Monday, December 14, 2009

Discussing 8 1/2, Part One

Dear Readers,

Welcome to the first part of a collaboration between this blog and Antagony and Ecstasy, an excellent film blog written by the awesome Tim Brayton. In preparation for the upcoming release of the film version of the musical Nine, which is a movie based on Maury Yeston's 1982 musical which is based on Federico Fellini's 1963 film 8 1/2, we will be discussing movie, musical, and movie musical.

As for the film, it's a carnivalesque, dreamlike look inside the mind of Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), an Italian film director (based on Fellini himself), whose life is falling apart as he struggles to make a movie without knowing what movie he wants to make. Adding in his relationships with his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée), mistress Carla (Sandra Milo), and favorite star Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) makes for plenty of complication, especially when the film drifts into fantasy whenever things get too difficult.

Here we have the first part of our conversation about Fellini's film. (Tim and I are both rather long-winded writers, so I didn't want to dump our entire conversation in one post.) I am in italic, he's in bold.

So I finished 8 1/2 this evening. It's going to be a challenge to discuss it as itself, rather than comparing it to the musical, but I'll try. (There's lots to compare--as you'll see, Maury Yeston adapted the hell out of it.)

I had seen this film in college--maybe even freshman year?--but in the intervening time, I'd forgotten nearly all of it. And it remains the only Fellini film I've seen, though the next time I have 2 free hours at home I will watch that copy of La Strada you so graciously lent me.

I suppose a good place to start was how it compared to my expectations of "Fellini." The image I always had was of garish surrealism: clowns, painted women, general freakiness. While this film was certainly very far from realism, it was of a subtler variety. Sometimes it was simply "real" scenes filmed in such a way that they seemed surreal: a shot of a long line of people, all moving forward in step, to "The Ride of the Valkyries" is revealed to be a line of people at a spa in line for the healing waters, while a band plays Wagner. (That was one of many "wow" moments in the film.) Of course there are also dream sequences--the initial traffic jam is quite creepy, and the dream near the end of the house of women is amazing--but it's not the kind of aggression that I expected.

In fact, to me, the least realistic, and most striking formal element of the film was the use of sound. First off there is Nino Rota's score, which I know you've discussed quite admiringly. It walked the line all film scores have to walk very successfully--setting the mood without telling us exactly what we're supposed to feel at every moment. The fact that it's really quite beautiful and catchy on its own merits is just gravy.

But even more striking is how often the sound heightens the mood of unreality. Often the mix will put forward just one element of the sound--the traffic jam dream is silent but for Guido's breathing for instance--or the music from one scene will come in several seconds before the scene itself. Frequently in a conversation, the focus will be on the person not speaking--a fight between Guido and his wife Luisa, focused largely on their backs, comes to mind. At a few points, sound all but disappears. (Another element that worked with this is the fact that the dialogue frequently seemed out of sync with the mouth movement, but apparently that was a convention of Italian film in general that Tim can explain far better than I.) It's this manipulation of an element we take for granted that for me is the most fascinating way the film plays with the boundaries of reality.

As for the acting, four performers stand out. The first is Sandra Milo, as Guido's mistress, Carla. She's vulgar and shallow, yes, but genuinely touching by the end--a real, good woman, who deserves better. Claudia Cardinale, as movie star Claudia, could just sit there being beautiful and do just fine--she's a stunning woman. But she also brings a reserved intelligence and grace that make the character a fascinating foil to Guido's abstraction. And Anouk Aimée as Luisa is magnetic--her slow-burning fury at Guido's constant lies and betrayal is very moving, and she's one of the few able to break through his determinedly cool exterior.

Marcello Mastroianni, as Guido, has of course the largest and most difficult role: this is a man who doesn't know what or who he wants, genuinely cares for the women in his life even as he hurts them, and never really lets anyone see what's inside him. Mastroianni does a masterful job of holding back what's inside, only showing us flashes of what's boiling underneath. Making such a passive and indecisive character so interesting to watch, without ever making him particularly likable, is quite an achievement. Also, though he has a reputation as a sex symbol, I was quite impressed by how unglamorous the role was--Mastroianni seemed more harried and stressed than anything else.

The themes? Well that's rather larger than I really care to tackle, or even feel equipped to. The inability of men to grow and make up their minds is certainly central, lest you think that Judd Apatow invented it. The influence of the Catholic Church is also central. I'm not sure what the giant scaffolding and spaceship were meant to represent, aside from the huge cost of Guido's fecklessness. And as for what actually happens at the end...I'm not foolish enough to claim to know. It's utterly fascinating to watch, though. And am I off base to see an echo of the end of The Seventh Seal (one of the few other mid-century foreign classics I've actually seen) in the dancers all holding hands?

Those are a few thoughts, and I'm sure I'll have more as I think about it. Any reactions to them?

Thanks for having me, Zev. And thanks to your readers for being patient while we take a look at some cinema, and not Chicago theatre.

Beginning with one of the last things you brought up, which is the theme of the movie: one of the key elements about the film and the reason that so many movie people like it (everyone I've ever known who completely adores the movie is or was or wishes to be in film production), is that 8½ is a movie about filmmaking as a mental process, like virtually nothing else in history. You didn't mention, so perhaps you don't know, but the title refers explicitly to the film's place in Fellini's career: he had directed six features, co-directed a feature and contributed two shorts to anthology films, so counting these latter three projects as one-half each, this was his eighth-and-a-half movie as director.

The story of the movie is exactly the story of how it was produced: Fellini was trying to put together a big-budget epic without having the slightest idea what he story he wanted to tell, and he was getting increasingly lost at sea; so to work out his problems, he wrote the story of a film director who had a costly epic and no idea what plot he was spending so much money on. It is often noted that the movie Guido can't make is the movie that Fellini makes for him: all the events that Guido merely thinks about, Fellini successfully dramatizes.

I like to think of this as the exploration of a creative mind forced to think about any number of distracting things outside of the creative process, and the frustration that it brings. All Guido wants to do is to make a movie, but the producers, his woman troubles, the pressure of the church, any number of things keep jockeying for his attention, and he's only able to fantasize about the kind of movie he wants to make - and thus the surrealism you point out. The reason that the film keeps drifting from pretty straightforward realism to more archly stylised moments is because the only thing that Guido can do to keep himself from going completely mad is to imagine how this or that particular moment in his real life might be turned into a cinematic moment. Most of the movie, I think, takes place inside his head; at any rate, there is literally not a single shot that isn't ultimately from his perspective. I think you're correct to note that Milo (Fellini's real-life mistress!) and Aimée give sensitive performances that flesh out their characters, but I don't think that Guido or Fellini especially cares that they do; to the director (either one), they are just objects in the grand cinematic project of one man's life. The great understanding that Guido comes to at the end is when he realises that his wife is actually a human being who can contribute something of value to his life, and not just an obstacle to his moviemaking.

And yet, the way I read the final scene is that Guido/Fellini, having realised that his life is full of people and not characters, still can't give up the essential need to direct every aspect of his life and every person he knows (and as a sometime film director, I can vouch that one of the most irritating things is that you can't yell "cut!" and have everyone around you do just what you want in reality). He is, after all, directing every single person we see him interact with over the course of the movie in one grand spectacle, completely under his command. Still, at the very end, he steps into that ring of people, perhaps finally acknowledging that he's just one of them. It's both an arrogant and a humble moment, and probably the part of the movie that speaks the most to me as a filmmaker. Does it echo The Seventh Seal? Maybe: both films use dance as a metaphor for life, and they do it in a similar visual way. But I doubt that Fellini was consciously pinching from Bergman.

A quick historical note: you are correct that 8½ lacks the grotesques that Fellini is famous for; this was actually his transitional film from the neo-realism that he was trained in, to the most fantastic, imaginative tableaux of Juliet of the Spirits, Satyricon, and Amarcord. He'd already begun that process with his previous feature, La Dolce Vita, but it was only here, in a film about the creative mind's desire to break free of realistic constraints, that he began to indulge himself. Whether that's a good thing or not, is hard to say - for every moment in Satyricon that works, two don't.

As for the peculiar use of non-synced sound, that's just a convention of Italian cinema: the famous Cinecittà studio where nearly everyone in the Italian industry learned their trade used to be right next to an airbase, so it became the standard practice to record visuals and then overdub the audio later, even years after it was no longer a practical necessity. Some filmmakers, and Fellini was a notable example, didn't even have a script written: he just had the actors move their mouths, and then wrote lines for them to read later on. Obviously there are a lot of ways that this has an impact on the finished product, but it doesn't do to read too much into it; it's the same in just about every single Italian movie made into the mid-1980s.

Check back later today for the rest of the discussion, and some time next week for thoughts on Yeston's musical!

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