This Week’s Movie: 8 1/2

Just like every movie-related blog over the last few months, I’m going to give you a link to this GQ article by Mark Harris. Its basic premise is that movie studio executives, most of whom grew up in the era of Simpson/Bruckheimer movies exemplified by Top Gun, don’t want to make movies anymore. They want to create brands, franchises which can be instantly marketed to all four “quadrants” (young, old, men, women) so that their enormous advertising expenses can be recovered at the box office. The article points out that the sexy R-rated drama An Officer and a Gentleman was a summer movie, which would be nigh-unthinkable today.

In short, it’s not an environment where a movie like Frederico Fellini’s 8 1/2 gets made. I’m still trying to figure out what that means.

As a devoted reader – you might even say “fanboy” – of Roger Ebert, I thought that 8 /12 was universally beloved. I was surprised to read his Great Movies essay on the film, in which Ebert calls it “the best film ever made about filmmaking” but also acknowledges that many critics don’t agree. 8 1/2 is hard to take in and even more difficult to understand, but then so are Ulysses and The Sound and The Fury. Brilliance can be like that. My issue is that, while 8 1/2 was a great film, I can’t decide how brilliant it actually was.

The subtitles and end credits will tell you that the great Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni plays a film director named Guido Anselmi, but don’t you believe it. He’s playing Frederico Fellini. Guido seems to be making some kind of science-fiction movie, but don’t you believe that. The film is actually Guido’s/Fellini’s autobiography, which he uses both as a love letter to his wife and a justification of why he considers affairs with seemingly every woman he meets. The script suggests that Guido has some kind of writer’s block delaying the film, but don’t believe that either. The real problem is that Fellini’s got too many ideas, and not even he is sure what they mean, which leads to the movie’s many surreal fantasy sequences.

Part of the reason that 8 1/2 was not universally beloved is that it’s very slow-moving. There is some degree of dramatic tension, most of it provided by Anouk Aimee as Luisa, Guido’s wife. However, it’s not exactly clear what all of that tension is building toward. You get the vague idea that the completion of Guido’s movie hangs in the balance, and maybe his marriage too, but the minute any complications come up in the real world the movie dives headfirst into the next fantasy sequence. There’s clearly a message there about Fellini’s desire to run away from reality by making movies, but it’s not easy to follow, and there were more than a few reports of Movie Klubbers falling asleep during the film.

Even with all that in mind, the movie can seem insightful at times, even prescient. I didn’t mention Harris’ article just for the hell of it; many sequences in 8 1/2 suggest that Fellini faced a lot of the same problems in his day. During one fantasy sequence, Guido’s producers are desperate to sell the film with a giant cocktail party on the film’s huge spaceship set, and the media pesters Guido with so many irrelevant questions that he commits suicide. Harris’ article claims that the two worst states of being in the current Hollywood are to be over 30 and to have a vagina; another fantasy sequence makes it clear that it’s not much different in Guido’s world. Fellini may not have to make the third film in a comic-book series, but fame and money have warped his showbiz experience just as surely as they warp Christopher Nolan’s.

Here’s my problem with 8 1/2: it’s incredibly self-centered. Fellini is pulling the audience aside and trying to tell us what is in his head and why he makes movies to let it out, and the results are compelling. But film, like all art, does not exist in a vacuum. There’s always an audience to look at it after its creation. This movie does not seem to be concerned with Guido’s audience at all, or by extension Fellini’s. At first I was happy to take a little trip into Fellini’s mind, but after awhile I got sick of hearing about how the movie-making process was all about him. The man clearly understands art’s ability to sway people’s opinions, but that aspect of film isn’t really present here at all. This is not a new problem with “movies about the movies” – I disliked Barton Fink for the same reason – but I was hoping that Fellini would be enough of a master to get around it. He wasn’t.

I don’t agree with a lot of Harris’ article, but I do agree that currently Hollywood seems tragically short of imagination. I would kill for a movie in 2011 to challenge me as much as 8 1/2 did. It’s innovative and packed to the gills with creative imagery. It has a lot to say about the power of memory, and of film to evoke (and in some cases revise) memory. But when I read the film’s Wikipedia entry I was surprised to find that a British Film Institute poll in 2002 put it as the 3rd best film of all time. For me, it was more like the 30th best: a fantastic movie, but lacking that special something to make it one of my favorites.

Reviewed by Mark Young


About movieklubny

We're a group of about 30 friends who gather once a week, watch movies, and talk about them.
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2 Responses to This Week’s Movie: 8 1/2

  1. Liz says:

    Mark, have you seen Fosse’s All that Jazz? It’s the first thing I ever showed at movie klub and owes a tremendous debt to 8 1/2. Like Fellini, Bob Fosse was egomaniacal, self indulgent, and an unrepentant skirt chaser. But god I Iove that movie.

  2. movieklubny says:

    Liz, I haven’t seen ALL THAT JAZZ. There was someone else at Movie Klub who was saying the same thing after 8 1/2 was over (might have been your husband, in fact).

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