An Appreciation – 8½
All art – at a certain level – is a reflection of ego. Film might be the most powerful example of this idea. Through image and sound, we see an artist’s thoughts, feelings, fears, desires, and hidden secrets illuminated on the screen. We see the world through a filmmaker’s eyes. The best movies transport us into the shoes of its characters, causing us to go through their experiences for a few short hours. And even when the credits roll and we walk out not convinced by the themes presented to us, if we are able to understand where the artist is coming from, whether right or wrong, then that shows cinema working at its highest potential.
Federico Fellini’s Italian masterpiece, 8½ (1963) is not only one of the best films about filmmaking, but it successfully portrays the passions, contradictions, and pressures of being an artist. It’s a story about ego in how it can build a person up to notoriety but can also deconstruct them into an extreme existential crisis. Make no mistake: Fellini (who writes and directs) crafted this as an examination of himself. This is his 8½ feature (the “½” coming from his short film work), and in it he tells the story of Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), a beloved director struggling to complete his most recent project: an epic sci-fi adventure.
Guido has lost all inspiration to finish the film. Throughout, we find him searching for a creative spark that will help him push forward. However, his artistic ambitions are clouded by the chaos that comes from a big budget endeavor. He constantly gets questions and requests from his writers, producers, and actors, as well as from the press and public all wanting a piece of his mind. He spends much of his time deflecting, either making promises he can’t keep or simply not addressing the questions at all. Instead of working on set he stays at a nearby resort, doing everything he can to find the honesty he has let slip through his fingers.
How does one find creativity when the passion is no longer there? In the opening scene, we witness a dream sequence in which Guido finds himself stuck in a traffic jam. Suddenly, he gets lifted into the air, flying high above everyone. But then, his leg gets roped by a person on the ground, tugging at him until he comes crashing back to Earth. The scene is bold and dramatic, and is a perfect illustration of the kind of predicament Guido is in. All he wants is to escape and feel free, but his obligation to the production restricts him from that freedom.
As a result, Guido retreats into his own fantasies and memories, dreaming about his entire life from his parents, his childhood, and most especially his experiences with women. These scenes are a combination of Guido’s nostalgia and exaggeration. In all likelihood the events we see did not happen in reality but are rather the result of his imagination running away from him. The further into the plot we go, the deeper his fantasies become. Are we watching Guido slowly turn mad? That answer is not entirely clear, but we do have a case where a character has lost his inner self, allowing it to spill out and wreak havoc on his real life.
Perhaps no other filmmaker in history had the kind of striking approach toward imagery than Federico Fellini. Cinema is a form that operates through emotion, best triggered through moving images. As Fellini’s career continued, he veered away from the neo-realism that populated mid 20th century Italian films, and toward a style that relied heavily on symbolism, experimentation, and the abstract. We started to see it one picture earlier, in La Dolce Vita (1960), with shots of a Christ statue flying over Rome or Anita Ekberg jumping into a water fountain. But it’s with 8½ where this technique came into full fruition, dominating the rest of Fellini’s career. He cared less about stark reality and more on dreamscapes to get his point across. This would lead him to make some of his finest work and perhaps some of his most forgettable, but there is no denying that this creative turn gave him a voice completely separate from others, known as “Felliniesque.”
All throughout the narrative, Fellini maintained a constant juggling act between what is real and what is a dream. There’s a continuous emphasis on symbolism and metaphor. Gianni Di Venanzo’s camerawork glides through scenes, often panning from one side to another. The frame will follow a person far off in the background, and as it moves left or right, we pass other characters in close up. When Guido imagines an ideal vision of a woman, the shot will cut to her as though she were walking on air. Set pieces are placed in wide open spaces so characters can move freely. During an outdoor dinner party where a magic act performs, the space is so open that the performers interact with the crowd by shouting across the way. Dream sequences are marked with voiceover, not to describe what we are seeing but as a reflection of Guido’s thoughts and memories. Certain characters feature over the top make up, making them almost like a clown in a circus act.