“Because he doesn’t know how to love”
With the soon to be released Nine on its way, I had to finally dust off my Criterion DVD of Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 for a viewing (that musical is based on it). Besides all the praise lauded, I really had no idea what to expect. It only took about ten minutes or so to discover that we wouldn’t have Charlie Kaufman if it were not for this film, Fellini’s interpretation of his inner thoughts both creatively and personally road-blocked. Synecdoche, New York borrows a lot from this opus and Adaptation takes the rest. I say this not to demean anything Kaufman has made—I love both of those films—but instead to praise this Italian master for doing it almost fifty years earlier as well or better. The movie soon causes you to be disoriented in regards to what is real and what is imagined. Inventive transitions are connected by actions or thoughts in the scene, leading us through the mind of Guido Anselmi as he himself seeks answers to the chaos.
Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido is a stand-in for Fellini himself at a crossroads in his life and desperately trying to discover what it is he needs to do next. So many people have come and gone in his life—connections that he could have reached out and loved unconditionally—but all of whom he pushed away to create the isolated loneliness he despises. He can tell every one of his actresses, producers, and mistresses exactly what he feels, causing them to hate him and leave without a second thought. The one woman he truly cares for, however—his wife Luisa—is left in the dark. Throughout the film we see Guido whisper to himself about how much she means to him, but when in her company all he can do is lie or act disinterested. He is lost in life; unable to find true happiness and feeling bored by those surrounding him. It is a self-imposed torture that he can no longer run away from. Who else would invite both his mistress and his wife to the city he is filming in? Only a man looking to be cleansed of his demons would play with fire such as that. Guido just may not be strong enough to do it; sitting back and watching each opportunity pass him by.
Even the script doctor he hires to hopefully make some sense of the incoherently abstract script he has written cannot get through. His notes attempt to drive out the symbolism and personal moments that make no sense to an audience unknowing of his past, commenting on the memories that play for us as though we are watching the film he is about to begin shooting. I wonder if the notes he makes are real notes made on the script for 8 1/2. And that is the genius of the movie—what we are watching is the film the character is refusing to make. While Guido drags his feet—bringing every woman that has ever crossed his path back into his consciousness—we get to watch it all take place inside his head. His memories are what have been put on paper to eventually shoot, (although I’m still not sure where the spaceship comes into play besides maybe as an escape hatch to leave his true self behind), and they are shown to us as he remembers them. We see the first women in his life, his mother and nanny, give him a bath; his first glimpse of sexuality with La Saraghina’s full-figured Rumba; the chorus girls he bedded; his wife of which he has taken for granted; the mistresses he has used and thrown aside; and the actresses he has made perform for his films and possibly himself. This is a man who has treated women as objects at his disposal for as long as he remembers and the unfilmable movie he has written is a way to air out that dirty laundry.
What then becomes even more profound is that despite Guido’s inability to stand tall to make the film, (although he does let his wife view the screen tests as a way to tell her what has been happening without actually opening his mouth), Fellini himself did. The real director of 8 1/2 has made himself emotionally naked here, sharing with the world his mistakes and insecurities. Talk about a catharsis as art form, the underlying meaning to the film only makes the finished piece that much more astounding. It opens with our ‘hero’ being trapped in a glass box for all to see, a celebrity held up to immense scrutiny without any secrets attempting to break free only to find his foot tethered to the Earth and his producers who pay his way of survival. The vicious system is its own predatory circle of life that has barred him to serve more powerful people, himself a pawn in their games much like the women in his. Life is a system of power struggles and that I believe is at the forefront of this cautionary tale of ego. Even the actors, so excited to be working with a prolific auteur such as Guido, become impatient to learn what their parts and motivations are. They use agents to threaten for information and yet they still must wait until he is ready to let them into the loop.
It all culminates to an extended sequence in Guido’s mind of a world consisting of all the women he has ‘loved’ and the hierarchy to which they must adhere. He’s their master whipping them when they are out of line or insubordinate and they love him unconditionally despite his own feelings for them being fickle and ever-changing. Once you are too old you are sent to the upstairs never to be seen again except as a memory of younger times. It is a world created for his own comfort; a world he thought he had constructed in real life but only recently realized never existed anywhere besides in his head. Even the muse he imagined at the start—a shining face of youth amongst the cattle-driven lines of elderly folk at the day spa he is seeking treatments at—isn’t enough. Claudia Cardinale’s Claudia is sent for to be this angelic, fresh, new beginning, but her arrival in reality is not as he imagined it. Instead of the jumpstart to a new life, her youth and vitality only serve as a mirror to how broken and unloving he truly has become. She is the catalyst to finally end his lamenting and the prospect of this new film before finally accepting the people in his life are more than chess pieces he can move and discard whenever he feels.
The inventive camerawork at the hands of Fellini is stunning in its dream-like quality creating distinct divisions of place when we are in real time, Guido’s mind, or fantasy worlds. Compositionally precise, every frame is meticulously put together to draw our eyes in and trick them with quick edits seamlessly replacing actors and transitioning from scene to scene with the use of a common focal point. I was impressed early on when seeing an out-of-place woman washing nonexistent windows inside a hotel room soon being the static detail as we move scenery, watching her now wash the windows of our new locale. And the acting is fantastic as well, especially Mastroianni who must carry each and every scene. The women are beautiful and talented—Anouk Aimée’s Luisa morphing from quiet victim with her depressed, glasses-wearing face to the stunningly happy homemaker in his vision and Sandra Milo’s Carla flaunting her body like an archetypal mistress even though she herself is married. Everyone plays his/her role so as to continue Guido’s progression to the enlightenment of truth. The final scene’s destruction of the scaffolding built to bolster the lie as the people who have cared for him reenter for a farewell parade is the perfect footnote to a complex and intricate tale. This Fellini guy just may be as good as I’ve always heard.