Otto e mezzo
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 09 July 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
“From the start,” says a film critic in an early scene in 8 ½, “the action reveals a poverty of poetic inspiration.” He is responding to a screenplay given to him by an esteemed director. It is an indirect reference to the very scene the line is taken from. 8 ½ is widely regarded as Federico Fellini’s masterpiece, though it is an abstract admittance of failure. (The film, however, has few faults it does not itself admit — a benefit of a film containing its own critic).
Fellini’s prior La Dolce Vita placed him at the forefront of international art cinema. This success — as any in film — supplied its maker with the indomitable task of improvement. It is not presumptuous to state that directors desire for their catalogues to be progressively successful. La Dolce Vita occurs at a point early in Fellini’s career, suggesting, according to this prescription, that succeeding his prior film would be close to impossible.
Preproduction on what would become 8 ½ ensued regularly. There was a crew, a shooting date, cast actors, no script and no idea for the film. As this case displays, an artist’s fame can prove a prohibitive influence, as expectations following La Dolce Vita were reminders that with his next film Fellini was poised to disappoint.
This fear subsided easily as it was made the subject of 8 ½ — the number of the film in the sequence of Fellini’s catalogue. It is a film about the very crisis endured in its making, and is itself a work replete with autobiographic elements. 8 ½ is a statement of acknowledged failure that is itself a unique success.
A description of the film is redundant with knowledge of its foundation: a famous Italian film director, Guido, is busy in preproduction for a film in which he has little creative investment. The politics of his business are a contaminative agent: every member of his company is impatiently eager for details of the film, and Guido’s promises to supply them are so frequent they rob what time he would have to actually conceive the film.
8 ½ opens in a quintessential dream sequence: there is a traffic jam locked tight in the end of a tunnel. A man finds himself trapped inside his car. The windows and doors are locked, a toxic smoke emanates from air vents. The man pushes himself outside a window. Other drivers observe as he floats past them, freely, exiting the tunnel and ascending above them. The man soars above the world, linked to it by a tether attached to his ankle. The man is Guido, and is yanked down by his press agent. The image communicates that dreams bear the influence of reality, and for Guido yield no opportunity to escape, not even temporarily.
Guido awakens, commotion filling his ears (crossover voices, demands, and questions are constant throughout the film). He is met by his producers, his crew, and his screenwriter — all have questions. Fame, financial stability, and romantic variety are all rewards of his success as a director, and all provide distractions from his creative process.
His early dream is an action that mirrors his attempts to escape. There is a magnificent scene where Guido attempts to cross through a lobby of people, each eager to speak with him. When confronted he routinely spouts the same ambiguous promises, setting up his own distractions to end each brief conversation. He tilts his hat over his face, ducks and walks discreetly towards the nearest exit. He is recognized and the routine resets, repeating with little variation and in increasing frequency until the film’s end. Of course, the truth — that Guido has lost interest in making the film — would inspire massive disappointment and potentially disable his career.
There is a preeminent issue of truth in 8 ½. Guido’s dishonesty prolongs the admission of his disinterest, falsely leading the investment of everyone involved in the film. His relationships are marred by the same dishonesty. Guido has a wife, Luisa, with whom friendship has replaced their passionate, romantic bond. His mistress Carla (portrayed by Fellini’s actual mistress) is loud, childish, and obnoxious. Both women claim they are ignored, both want more attention, both are sources of discomfort Guido fails to avoid.
The film has all types of women: tall and short, light and heavy; all are routinely attractive. From each of these women Guido receives an aspect of his collective attraction to the female sex, though not one is singularly capable of fulfilling his entire interest. Variety is his preference, and it is an added detriment to the stability of his romantic life and his career.
In a later scene, during a lunch with Luisa, Carla appears. His wife announces her frustrated anger. In typical form, Guido fantasizes the two meeting and liking each other (in his vision the two dance during their conversation). The fantasy culminates in a famous harem sequence attended by women from Guido’s entire life. It ends, like all of his fantasies, in disarray: the women become enraged by his hypocritical rules for admission (there is an age limit he clearly violates). They revolt against him, and Guido attempts to suppress them with a whip.
The threat of truth contaminates Guido’s every fantasy and dream. He is surrounded by those who demand it, at the center of a trap of distractions from which he may not emerge without confronting at least a single member of the circle’s perimeter. He continues to bounce among his distractions, hiding his lack of inspiration.
There is a final opportunity to deliver the truth at a press conference held at a towering space rocket set (it is one of the few details given on Guido’s abandoned film). The tower is a massive latticework, and is like the film emblematic of both progress and incompletion. The film ends, however, in an abstract sequence: players from Guido’s film and life hold hands, form a circle, and parade around a circus ring. In this scene Guido is doubly present, as a boy and a man. The younger plays a flute and directs the circle around him. The older leads his wife and join the circle, for the first time comfortably inhabiting the background of the film.