There are several different issues of Fellini's 8½ available, but the quality varies wildly. As others have noted, Nouveaux's PAL disc has almost illegible subtitles and offers a poor presentation: on the other end of the scale, Criterion's remastered 2-disc NTSC edition is quite outstanding (though be careful not to confuse it with their earlier single-disc edition).
The film itself is not to all tastes, and sadly not quite to mine. For the most part 8½ left me cold, one of those films where you get what is being done but it's just not on your wavelength. It's pointless to complain about it being hit-and-miss or confused, since erratic confusion is the nature of the beast as Fellini becomes possibly the first man to film his own nervous breakdown (or at very least his crisis of creativity). In many ways the turning point in Fellini's career where fantasy and grotesquery would become an increasing part of increasingly disjointed phantasmagorias with a design style as cluttered as a tart's dressing table, there are moments that strike home and the latter scenes with his wife and with Claudia work because there's a sense of self-awareness of Fellini's limitations not just as an artist but as a human being. But overall I was just left with the feeling that I'd got on the wrong train by mistake.
(Incidentally, to strike a timely note, it's amusing to note that the producer's brainless bimbo girlfriend is the spitting image of Paris Hilton!)
It's a shame Criterion's otherwise excellent 2-disc DVD couldn't locate the deleted sequences, although they are well represented in the excellent stills galleries. Alongside the 50-minute 'Director's Notebook' documentary TV special by Fellini, the 45-minute German Nino Rota documentary is interesting and has a wonderful moment where the composer accepts a proffered cigarette only to turn down a light because he doesn't smoke!
on 11 January 2005
Bravo Guido! Welcome to the wacky world of 8 and a half! Fellini goes less overboard than in his stranger works (Satyricon) and yet harder to decrypt than the more famous La Dolce Vita. Guido, a loveless and forlorn, yet suave and sophisticated film maker, played with amiable genius by Marcello Mastroianni, is surrounded by adoring females, desperate for a word, a part in his movies, some acceptance or completion for their longing. He in turn is stuck with an unmakeable film, against a ravishing backdrop of 1960's health-spa Italia, his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée) joining him half-way along to add yet more casual Italian high-chic and designer angst, and more jealousy and pathos. Is this great and memorable film really about making movies? Or something more profound? We are treated to ravishing entertainments, a bewildering montage of images, including the extraordinarily cynical and mournful demolition of the Catholic Clergy and their role - yet the movie remains for all that strangely elusive. Perhaps it's about Italy, about modernity and the struggle for meaning. Perhaps it's about childhood and it's effect on the adult. Guido is obsessed with memories of the kindness he had from the women who looked after him in a pre-war orphange - but then he's also obviously untroubled and cheerful. Every now and then, the characters break out of their misery and do a little dance to themselves - look out for one of the sexiest moments in cinema when Aimee does this - yet the music track, full of circus and decadence, suggests decay and despair more than light and lively. The real problem with this, as with other Fellini movies, is the lack of guidance. Guido cannot guide us as to meaning, because he does not know himself; and we are supposed to just sit back and absorb the cinematic experience. But we cannot, because like all cinema audiences, we need something more, some revealed truth, which is more than the moment-by-moment shifting sands of Fellini's complex dances with meaning. Magnificent stuff, but ultimately deeply flawed.
The DVD is not particularly great, quality is about the same as taped versions and there are no special features. The subtitles are still sometimes annoyingly invisible against Fellini's startling white backgrounds.
on 9 March 2005
"Fellini's 8½" is an autobiography of the creative consciousness, an exploration of mind and memory, and a cautionary tale for the would be film-maker, writer, or artist. Made when he had completed eight feature films and was half way into his ninth, "8½" is a confessional work. Marcello Mastroianni plays the part of Guido, film director and superstar, a man everyone wants to know, a man everyone wants to impress ... a role Fellini knew only too well.
Guido is trapped. Everyone expects his next film to be even greater than his last, but the director is experiencing a crisis of creativity. This is writer's block, delivered to the big screen in black and white, the blank page filled with the moving images of angst. An intensely personal experience, the director's pain is ruthlessly exposed to public view.
"8½" explores creativity and its interplay with dream, memory, consciousness, and the magical, unconscious process by which ideas germinate and flower. The film drifts harvests allusions to earlier Fellini works - characters and settings reappear or are caricatured, making ironic reference to their earlier successes. (The film opens with Guido trapped in a traffic jam, escaping to float away above the scene like the opening shot of Christ flying over Rome in 'La Dolce Vita'.)
Guido is haunted by his previous experiences - the women who have filled his life and the ghosts of his earlier creations. Fellini explores the workings of the human mind. We all try to make sense of our thoughts, to create a logical narrative which will order our lives and give it recognisable shape. In our mind, life follows a straightforward narrative, a chronological path - it has pattern, it has direction, it has coherence.
But life isn't really like that. Fellini repeatedly presents us with images of roads, queues, corridors, life moving along predictable straight lines. But, though film passes in a straight line through the projector, image after image, one frame at a time, it is not bound by its two dimensional format. The film maker can jump from time to time, place to place, creating disorder and surreal juxtapositioning of the narrative.
Life, too, can be random, disorganised, chaotic. Our experiences are mediated by our memories and thoughts; we impose a logical order on life, rather than experience it. Life is a constant menu of choice as we struggle to make sense of the unpredictable and fit it within the logic of our own narrative architecture. If life is chaos, how can we understand creativity, how can we predict it, how can we tap into it with certainty?
Writer's block is not ultimately about a creative drought - it is about a sudden failure in self-confidence, a fear that your next idea won't work, that you will go to the well and find it dry. And Fellini's imagery in "8½" repeatedly returns to the spaceship he is building as the centrepiece of his latest film. Will it get off the ground, will it fly? Characters complain about the costs, predict that it won't work, echo the voices of criticism the creative artist hears whether awake or asleep.
"8½" is stream of consciousness, part personal nightmare, part nostalgia, part flashback, part an on-screen grappling to comprehend the place of vision in the face of self-doubt and disillusionment with the whole circus of celebrity. There are images of decay, of growing old, of loss of vitality. Here we have the director, a man who comments on life, who is constantly being asked his opinions about life and art, a man who watches and tries to understand ... but a man who is oppressed by his own celebrity, by his exposure to the observation of others, by their failure to understand that he simply wants some peace and quiet.
The theme constantly returns - experience triggers memories, memories define our interpretation of experience. Life is a narrative, but there can never be a satisfactory narrative explanation of life. The story is never scripted, it never follows a robust screenplay. The past we can order ... the future is beyond imagination ... but the present is a doorway in which we are trapped, never entirely sure how to proceed. It is a doorway which opens onto a vista of a decaying future, of time running out, of mortality. We live life in snapshots ... then have to try to make a feature film of it!
To some extent, this is pure self-indulgence. But life is self-indulgence. We make characters of the people we meet, we fit them into our own narrative of life. Here Fellini makes people out of the characters he has created, then reduces them to ephemera, to characters again, given fleeting moments on the stage. There is no democracy in our memories or in art - we are the dictator, and we can remember or forget people.
And Fellini throws all his characters and memories into the ring and watches them interact. Ultimately, "8½" is a joyous film, optimistically celebrating the human carnival and the creative process. It's a film which overflows with vigour, courage, and humour. An astonishingly wonderful film which you can watch again and again and still see aspects and details you missed before. Utterly stunning!