It is said that the title, 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963), refers to the amount of films Federico Fellini had in his oeuvre up to that point. Meaning, this movie, 8 ½, was his eighth and a half film. How fitting, then, that 8 ½ is my number one. That is, my first entry. My beginning.
Speaking of beginning, where does one begin when discussing such a classic, beguiling film? Much has been said, and much could be said. Quite frankly, “where to begin?” is a difficult question for any artist to answer, and it’s a question that plagues this protagonist, a film director named Guido, throughout. Of course, it doesn’t help matters that he’s in the midst of a deep and terrible creative block. A “director’s block,” he calls it at one point. It also doesn’t help that he has a bounteous amount of mistresses, despite the fact that he’s married (more on this later).
So, perhaps I’ll begin with an oversimplification of the entire film. A shallow first impression, if you will. Although, to be fair, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen 8 ½. I’ve seen it one or two other times, but it has been at least four years since the last viewing. So, for the sake of fairness, we’ll simple call this my “present impression.”
My “present impression” of 8 ½ is that it’s an ultra self-reflexive film about a film director who is creatively blocked, and who really, really, really likes gorgeous women. In other words, it’s about me—minus the good looks, impeccable wardrobe, and abundant success. Oh, and also the uncountable mistresses. I guess that’s more of an Italian thing, circa 1963.
Let me back up for a second… For those of you who have never seen this film or have totally forgotten what it’s about, I’d briefly explain the plot like this: Guido, an uninspired film director, MUST make a film. Producers, crew, critics, press, and mistresses all await answers as the expenses and the pressure mounts. Unfortunately, Guido has the aforementioned “director’s block” and has no idea what the film is going to be about. The result being, Guido must lie, manipulate, and procrastinate his way to the finish.
What I’ve just described may or may not sound intriguing to you, but it’s totally irrelevant either way. 8 ½ is not a plot-driven movie. Instead, it’s a somewhat surreal, dream-like, character study. This may lead to some impatient viewers claiming that the movie is ambiguous and meandering. I would disagree. I think that the symbolic representations of a character’s subconscious, whether dream or reality, allow for a deeper understanding of said character. This kind of penetrating character study is often confused with ambiguity, because the movie doesn’t employ a genre-specific plot (see Mulholland Drive).
The themes, however, are made abundantly clear, namely— honesty and freedom. Guido struggles immensely to tell the truth (honesty), and is imprisoned by his creative block (freedom). One fuels the other. These themes are made visceral with extremely effective recurring visual motifs. Most strikingly of which, are the graphic vertical pinstripe lines that are often found in the background of scenes. I believe this visual motif clearly represents a mental-like-prison, epitomized in the ever-growing scaffolding tower that is to be the set for the “spaceship scene.” Not only that, but the graphic boldness alone of the vertical lines really adds texture to the black and white photography. If nothing else, it really looks awesome!
Another recurring visual motif was the keen use of wardrobe— most notably, wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses. Often the brim of a hat would completely hide a character’s face. In fact, there’s a pivotal scene, probably two-thirds of the way through, where Guido is finally being honest to his wife about his dishonesty. Ironically, the key lines delivered during this scene are with his face completely hidden by the brim of his hat. Sunglasses, similarly, are used for characters to hide the truth as well.
An additional element that jumped out at me during this viewing was the extreme self-reflexive nature of the film. There are literally scenes in which characters are discussing a previous scene we had just previously watched. Fellini lets the scene unfold, and then comments and criticizes it in the next. We take this kind of quirky self-reflection for granted now, as it has been done a million times since, like in the popular sit-com Seinfeld. At any rate, I enjoyed the self-reflection, and imagine it was quite groundbreaking at the time (although, I could be wrong).
I probably shouldn’t go on any further without mentioning the music by Nina Rota, which is perhaps the most memorable score of all time. In this movie, the music is basically another character unto itself. Perhaps the most likeable character, at that. Every time the music rose, I knew I was in for something exciting. This, accompanied with the dizzying camera movement and the lush black and white photography, all made for a more-than-pleasurable viewing experience.
Speaking of a pleasurable viewing experience— now might be a good time to mention the endless stream of beautiful actresses in this film. One gorgeous actress after another is paraded about, most enigmatically, the dark haired minx that obviously inspired Quentin Tarantino (once you see the film, you’ll know exactly what I mean).
These women, of course, are a curse to Guido and Guido is a curse to them, as they represent his inability to love and to be honest. They, like the vertical lines, are suffocating him. This is demonstrated in one of the more memorable dream sequences, the harem scene, in which every woman in Guido’s life literally lives under the same roof (and it’s a lot of women).
With that said, my favorite sequences are the opening dream sequence that sets the tone and the concluding parade sequence, which somehow ties everything together. In the former, a surrealistic traffic jam encapsulates Guido’s stasis and lack of creative freedom. In the latter, after Guido orders the scaffolding to be dismantled (represents tearing down the vertical lines), he is finally free and inspired to start anew. Which brings us full circle back to the same question I posed at the beginning: “where to begin?”