Monday, December 14, 2009

Discussing 8 1/2, Part Two

Welcome to the second part of the conversation between Tim Brayton and myself about 8 1/2, in preparation for our discussions of the cast album of Nine, the musical version of it, and the film version of Nine, being released on the 25th of this month. You can find the first part here. (A reminder, I'm in italics, Tim's response is bold.)

Not being a filmmaker, my perspective on the film was more influenced by its view of Guido the man and his relationships, but your comments obviously get at something central that I didn't really address: it's a movie about making movies. Perhaps this makes it a movie that outsiders can never truly appreciate as much as insiders can (certainly there are plays that people who work in theatre love and civilians don't entirely connect with), though I did get quite a bit from it. (And I had sort of heard that the title relates to Fellini's career, but not exactly know how it worked, so I didn't mention it. I was also confused because the title of Nine means something entirely different, as we shall see.)

However, what that different viewpoint seems to mean is that we have very different opinions on the character of Guido.

You described him as a creative mind, stopped by outside forces from making the movie he wants to make. However, nearly all of the problems in his life are self-inflicted: his producer, actors, and crew are only pushing him because he is unable to give them any answers or a clear idea of where to go, and the women in his life don't seem to have a problem with his filmmaking--it's more that he treats them badly, whether meaning to or not. Nearly all of Guido's problems could be solved if he stepped up and took some responsibility.

Also, the film falls into the trap of portraying fictional artists, which is that it's hard to portray their art. And we never see Guido actually making a movie, or any pieces of his previous film; all we see are screen tests, giant set pieces under construction, and publicity events. All are important in a movie, but none are actually involved in shooting it--and he doesn't do any of them with particular engagement. We also see sections of his extraordinarily cinematic fantasies, but an overactive imagination does not a filmmaker make.

Now you could argue that Guido is Fellini, and 8 1/2 is the movie he was making, but this is still a fiction film, even if autobiographical, and the work of shooting a film is never shown onscreen.

Which leads to the fact that I think I view the story of this film in a fundamentally different way: I don't see it 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," but rather the story of an immature man forced to grow up. This takes nothing from the film--it's an exceptionally well done story of an immature man forced to grow up--but it does illuminate two different perspectives held by filmmakers and outsiders.

As for your comment that Milo (And I can't believe Fellini had the chutzpah to cast his mistress as his mistress. I shudder to imagine the conversation he had with his wife.) and Aimee's performances were incidental to Fellini and Guido's intentions: I think the movie might have gotten away from them. For me at least, Guido is enough of a cipher, and many of his actions thoughtless enough, that I had trouble truly identifying with him. He was fascinating to watch, but I never feel like I truly knew him. As a result the other characters took up a lot of my identification. Again, not a bad thing, but interesting to note.

So am I misreading the movie entirely, or is it elastic enough for multiple interpretations? And is there something else I should be commenting on but am not?

I think it's a dull movie indeed that only admits for one possible reading. And everything you say about Guido is perfectly true, particularly that he seems a bit of a cipher. To me, this fits in quite well with what I was arguing: someone who thinks about everything in cinematic terms would indeed come across as a bit bland and impersonal. Though I don't know that it's really quite the case that we don't get to know him all that well: we get to know the movie he wants to make, which is the most intimate thing there is about him.

The big disconnect between ourselves is, undoubtedly, that Guido's mind makes so much sense to me, as a nascent filmmaker. You correctly point out that the physical act of filmmaking never appears in 8½; only Guido thinking about the movie that he can't quite put into practice. At a certain level, this is exactly the point: it's a story about creative impotence. But I must disagree with you, that having an active imagination doesn't make him a filmmaker - visualisation is a very key part of the filmmaking process. Alfred Hitchcock is said to have hated being on set, because by the time his films entered production, he already knew exactly what they looked and sounded like, having executed the whole thing in his mind already, and he was already bored with the project by the time the cameras rolled.

Guido's problem is cowardice and indecision: he knows what he wants to make, but he also knows that it will reveal more of himself than he wants to reveal, and as we see throughout, he has a fundamental inability to share himself with others. It's never stated or even strongly implied, but I've always believed that he was terrified that if the film didn't work or was castigated by the critics, that would be proof that he, himself, has no merit as a person. You're probably right that most of his procrastination is self-inflicted, and looking back, I overstated what I meant by that: what I would rather have said is that, the constant pressure from everyone around him is making him defensive, which in turn makes it harder for him to find the necessary self-confidence to put his demons out for all the world to see. I certainly don't admire him and I don't want to indicate otherwise; but I understand his terror and reluctance. (I think your word "immature" is an appropriate one; but on the other hand, isn't immaturity a necessary part of being an artist? A mature person wouldn't have the need for other people's validation. And I say this as a wannabe filmmaker to a theater guy).

It's one big admission of guilt, I think: Fellini acknowledging all the sins he has committed in the name of pursuing filmmaking. Guido is arguably even worse: he commits all the same sins and doesn't even have anything to show for it, although it's at least possible that at the end of the film he has realised that he doesn't need to use cinema as a means of dealing with life, and on that argument, we could suppose that he stops being a film director after the end of the movie (that could certainly be what the last scene, with the dancers, symbolises). And in that respect, he'd actually be a better man than his creator, who did in fact keep making movies to work out his personal demons: his very next film, Juliet of the Spirits, was supposedly considered by no less an authority than his wife Giulietta Masina to be the director's way of dealing with his repressed homosexuality, just to name one example.

There's so much else to talk about, though: you touched on a bit of what made the music so outstanding in your first post, and I'd add that it lends a certain flair of the carnivalesque to the movie. I'm also a great fan of Gianni Di Venanzo's camerawork, with all of its gliding through and around sets; I sometimes feel like the camera is positioned as a predator animal, hunting around in search of its subject. And notwithstanding the conventions of Italian film sound, I think that you're right to point out the heightened effect of the sound; the most overt dream sequences most obviously, but there are a lot of strange and unexpected sound cues scattered about.

What about you? Any lingering observations on Guido's psychology, or other matters?

I think we've pretty well anatomized Guido's neuroses, and of course his identity as a filmmaker and as a man are inextricable. It's the desire to turn the people and world around him into the perfect aesthetic object that makes it so hard for them to relate to people honestly.

(To clarify one thing--I should have said that an overactive imagination is not enough to make a filmmaker. Plenty of people have vivid things in their head that never get into practice, and it doesn't make them great artists. Of course, the gap between intention an practice is a dramatic thing in many contexts, and one more thing applicable both to Guido as filmmaker and Guido as man.)

The cinematography is indeed gorgeous, though I’d leave it to you, the cinematography addict to explain why--I just don't have the technical background.

And as for the carnivalesque atmosphere of the music...well, we'll just use that as a segue to a different version of the story, told with more music, and a whole lot more focus on the women.

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