Sometimes people, for the most part, don’t allow films to challenge them. I understand that most people out there go to a film to shut off their brain and escape for two hours without having to think about much, a technique with which I fundamentally disagree. Sure, once in a while going to watch a stupid comedy or an action film or a “jump-at-you” horror flick can be a great idea; but there is another side of things. Films are an art medium, and sometimes art should be challenging to the senses and sensibilities.
I imagine most people in this day and age would not give Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ much of an opportunity. This is an expressionistic film about filmmakers, where dreams and memories and realities all weave in and out of each other seamlessly, where imagery outweighs narrative thread. Don’t get me wrong, this is a film with a clear path and a finite thread, but told in such a way where reality is blurred. Consider the opening sequence where our hero, Italian director Guido, played by Marcello Mastrioni, is suffocating in a dream. He is trapped in his car, among a sea of cars, and begins choking on exhaust. He escapes the confines of the car and floats along the other cars, flying high into the sky before realizing he is tied to a rope held by his peers. Trapped between earth and heaven, Guido falls to the sea and wakes up before he hits the water.
This sets the stage for 8 ½, a film about a famous director being pulled in too many directions. Guido is on the verge of a big-budget science fiction film which he has lost all interest in, and is being hounded by his disapproving writer and worried producer. He has a wife and a mistress, and has no time for either of them. Guido is stretched thin, and retreats into his mind to evade his life. 8 ½ then thrives on the imagery of Guido’s mind as we travel through a meta-fictional examination of Guido creating his latest film. When things get murky for Guido, his memory or his imagination take over. Consider a scene where he is meeting a Cardinal of the Catholic Church to discuss the film; in the middle of the meeting, Guido remembers a time when he was a youth where he and his classmates visited a buxom prostitute living on the beach and paid her to dance suggestively for them. Much of the picture works as therapy for Guido, as he explores his career and the influence of women in his life. In one famous scene, Guido operates a Harem filled with all of the women in his life both past and present.
Fellini’s camera becomes a character in 8 ½, as his techniques and fluid movement draw attention to the cinematography. Many people may have a hard time deciphering what is real, in the moment, and what is imagined. But they aren’t paying close enough attention. There are clear indicators when Guido’s mind takes over the film, and once you grow comfortable with these moments the film begins to move seamlessly in and out of reality. And many critics argued at the time that Federico Fellini began losing his mojo when he abandoned realism for surrealism and self indulgence. This is a self-indulgent film, make no mistake, but what else does a director have to do other than utilize his own life experiences? Where would Mean Streets be without the life Martin Scorsese lived? And I see nothing wrong with directors veering off course. Had Fellini opted to stay in the real world and direct linear pictures the rest of his life, imagine the wonderful films we would have missed.
The title of the film refers to Fellini’s career; he had directed six features, two shorts (making a whole film), and co-directed his first picture (half of a film) with Alberto Lattuada. Seven and a half. This would make eight and a half films for Fellini. The picture would also inspire the Broadway hit musical Nine. This is a film where imagery supersedes narrative structure, and that is where the challenge comes in for most of the audience. But allowing a film to dominate the mind is vital when seeing films like 8 ½. Look at it unlike you would a Hollywood blockbuster, and things will come into focus. This is not a throwaway picture, but one which must be greatly considered and, dare I say, seen more than once. It’s okay to think about a film from time to time, to be challenged regarding what you think you know about the medium.