Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: 8 1/2 (1963)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #10

As long as there have been films, there have been films about the making of films. Filmmakers have long turned their gaze back on themselves, using the medium of cinema to understand the compulsions of artists that drive them to continue creating art even when the process is stressful and the final product failing to capture an audience. Some of the earliest short films centered on the creation of films, and everything from slapstick comedies like Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. (1928) to avant-garde experiments like Man with a Movie Camera (1928) have held up a mirror to the camera, asking the audience to look at what went into creating this entertainment.

Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini was certainly no stranger to this strain of self-reflexivity. His previous films, especially La Strada (1954) and La Dolce Vita (1960), were very self-aware productions, with Fellini subverting and commenting upon various tropes and entertainment forms through a cinematic lens. 8 1/2, generally considered his best film, takes self-reflexivity even further. The title itself is a reference to the number of films Fellini had directed prior to this (six features, two shorts, and one collaboration with Alberto Lattuada), and the plot is an art-imitating-life narrative which Fellini no doubt drew from his own experiences.

The film concerns celebrated filmmaker Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) as he attempts to mount his next film, an ambitious science-fiction tale that's becoming unwieldy. He's suffering from "director's block," and is distracted by the creative differences with his producers over the casting of Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) as his "ideal woman" and marital problems with his wife, Luisa (Anouk Aimee). He only finds solace in Rossella (Rossella Falk), his wife's closest friend and his longtime confidant. As he attempts to make the film, he finds himself reflecting on his life and fantasizing; these memories and fantasies are interwoven throughout the film.

Lore surrounding the production says that Fellini attached a note to his viewfinder that read, "remember that this is a comic film." However, the film transcends simply being a comedy, being less laugh-out-loud funny than a humane examination of the psyche of an artist in the midst of a crisis. Its mission statement is simple: why do we make art at such a personal cost?

More after the jump.

To the extent that 8 1/2 is a comedy, it's really comedy more in the sense that it isn't tragedy, and that it maintains a playfully fantastic tone throughout. There are a handful of genuinely humorous moments here, such as an elaborate fantasy in which all of the women in Guido's life live in a harem, worshipping him until they rebel against his callous mistreatment, but these moments do not overwhelm the film. They do, however, give the film a blithe spirit, especially in the face of much darker thematic material.

That darker material comes courtesy of Fellini's own introspection, turning the film into a funhouse mirror for the filmmaker himself. Guido is easily understood to be a Fellini stand-in, and it is no coincidence that Mastroianni, one of Italy's biggest movie stars at the time, was selected for the role. Mastroianni was well-known even to international audiences as a man who could deftly balance comedy and drama (see also: La Dolce Vita and Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, a big comedy from the same year as 8 1/2), and seeing him in this film surely attributed to the notion that the film would be a comedy. But Mastroianni also exudes an aloofness that perfectly fits Guido: he's at once charming and introverted, a man who will say a lot of things without saying anything at all. And his performance is crucial to the film's success, as he is able to toggle effortlessly between the "real" Guido - the director who is struggling to find inspiration for his next film - and "fantasy" Guido - the man the audience engages with in the flashbacks and memory sequences.

The differences between these two versions of Guido recall the Greek masks of drama. "Real" Guido is the mask of tragedy, the man of considerable praise who cannot pull himself out of his current funk and sees no end in sight. "Fantasy" Guido, then, is the mask of comedy, a man who can escape from the realities of his situation in search of inspiration for his film, be they in memory or simply in his desire to fly away from it all (as seen in the film's opening scene, in which Guido gets out of his car in wall-to-wall traffic and simply levitates away). These are the two sides of the same coin, the ideas and the execution. Guido's problem is that he cannot unite the two. He has the ideas needed to make the film, but no way of executing them. There's a blockage between the two.

This is the main theme of the film: creation is an act of cooperation between artistic inspiration and skilled ability. Fellini uses Guido's predicament to explore why artists - why he himself - struggle to create art. Despite his mental blockage, Guido continues to dream, fantasize, and remember, and he attempts to incorporate those elements into his film. Reflecting on his childhood experiences on the beach with La Saraghina (Eddra Gale), a prostitute, leads to him attempting to craft a character aboard the film's spaceship that is based on her. Guido is trying to unite his inspiration with his craft, so that his ideas can find a tangible form of expression through art.

Most importantly, Guido's desire to create this film is not just a job - it's a compulsion. Fellini's ultimate statement here is that artists create art not just because they want to, but because it is a need deep down inside of them to express their ideas. Everything from filmmaking to this very blog is rooted in a need to share, an admittedly-selfish act of creation and then asking the world, "look at this thing that I made." All art is created in the psyche of the artist, and thus all art is a reflection of the artist's psyche. Art is personal, and as such it requires the artist to go to places that can be difficult to visit and confront ideas and memories that can be painful. Creation is painful, as Guido's plight demonstrates, and it contradictorily requires the artist to be both vainly self-reflective and free of vanity, exposing the contents of their minds to the world. And quite frankly, it's exhausting, but ultimately fulfilling.

Fellini himself recognizes this, and it's for this reason that 8 1/2 stands as one of the most important films about the creative process. His film would go on to inspire numerous other self-reflexive works, including Francois Truffaut's Day for Night (1974), Bob Fosse's All That Jazz (1979), and Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York (2008). But none would quite grasp the intricacies and contradictions of creating art in quite the same way Fellini would with this film.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" Playtime (1967)

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