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The latest classic Criterion entry to be reissued in Blu-ray is Federico Fellini's 8½, one of the defining Art Cinema films from the early 1960s. Just a couple of years into the deification of film directors as the princes of modern culture, Fellini pretty much capped the narcissism of the times by making a "personal" film about the occupational and spiritual crisis of a celebrated auteur director, casting Marcello Mastroianni as a film genius much like himself. 8½ has no choice but to be a superior cinematic event; anything less and Fellini would come off as supremely self-indulgent.
8½ is so established that it really matters not what a DVD reviewer like Savant has to say about it. Not long ago it made most of the top ten lists of the best pictures of all time, even the Vatican's. Almost fifty years later it's likely that newer audiences need quite a bit of preparation to understand what Fellini's film is all about. The time when the work of Fellini and Bergman and Antonioni were regarded as untouchably perfect has passed, and today's film students aren't as obedient as we were. Nobody wants to admit it, but the majority of filmgoers out there still avoid foreign films because their idea of a good time is watching a movie, not reading one.
In film school the only acceptable response to 8½ was unquestioning worship. That was my brainwashing on certain films (Citizen Kane, etc.) and as a result I really have to admit that I have few opinions on them that are going to go head-to-head with the established wisdom. The best I can hope to do with Fellini's opus is to pitch my analysis at someone who's never seen it, and isn't interested in making blind faith the first step toward appreciation.
It's a fun picture, honest. 8½ begins within a strange dream sequence. Celebrated filmmaker Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) spends his waking hours surrounded, attended, patronized, seduced, and in general overwhelmed by endless armies of assistants, producers, writers, agents, and prospective actresses, all of whom want to know about his new picture and what's in it for them. On good terms with this wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee), Guido clearly is at odds about everything to do with both his movie and his life. He constantly ruminates over childhood scenes and various fantasies involving his family and the women he's known. Outside Rome, a gigantic set representing a futuristic rocket launching pad is being erected for him to film, but Guido doesn't have the slightest idea of what to do with it, a fact that might drive him crazy if he had the time for such luxuries.
First off, it's important to know that Art films like 8½ weren't delivered by Angels from Heaven -- Fellini is a gifted filmmaker from outside the Hollywood system, yes, but Italian filmmaking was just as crazy, commercial and cutthroat. By Hollywood standards these pictures were made relatively cheaply. Few European stars commanded lofty salaries. That's why so many of them defected to Hollywood the first chance they got. More often than not production value was provided by the skill of the camera and direction. Most of 8½ was filmed on found locations. The sets are impressive, but even the huge construction for the finale is mostly a Tinkertoy framework of scaffolding.
Fellini knows that human bodies and faces make the most interesting scenery. His visual style places his star Mastroianni in a human landscape, where lengthy and fluid camera moves express Guido's scrambled point of view as he is bombarded with people trying to get his attention. These shots, often imitated by perfume commercials or parodied by Woody Allen, are what immediately identify the Fellini look. For over ten years (and 8 and ½ films, hence the title) he'd been making superior dramas that didn't always look so similar. 1 In La Dolce Vita Fellini broke through to a storytelling style that verged on the fantastic, with strange visions (like a giant Madonna statue flying through the air) easily blending the already exotic reality of modern Rome with personal inner visions. Here in 8½, the fantasy world dominates. The 'literal' narrative is a succession of distractions and aggravations. As Guido tries to figure out how to express himself in his next film, the fantasy narrative takes us through his entire unconscious dream life. Some of it is nightmarish, as with the opening traffic horror where he's trapped in a smoke filled car. But most of the fantasies are autobiographical memories of a magical childhood, lost relatives, and occasional visions of dream women.
Because Guido is a film director he's engulfed by a parade of beautiful, exotic people. He's the center of attention for dozens of hopefuls who use any and all means to attract his attention. In this free-flowing circus of faces, we see their frustration and their tricks. His patient wife Luisa considers him too immature to handle all this adulation, particularly the attentions of the obviously available Gloria (Barbara Steele) and Carla (Sandra Milo). The beaming, non-assertive innocence of Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) may be yet another female trap, but she's so much like one of Guido's inner fantasies, he can hardly tell the difference. Trapped between pimp-like agents, molly-coddling producers and straight-talking writers, Guido is too fragmented and dizzy to come up with any kind of coherent movie.
8½ is therefore Fellini's unique self-portrait, a circus-like fantasy that expresses the weirdness of being a celebrated genius. Fellini isn't complaining about his state of affairs as much as he's acknowledging that this is just how it is for, 'sigh', a wonderboy such as himself. An egocentric may try to pretend that everyone they know is a bit player in a movie where they are the star. And who wouldn't become egocentric in Guido's stead? Take the Fellini test: do you imagine everyone you know dancing to your tune in long lines, as if Life were a big party convened to celebrate You? I wish.
8½ is interesting because Guido (like Fellini) is fighting the riptide towards egomania as strongly as he can. He's helped by the honesty of his plain-speaking wife, his candidly critical writer and his own conscience in the form of the truths speaking from his fantasies. When Guido surrenders to the fantastic undertow and turns the visit to his spaceship set into a big-top parade, the film comes together as an abstraction of Fellini's professional, spiritual and mental condition -- it is a big cinematic self-portrait.
Auteurist-leaning film critics of the late '60s, the kind for whom the artistic development of the cinema was of the utmost importance, naturally ate up this ode to self-absorption with whipped cream and a cherry on top. In a philosophy stating that the director's true mission is to express his visionary inner soul, Fellini became the top overachiever. Auteurism followed the notion that real directors simply remade the same story over and over again in search of the perfect expression of their unique vision -- like reincarnated souls reliving Life, hoping to eventually get it right.
This narrow and elitist view of what moviemaking is about has since been fairly thoroughly trounced. It has a certain grandeur that further hypes the adulation heaped on great directors. Obviously, the majority of film directors worldwide never begin to attain the kind of control that would allow them to fully express their inner selves. Plenty of fine directors aren't interested in doing anything of the kind and would be content to tell a story and stay employed. When a big Hollywood director was perceived as having developed a certain style, or as repeating the same themes, Auteurist critics lauded them with praise the directors couldn't understand. Discovering that they've been elevated to a Pantheon, Hawks and Walsh and Ford surely scratched their heads and laughed.
Besides elevating the likes of Jerry Lewis to sainthood, this attention can be said to have had a negative effect on the movies by the older greats. Alfred Hitchcock became acutely aware of his perceived genius and absorbed himself with Art-film games. It's great that The Birds works on the level of a shaggy-dog thriller, because at its base it is an Antonioni-style meditation on complacency and alienation, with our winged friends serving as a manifestation of the unexplainable forces that bring chaos into our lives. A great thesis paper maybe, but eventually it gets a bit thick.
After those 8 .5 earlier films that made him famous, Fellini seems to be admitting in this picture that he has nowhere to go, that he's run out of ideas. Critics of Hollywood periodically decry the commercial barriers that prevent ordinary directors from making anything but junk. The later career of Fellini is a graceful yet repetitive series of films done more or less in the style and format of 8½: a magical, almost dreamlike or romanticized world where inner visions and fantasies have merged with mundane reality. Juliet of the Spirits is like an acid trip, Toby Dammit a nightmare and Amarcord a wistful memory. But none probed new stylistic expressions beyond 8½. The question is whether Fellini did indeed find the form of expression that best suited him, or if he instead hit a creative wall, and simply continued working in a benign variation of the commercial rut in which Hollywood directors toiled.
Criterion's new Blu-ray of 8½ follows nine years after the debut of their standard-def double disc DVD. Retransferred in HD, Gianni De Venanzo's luminous B&W images will have viewers forgetting to read the subtitles. And the audio is even richer now thanks to the uncompressed Blu-ray tracks, with deeper bass and a more pure-sounding high range. Nino Rota's score is a major pleasure.
The extras (compiled by Criterion producer Issa Clubb) reproduce all of the content of the 2001 release. A commentary features Gideon Bachmann, a film critic, and Antonio Monda, a NYU film professor. Terry Gilliam introduces the picture in an interview-like essay that shouldn't be seen before the feature: too many spoilers.
The added features continue with two lengthy documentaries: Nino Rota: Between Cinema and Concert and Fellini: A Director's Notebook, directed by Fellini himself. New interviews showcase Sandra Milo, Lina Wertmuller and Vittorio Storaro. Two voluminous galleries of rare photos and production stills follow. Rounding out the old extras are a 1963 trailer and a 26-page booklet with writings by Fellini, critic Tulio Kezich, and film teacher and writer Alexander Sesonske.
The new to Blu-ray extra is the featurette The Last Sequence, an hour-long 2003 documentary on Fellini's first, abandoned final scene for the film
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
8 ½ Blu-ray rates:
1. Although most certainly sound distinctive, one bar of Nino Rota music and you can be pretty sure you're watching a Fellini picture.
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