Monday, March 26, 2007

Movie Chat: 8 1/2

8 1/2

1. The part of me that likes to make lists tells me that if I'm going to be revisiting Fellini, I should do it in some kind of order. Like, working my way, one-by-one through his 1950s films, following up La Strada with The Swindle (which I've never seen) and Nights of Cabiria (which I've seen but recall hazily, at best). Heck, if I was serious, starting with La Strada was all wrong: I should have gone back to Variety Lights.

2. It is this part of me - the part that thinks I shouldn't even be watching 8 1/2 yet in the first place - that has the most negative reaction to the movie: "It's excessive. It's self-indulgent. More than that, it practical defined self-indulgence for an entire generation of filmmakers and film buffs. At best, it's an interesting historical artifact: maybe not the first, but one of the earliest, most famous, and largest scale examples of a filmmaker who has decided that of all the possible subjects for a movie, He, the filmmaker himself, is the most fascinating."

3. But that part of me doesn't get the last word. It didn't get the first word, either: after all, I did follow up La Strada with 8 1/2. First, what's wrong with a little excess? Especially when it comes to moviemaking. I mean, even a small scale movie requires large scale doses of effort and ambition, not to mention the money. We're watching images projected on a 15 foot high screen (or, in my case, images that we imagine should be projected on a 15 foot high screen): the art form itself seems to cry out for excess! Second, maybe Fellini had earned the right to be self-indulgent. Not only in terms of "putting in the time" and "mastering the basics", but also earning it that he really knows how to use symbolism in film (his images are full of meanings, but not locked into one, reductive meaning), and he has a strong enough sense of staging and composition and enough of a mastery over tone and mood to be able to pull it off. Third, really, how fair is it, in this case, to blame the father for the sins of the children? Maybe the most damming thing I can think of about 8 1/2 is that it inspired other filmmakers to obsess (narcissistically?) over themselves and to attempt (naively?) to make use of Fellini's brand of unrestrained symbolism.

4. Maybe this is a good place to bring up my first and, prior to this viewing, only experience with 8 1/2, which was also the first Fellini movie I ever saw. I was in 10th Grade, my family had just that year moved to a big city from a very small town, and for the first time in my life I had access to a truly great video store. At that point, my favorite director was (probably) Woody Allen (although that really depended on the day: Frank Capra and Robert Altman were up there, too), and after seeing (and being confused by) Stardust Memories and reading that it was his "Fellini movie", I decided I needed to see 8 1/2 itself. I remember only two things from that viewing: the early image of the people on the beach flying Guido like a kite and the final sequence where everyone shows up at the sci-fi movie set. Otherwise, I must not have enjoyed it very much, since I didn't see another Fellini movie until I had to watch I Vitelloni for a film class. Of course, I would have been 14 or 15 years old: it's not surprising that I wouldn't know what to make of something like 8 1/2 when I didn't even know what to make of Stardust Memories?

5. Does he let himself off the hook at the end? Kind of, even though, through most of the movie he seems clear-eyed about his own hang-ups and failings. Maybe that's the most damning thing about the movie, that in the end, the lesson that everyone else has to learn is to try to accept Guido as he is. But it's interesting that in what is almost the very first entry of this genre (the professional/personal filmmaker autobio, the movie-about-me-making-a-movie), its biggest "problem issue" is staring me right in the face.

6. I'm reminded in a way of Michael Blowhard's recent essay on Inland Empire. Is 8 1/2 the movie that marks the change from "we're going to this Fellini movie because we hope it will be a beautiful, moving, literary, work of cinematic art" to "we're going to this Fellini movie because we want to experience Fellini's world view"? In general, I'm ambivalent (at best) about this whole "world view" thing. On the one hand, some directors can make it work, as Fellini does here and David Lynch does in, say, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive. On the other hand, when you and how you see the world becomes your only subject (or at least your dominant subject) you risk a kind of creative stagnation. After all, what's likely to provide more fertile material for arts and culture: the set of all objects that includes only you or the set of all objects that includes everything in the universe except for you?

7. I love the staging in this movie: it's not only impressive, in terms of choreographing and coordinating the large cast, but it's extremely evocative, in the way Fellini uses it to weave together the different strands of reality, fantasy, past, and present. A lot of the movie's distinctive feel - it's sense of overlapping levels of reality and fantasy - comes from Fellini's use of complicated blocking and camera movements: most filmmakers would use editing when attempting the same effects. And I love the locations and sets: the hotel, the wide-open courtyard at the spa, the "launch pad". They're memorable partly because, despite all the fantasy elements of the movie, Fellini treats them with the same kind of respect and with the same sense of place that he brought to his neo-realist movies: they aren't just a backdrop for his fantasies and auto-biographical psychodrama.

8. Despite my quibbles, I have a great deal of respect for 8 1/2: I get the sense that Fellini was jumping into the unknown and, even if he tries to hedge his bets a little (by, say, having the writer character preemptively criticize the film for its excessive and confusing symbolic flourishes), I admire his courage. So far, I'm having fun watching these Fellini movies. 8 1/2 is the latest of his movies that I've ever seen and I'm looking forward to jumping into the later movies, even though I've heard all about how the excess and self-indulgence gets even "worse".

8 1/2. But maybe, what really makes it work for me is that throughout it all, Fellini never loses his sense of show biz. End it all with a big dance number? But of course...

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