as being burned out, he seems to be having a world of fun behind the camera and in the editing room.
ML: Every generation we hear a director say that movies need to die so that cinema can begin. This seems to be what is happening at the end. But what do you make of it? You have talked much about the film as a confession. What is happening with the band, and the actors, etc…?
JO: I’m not sure I’ll ever be confident in my interpretation of this film’s conclusion. And that may have pleased Fellini, because he seems at a loss himself. His past work, his reputation, his relationships — they’ve become a burden crushing his ability to dream. All that’s left is to tear it down and, as Bono said in the last U2 concert between Rattle & Hum and their Achtung Baby, “dream it all up again.”
Would anything but a self-effacing laugh make sense as a conclusion to this, his confession, his testament to his own contradictions, hypocrisies, failures, and self-imposed imprisonment? Joining hands with the circus performers and dancing in a circle, he’s surrendering with a sigh that recalls the last words of The Book of Ecclesiastes.
Then again, so many people are seeking to blame him or manipulate him, to demand genius and then ridicule his ideas. Maybe he’s just teasing his critics here. That hellish press conference near the end recalls Bob Dylan’s incredulity toward the press in “Ballad of the Thin Man” … a connection that resurfaces in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, when a Dylan press conference is stylized like a scene from 8 ½. Here, at the end of a masterpiece sure to confound self-appointed authorities on art, Fellini concludes by joining the circus to which they’ve consigned him. A martyr for the cause.
Which brings us to Movie #9 on the list: The Passion of Joan of Arc.
ML: Well played.