Copyright © 2010 by James Clark
The title of Federico Fellini’s renowned film from 1963 would seem to have in view the full output of his career to that point. Supposedly entailing a crisis of inspiration on his part, the rather disappointing stock number would capture his sense of wading through a series of more or less memorable entertainments. In fact only one of his films, the one directly preceding, namely, La Dolce Vita (1960), is alive on the ground here—in fact, so vitally insistent that it would be virtually impossible to appreciate what the later film is about without having seen the earlier one.
An instance of reprising a moment of La Dolce Vita (one of a plethora of such replays) is the scene at the courtyard bar/restaurant of the posh hotel where the protagonist (“Guido”) is installed in the course of taking a cure at an opulent spa nearby and launching his next film at a site in a desolate expanse, also nearby. A magic act makes up the evening’s theatre, whereby a tall, cadaverous MC stalks amidst the audience, pausing at various tables and thus cueing a blindfolded, elderly woman/clairvoyant to disclose what the guest is thinking.
On his coming to a halt by an even more ancient female client of the spa, she reads out the thought, “I’d like to live another hundred years.” It being that kind of place, this flourish would lack dazzle. But, on noticing old friend, Guido (“You’re famous now”), and putting him on show, the deathly mixer ignites a rare bit of life. “You’re thinking, ‘Asa, Nisi, Masa.’”/ “Si.” Guido has been as intent upon the treasure implicit in that playtime spell as the general run of patients would have been upon fabulous longevity; and his delight in being thus touched by another gains stature from its being woven into a subtle and difficult task. Specifics of that preoccupation come into view in a reverie about that saying, tracing back to a childhood graced by love from his family. After a bath (with tinctures of Dionysian wine rites), he and his siblings are caressed by his mother and aunts and addressed, “Aren’t you a beautiful sticky bun…Sleep tight, little creatures!” “Asa, Nisi, Masa” was the password by which the children shared a sense of connectedness with each other and the mysteries of the world. More specifically, it was the flourish by which the eyes of a figure in a portrait could be seen to move. “We’ll be rich!” whispers a little girl behind this scheme, to Guido, with a taste for ornate larceny akin to that of the little schemer in La Dolce Vita, leading the world’s press to believe she was privy to a vision of the Madonna. Attainment to this vigorous fantasy—evidence for the elusiveness of which is amply provided by Guido’s present state of near collapse—stands in sharp contrast to the upshot of a magic show in La Dolce Vita. There Marcello takes his long-lost father to a club in Rome, and introduces him to a sometime girlfriend, “Fanny,” in the chorus line there, who loves the routine of a crumpled little guy doing a pied piper number with a swarm of balloons. She is in tears about the saccharine cuteness of the kinship; Marcello, true to form, regards it as inconsequential gimmickry.
The narrative structure of 8 1/2 is informed by performance of a counter-attack from out of the rout of La Dolce Vita (in the course of which there is retracing of much of the terrain of that defeat), showing a determination Marcello could not begin to put into play. But it is far from a triumphal march. Guido comes freighted with an unprepossessing mistress, “Carla,” the actress playing her part (Sandra Milo) bearing a strong resemblance to Magali Noel, who portrays Fanny. Against his better judgment, he’s installed her at the Railway Hotel in hopes of some telling locomotion. She’s pleased because, “I read a good Donald Duck last week.” But such bad news doesn’t bug him nearly as much as Marcello’s semi-permanent fixture, Emma, did, in her pressing him to adopt family values and normal piety. Whereas Emma was an arsenal of resentment, continually machine-gunning him about his “selfishness,” Carla describes a dream in which her (equally fastidious) husband kills them with a broom. Guido demands, “Make a slutty face!” While she does mention in passing, “I wouldn’t want to lead that life [of a professional actress],” she is quite at home giving him little cartoon punches, accompanied by sounds like “Smmaack!” (On alighting from the train and being bussed wretchedly [actually, having her hand kissed as if she were from Vatican City] by a hyper tense consort, looking around anxiously to make sure no one he knows is nearby, she says, “Yaack! How are you?”) Guido’s wife, “Louisa,” is played by Anouk Aimée, whom Marcello proposed to (getting nowhere with it), when she occupied the role of rich and frigid, Maddalena, in La Dolce Vita. Referring to Guido as “Mr. Alienated,” and asking, “Are you always alone?”/ “Of course…” Louisa calls, and extracts an invitation from him to come on down to where the action is (he being fresh from the day dream about idyllic family life). (She is not alone in chaffing about his meteoric trade in gloomy, sensational cinematic subjects. At the outset, one of the medics at the spa, doing preliminary tests, asks him [with a tinge of man-of-science superiority], “So what are you cooking up? Another film without hope?”)
The clash between Carla and Louisa is central to the film’s zeroing in on the features of dynamics left in such a marvellous shambles by La Dolce Vita. Accompanying that skirmish is an exuberant overlay of contradiction, establishing 8½ at a breathtaking pitch of cinematic design. The initial scenes take up Guido’s crisis of lucidity by way of a bravura display of darkness and light, paralysis and verve. The film opens with muffled industrial throbbing on a stiflingly warm day, and him enclosed in his car in a dark tunnel (blinding light at a distance) in a traffic jam from Hell (including bus passengers hanging from windows, their limbs like raw flanks in a butcher shop, and Carla happily being fondled by an admirer of quite advanced age). Smoke begins to seep from Guido’s dashboard; he smashes with his hands and then his feet at the somehow stuck-closed windows (like someone in a car that has gone over a cliff into deep water) and gasps loudly while other drivers watch, some impassively, some with discreetly malicious amusement. Eventually, there is leeway, and we see him from behind, all in black, skipping over hoods and roofs, and then ascending to the steaming clouds. Then he is hovering over a beach, a rope attached to one ankle. On pulling him down (in a context of a horse and rider [the project’s producer] breezing along the shore), someone shouts, “Down for good!” Then he’s up against not only the supercilious medical doctors, but a wizened, contemptuous self-impressed intellectual/writer, hired by the money side of Guido’s current venture to help the directionless director/writer get back to profitable industry. “I’ll wait for you at the spring” (dispensing “holy water,” in conjunction with “mud baths”) is how the script doctor leaves things. Guido staggers to the bathroom, a place resplendent in black and white tiles reminiscent of Last Year at Marienbad (with its desperate petitioner); and the brightness key suddenly lurches to Los Alamos levels, as in one of the moments of Marienbad. Whereas in that latter film the cool of youngish plutocrats induces a spa-wide somnambulism relentlessly decked out in formal evening wear, the flash-point here shifts things to lavish grounds where an over-the-hill clientele shuffle about and the nuclear afterglow goes on and on, accompanied by Wagner’s Die Walkure (Ride of the Valkyries)—about a disaster-filled life and glowing, illicit love—with its jagged and bombastic conclusiveness. Then from the band shell we have the overture to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, and its tribute to matrimonial scheming. Countering that weighty blast is an updraft of silence, wherein radiant and serene Claudia Cardinale (replacing La Dolce Vita’s Anita Ekberg) offers the magic potion to him. Then it comes crashing back down to a harried server holding out one of thousands of glasses of holy water to him. More deflation is in store in the form of the writing consultant’s presumptuous cat-and-mouse, literary snob’s critique of a scenario lacking in philosophical and problematic point and betraying “poverty of poetic imagination.” On the other hand, Guido is remarkably poised and considerate in face of that gratuitous insult (referring to his work as “definitive proof that cinema is fifty years behind the other arts”), far more irritating than the modestly appreciated, gentle and encouraging critique of Marcello’s scandal rag hack work by high-powered man-of-letters, Steiner, in La Dolce Vita. He also finesses, with a flair for buffoonery, a combative situation with the producer, bleeding money due to Guido’s indecision, addressing him as “Super Tarzan,” and not getting punched out, as Marcello was by Anita’s/Sylvia’s Tarzan. Along a narrative chain frequently showing him as far from authoritative, we are taken aback when, on finally dropping by the production centre and having a wounding quarrel with his fed up assistant director—who remarks, “You’re not the man you used to be”—he disperses other staff members, sending them back to their work stations as if they were school kids. With various other acquaintances he maintains some poise in marked contrast to their overplaying career or romantic ambitions. A friend, in the process of trading in his wife for a classmate of his daughter, remarks, “You think I’ve lost it…”/ “Si.” But that doleful figure does broach a subject heavily implicated in his pal’s (he refers to him as “big Guido”) deflating malaise—“I’ve never felt closer to anyone in my life.” A French actress, continually stalking him for assurances of her starring in what would be his latest sure-fire hit, elicits his mockery; but in her loquacious depression she touches upon Guido’s own nagging doubts: “I’ve made only wrong judgments in my life and career.” On returning to his suite and pronouncing to himself his malady of “crisis of inspiration,” he comes under the spell of a reverie about Claudia attending to his discomfort. “Let’s say you are purity itself,” he tells her, and then quickly cobbles a starring role for her in his work-to-be. Claudia’s rude laugh here is earthy, irreverent, untameable. Turning back that unwelcome tide, he has her say, “I want to create order. I want to cleanse.”
Getting closer to the nub of Louisa’s coming to haunt an already spooky time, Guido, a man pushing for cleansing order, pulls some strings and gets a couple of audiences with a priesthood availing itself of “holy waters.” The first divines are clearly kin to the rescue writer. “Is it a religious subject?”/ “Yes, in a way.”/ “I don’t believe cinema lends itself to certain subjects…You mix sacred and profane too easily.” With a figure further up the totem pole—Guido’s tense body language in being seated across from him betraying confusion, fear and self-destructiveness—the proven genius with sensuous occurrences hears from an immobilized dry stick of a man that the eerie bird call (of a mourning dove) coming over their outdoors interview relates to one such creature’s supposedly paying homage at the funeral of a saint. In a second such bid for enlightenment (with a “Cardinal,” no less, and after hearing the writer prate on about the superior lucidity of “Catholic culture, Catholic conscience”) Guido avers, “Eminence, I’m not happy.” As if they were on one of the posh destination’s tennis courts, the calcified oracle hammers that easy lob back into his teeth. “Why should you be? Who told you we come into the world to be happy? That isn’t your job…There is no salvation outside of the Church.”
In the midst of this tough love, Guido’s thoughts are captured by the childhood memory of a Catholic boys’ school and its pulverizing his sensual interests. He brings us an episode of such primeval contrast that its conflicting actions hold us in the grip of a world war. The collision of such powers can direct our attention to an exigency—Guido’s exigency, and ours—of coming to a far from obvious reckoning with its troublesome stalemate. On leaving school for the day, Guido and his chums head for the Adriatic beach, more particularly, for a disused, concrete military pillbox. This is the home of a warrior queen, “Saraghina,” the go-to sex interest of the little place, whom the boys regard as a more compelling educator than the erudite, Jesuitical martinets to whom they have been consigned. One calls out to her, “Saraghina, do the rumba!” A strikingly burly woman emerges, and, with a daunting glare becoming a warm and hearty smile of appreciation for the rebelliousness of the moment, she seems to invoke the only true musical excitement within a programmed soundtrack of myriad over-studious (almost bilious) offerings. As if propelled by an early garage band, in its choppy and gritty uprising (somewhat like that of the “Ready Teddy” moment for Anita, in La Dolce Vita), she shifts provocatively across the sun-fired sands, laying emphasis upon, first her breasts, then her hips. (The little Bacchanal, where the children take a stab at crushing grapes in a huge vat/bathtub at the “Asa Nisi Masa” moment, delineates how tame little Guido and this wild giantess are amazingly on the same page.) A posse from the land of Catholic conscience arrives on the scene as she lifts Guido over her head in the course of their dance together. There ensues a Chaplinesque, jiggly, slapstick chase on the beach, the kid’s being brought before a staff tribunal (“Shame on you, shame on you!”), paraded (in a dunce cap) before jeering classmates, almost disowned by his mother (“Oh, God! I’m so ashamed and hurt!”), directed to follow in the footsteps of “pious Luigi,” who “abhorred anything to do with women,” and grilled and spat out by a confessional—“Don’t you know Saraghina is the Devil?”/ “I didn’t know.” And, in a quietly memorable sequel, germane to the narrative’s proneness to overdrive in teeing off on that presumptuous, farcical violence, Guido alone returns to Saraghina’s headquarters and pays tribute to her from a distance by waving his cap. She turns her head slowly toward him (in what might be the prototype for subsequent magic moments in the history of recent film), smiles and quietly says, “Ciao.”
On the heels of this battle scene, we have Louisa’s visitation. She is first glimpsed on a crawl amidst the shoppers’ haven with its wares both shiny and vintage—about which Maddalena was so conversant. A recurrent poster image dogging her whereabouts, Metlicovitz’s chic design for deluxe women’s shoes, implicates her in her grandmother’s world, but at the same time touching upon her lacking the carnal gusto brimming there. Her dark hair is cropped very short; she wears horn-rimmed glasses and an antiseptic white top. She looks like Yves Saint Laurent, and also like the younger staff of Guido’s school. She is light years away from Carla. Guido comes up to her, there is an elderly buss, and he says, with conspicuous decorum, “Louisa, Darling. You’re my treasure” (not bad in a context of conspicuous shopping). They’re next seen dancing (for the first time in years) at an outdoor bar, and then Louisa is aglow in being gently teased by him that, in the entourage she’s come with, a young man is clearly smitten with her. That is enough to launch her into a few mincing dance steps. But don’t get the wrong idea. This ascetic apparition is a resentment factory (like the priests), and soon after facetiously kidding him about such a tight regime as he claims to be in cramping “your famous virility,” she’s clouded in a depression that develops into an artillery exchange from their twin beds (at Carla’s hotel room, they have shoved the beds together) the first night of the reunion. During the preamble to this, a girlfriend of hers, responding to Guido’s distress about his wife’s losing it already, informs him (as if he didn’t already know), “She’d like you to be someone else.” (But she adds, and this speaks to where the presentation is headed, “It’s a mistake we all make.”) Back in the beds, Louisa enjoys telling him she could never be as comfortably phony as he is. That sort of riposte from strangers just amuses him; but they have a history such that he’s plenty resentful. “What do you know about my life? You and your judgmental moralism!”/ “What good am I to you?” (Stay tuned.) Next day, they are at an alfresco lunch and Carla (unconcerned about looking like a tourist) pops out of a horse-drawn carriage and sits at a table across the way. Guido thinks to smooth things over by acting surprised she’s in town. “Is that what was bothering you? It’s been over for three years. What really hurts me about this is your imagining I’d go out with someone who dresses like that.” Louisa, the effects of the trancs she took the night before perhaps lingering, calmly asks her friend, “How can he lie like that?” But after beholding Carla for a while, she’s back in a white heat. “That whore! That cow!” Guido, responding to both parts of the axis, smiles and remarks, “And yet…” Carla begins to wordlessly sing out a tune, and her voice is surprisingly good. That this sensual triumph goes into overdrive accounts for a reverie, opening with Louisa’s going over to the table and congratulating Carla for the (loving) quality of her voice, and assembling to a scene in which a harem of lovers (including Louisa, Carla and Saraghina)—also including facsimiles of La Dolce Vita’s Nico; the petite dancer with the Brooklyn accent; and the rural girl whom Marcello covers with sticky feathers and rides—dotes on him, with no jealousies, takes umbrage at his putting out to pasture the feathered pony, has to be whipped into compliance with the rules of his tyrannical utopia and, finally, receives this (quite heady) little address that struggles to get on with the point almost lost within his self-indulgent fantasizing about a regime trampling geriatric killjoys: “Happiness is being able to tell the truth without ever making anyone suffer.”
With Louisa’s good friend and confidante, Guido has confided, “I thought I had something so simple to say. I thought my ideas were so clear. I wanted to make an honest film, something useful to everyone…to bury all those dead things we carry around with us…I really have nothing to say. But I want to say it anyway.” He has remarked to Louisa, “I don’t think I’ve had any major breakthroughs.” On visiting the set, a towering rocket launch pad for a (n absolutist) bid to escape a dying world, the producer, from out of a sketchy sense of where his money is going, chirps—to Guido’s dismay—“We’ll have fifteen thousand extras…a tragic crowd.” That sci-fi angle is but one of the stories drifting around to little avail. The one that seems to have the best traction involves Claudia Cardinale as a synthesis of Carla and Louisa (an Anita Ekberg with Catholic conscience—no coyote calls here). The confidante notices, about his approach to things in general, “You want too many guarantees.” And Guido’s paralysis about moving on that scheme represents an agreement that something is wrong with his processing those kinetic factors.
The money source (Tarzan) puts his foot down and drags Guido to a final review of screen tests from which a definite cast would get to work immediately. The facsimiles of Carla, Louisa and Saraghina are laughable. Heading for the door, Louisa declares, “Nothing ever happens between us.” Claudia shows up, and Guido whisks her off in a way recalling Marcello with Anita. They come to an ancient street (without a white kitten, but with a banquet and white tablecloth on a table in the middle of the road), which she wants to leave, pronto. “It doesn’t feel real.” The excursion lacks Anita’s impromptu and accident-prone cogency. Claudia demurs about the script. “The protagonist is unsympathetic.” Guido tries to make a case for him, and she surprises herself in finding him easy to rebut, repeatedly declaring, “He doesn’t know how to love…Such a fake!” Finally he agrees and admits he’d call the whole thing off if there weren’t so much money riding on it. There is a big launch party (at the rocket launcher), and Guido cannot say a word in reply to the world’s press (with paparazzi) pressing him with a battery of big and little issues (reminiscent of Anita’s press conference on arriving at Rome). The termination of the project comes in two forms—a suicide pistol discharged when he slips away from the cutthroat confrontation with the media by slipping under the conference table, the phrase, “You coward!” ringing in his ears; and the less melodramatic, less self-dramatizing simply walking away from the shambles. In the course of the latter move, he encounters the writer (whom he had dreamed of executing by hanging during the audition)—some of whose unkind remarks had been to the point—who, now effectively solicitous about the embarrassment (but no less aphoristic), declares, “We need some disinfectant, some real hygiene…to sweep away the miscarriages.” He goes on to confirm that “to learn silence” is paramount. Struck by having broken out of suffocating entanglements with totalitarian triumphs, Guido (not literally lifting off from heavy traffic) asks, “What is this sudden happiness that makes me tremble?”
Actually, he’s coming to see an unsuspected beauty in traffic jams. That requires further explanation; and the closing scene brings clarification along lines of rich, dark and handsome energy. The cadaverous magician (still extant)—true to his former kickoff line, “Let’s entertain these bores!”—marshals the launch party guests in a procession heading into a circus parade heading into a dance, the watchword of those dynamics being, “Everybody hold hands…Talk to each other.” Having dropped the pipe dream of bending everybody to his iconoclastic discoveries, Guido is left with a problematic conundrum that, as such, will never disappear—the kind of struggle (in form if not content) recommended by the insulting consultant that first day. Instead of a kick-ass regime like the one prevailing in his harem fantasy, he has come to see his way clear to an ad hoc, step-by-step procedure, built upon simple contiguities (“hold hands”). But the dark side of this situation can’t be ignored (maybe that’s why it’s premiered by someone at least as dead as alive). Amidst this rally, Carla says to Guido, “You can’t do without us.” That is all well and good with someone who lifted him out of a wimpy imploring toward her, to settle for the Railway Hotel, by inducing him to ask, while patting her bum, “How’s this Sgulp?”/ “Fine!” (The auxiliary material for the DVD includes a riveting and very funny monologue by Sandra Milo, who describes how it was being Fellini’s mistress for more than twenty years.) But he now has to go so far as coming up to Louisa and undertaking some seriously tough sledding, in terms of, “Life is a celebration,” and having her reply, “I can try if you help me.” Moreover, we see him bowing before and kissing the Cardinal’s hand with the sort of reverence he had reserved for Claudia (Cardinale). I think you can get the jist of this trembling with happiness being freighted with factors involving no small measure of kinetic dexterity.
On having the magician get the party moving into a circus parade canter, Guido takes up his director’s megaphone and almost seems to be back on the job, marshalling forces for maximal effects. But it is the acme of Fellini’s effort to have these counter-dynamics run straight into not only a personal life of close shaves and high comedy, but a professional venture of being “honest,” i.e., having an impetus decisively innovative, while embracing reactionary sensibilities. 8½ has challenged future film makers (including post-8½ Fellini) to dig down in ways few artists had hitherto confronted. With Louisa’s friend, he had snapped out, with exasperation, “What the hell does it mean to be honest?” Having a pathetic world history in his cross-hairs, he finds pulling the trigger makes him sick. Somewhere within that trembling timbre is a keynote harmonizing to productive levels with both tone deaf offerings and figures of tonal “purity” he has become privy to. Perhaps the last moment, with a little Guido conducting a band consisting of clowns, and then pacing along in darkness to strains from his piccolo, contemplates such a range.