DVD Review Of 8½
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/24/06
In his 1988 film Another Woman, director Woody Allen has one of his minor characters, named Paul (Harris Yulin), confront the film’s lead character, Marion, played by Gena Rowlands, with a comment that she made upon his attempts at writing. Years earlier, when Paul had shown Marion a manuscript of some of his writing, Marion declared to him, ‘This is overblown. It’s too emotional. It’s maudlin. Your dreams may be….meaningful to you, but to the objective observer….they’re, they’re.…it’s so embarrassing.’ I use this quote from Allen because his underrated 1980 masterpiece, Stardust Memories, arguably the best film he ever made (along with Another Woman and three or four others), is always unfairly negatively compared to Italian New Wave domo Federico Fellini’s 1963 opus 8½ (Otto e mezzo). I think it’s a facile comparison, as well as a wrong one. While Allen does steal many of the best moments from Fellini’s film, in a reworked homage of sorts (just as Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland and Francois Truffaut’s Day For Night also deal with similar themes), Allen’s film is far more than a remake or homage- it’s a brilliant refinement of the argument Fellini started and is also superior to Fellini’s film, for Allen’s film perfected the dialectic. This is seen several times, in several ways. The first is that Allen’s film is simply more concise- at an hour and a half running time vs. Fellini’s two hour and twenty minute running time, even as it deals with more themes than Fellini’s film. The second is that Allen had Fellini’s film to build upon, as a base, and could toss out the parts that didn’t work, and add in the best signature Woody Allen touches. The third, and most important of the major reasons that Fellini’s overrated, but still very good, film is not up to snuff with Allen’s later film is because of the quote above.
8½ is suffused with the fictive childhood memories of Fellini’s onscreen doppelganger, Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), which- if the DVD experts on Fellini, and those I’ve scanned in gathering background information, are correct- are merely Fellini’s own true memories transferred to film. They can result in some interesting themes and scenes for the film, but often, most manifestly in the Saraghina and Cardinal digressions, they make far too much of points that could more easily and poetically been conveyed onscreen. Both of these motivs waste a good twenty or more minutes of the film’s running time. In Stardust Memories, by contrast, Allen’s doppelganger, Sandy Bates (played by Allen), is more concerned with more immediate memories and artistic woes, not distant childhood. This more direct concern for the filmic process, plus the film’s concision and betterment of themes and tropes opened up by Fellini, allows Allen to craft the better film. In short, 8½ may be a great attempt, or dry run, at dealing with complex personal and creative issues in a filmically self-conscious way, but that’s all it is- a great attempt. Stardust Memories is a great film, period. I shall go into more detail in a bit.
As for the famed narrative- or meta-narrative. Let me give a brief rundown of what 8½ is about. The film opens with shots of 43 year old married filmmaker Guido Anselmi in a traffic jam. It is obviously a dream sequence- or is it a scene from the film that he is to make, the one this film is about? It is clearly a set piece, and after escaping from his car window, as if from the uterus, he takes to the air, and becomes a kite, pulled back down to earth by whom we later recognize as the filmic representatives of Claudia Cardinale (playing herself), the actress who is to star in Guido’s film within this film. As he falls to earth he wakens at a health spa where he is recuperating from a breakdown of some sort, along with his screenwriter, a dense film critic named Daumier (Jean Rougeul). Outside the spa he has a vision of a virginal white clad goddess, also played by Claudia Cardinale- although she is a separate character from the Claudia Cardinale who later appears as an actress in 8½. She manifestly represents an idealized vision of love and femininity to Guido. Daumier then criticizes Guido’s ideas for his upcoming film as immature and self-indulgent, as Fellini obviously is striking the first blows for his film’s claim to greatness.
He then spots Mario Mezzabotta (Mario Pisu), an old friend who is squiring around a dark, sexy young American girl he intends to marry. Her name is Gloria Morin (Barbara Steele, Mario Bava’s horror film diva). Guido then heads to the train station to meet his gauche and buffoonish married mistress Carla (Sandra Milo). He already regrets asking her to come, until that night they play a game of hooker and john, and she eagerly plays her naughty role to sexual perfection. Guido falls asleep and dreams of his parents at a cemetery, His father (Annibale Ninchi) is dead, and his mother (Guiditta Rissone) kisses him lasciviously, then pulls back to reveal it is his wife, Luisa (Anouk Aimée). Later, Guido tries to avoid movie types and reporters who are after the story of what his next film will be about. Some entertainment ensues at the hotel, and Guido is reminded of a mysterious childish saying from his past, asa nisi masa. This nonsense phrase is the film’s equivalent of Citizen Kane’s Rosebud. Guido recalls scenes from his childhood, where a female cousin of his believed greatly in the phrase’s power. Many critics have tried to read into this nonsense phrase, thinking it an anagram for anima, which represents feminine strength, but there is little support for this notion. Just as Rosebud is merely a sled, and Charles Foster Kane’s childish yearning for it, and nothing phallic nor terribly deep, asa nisi masa is merely Guido’s way of invoking a past where words held greater power. It could as easily be abracadabra. Yet, Fellini has tossed so much at the viewer that he knows critics will misconstrue much, and he hoped they would imbue whatever they needed to find the film satisfying. In short, your asa nisi masa is different from mine.
Later that night, Guido is confronted by a French actress (Madeleine LeBeau) who has come to the spa to read for a role, and hammer out a contract with her agent. Luisa has also called the hotel. Guido stalls the actress, for he doubts the film will ever be made, and calls his wife back, urging her to come to the spa. Before going to sleep he has to settle a dispute with his staff and an old assistant director friend of his named Conocchia (Mario Conocchia), who feels the film industry has passed him by. He is awakened that night by a febrile Carla, who aims to seduce him into revealing his true feelings for her. Guido, however, has his own concerns, as his memories seem to overwhelm him with feelings he cannot cope with. Thus, he has an audience with a visiting Cardinal (Tito Masini), but spies an old woman on a hill, who reminds him of an old prostitute he knew from childhood, named Saraghina (Eddra Gale), who would perform lewd acts in front of young Guido and his friends for paltry change.
He later meets the Cardinal, again, in the spa’s sauna, but the whole scene is shrouded in ambiguity, and Guido knows not what to make of it. That evening, Luisa arrives at the spa, and they visit the absurdly baroque set that Guido’s crew has built for his next film, a post-apocalyptic tale of human survivors leaving a ravaged earth in a spaceship. Once there, the others climb to the top of the scaffolds while Guido asks his wife’s best friend, Rosella (Rossella Falk), his de facto conscience, about Luisa’s state of mind. Their marriage may be ending, but Guido seems reluctant. She chides him, and later Guido and Luisa bicker over his infidelities, even as they sleep in separate beds. The next morning, at an outdoor breakfast pavilion, Guido, Luisa, and Rosella eat their breakfast as Carla the mistress gaudily arrives in a horse-drawn carriage. Guido pretends he does not know nor notice Carla. Guido then fantasizes of a farm of women, the most famous scene in the film. Here, all the females from his life are at his behest, until they rebel, and he must hold them back with a whip. This is another rather innocent and fun scene that Fellini doubtlessly knew would be over-interpreted by desperate critics.
The next scene is back to ‘reality’. Guido, Luisa, and some others, are watching screen tests for the film, and when Daumier gets too annoying with his constant inane chatter, meant by Fellini to undermine potential criticisms of the film, Guido fantasizes he is hanged. This diversion is so obvious one wonders why Fellini left it in the film, especially when, in other areas, he employs great subtlety. Meanwhile, Luisa gets enraged with the way she is portrayed onscreen, right down to her dowdy eyeglasses. She walks away, Guido follows. They argue, and he dismisses her objections as more acting, obviously his rationale for why their marriage is failing, and his infidelities. Meanwhile, the ‘real’ Claudia Cardinale appears in the film, and she is the polar opposite of the idealized Claudia of Guido’s recurring visions. Guido is disappointed with Claudia. She is still head to toe gorgeous, of course, but not an image of female perfection any longer. She is too real. She even seems vapid, as the two drive off to talk of the film. She will clearly not be the gorgeous love interest in this film who acts as a deus ex machina in so many mainstream commercial films. This is when Conocchia and Claudia’s entourage arrive. The next day, they all head out to the set where the spaceship scaffolding is. A press conference is scheduled about the film. Guido fantasizes he kills himself with a pistol after crawling under the table. He cancels his film, to the delight of Daumier, who felt the film would be a disaster. Guido then has a last fantasy, seeing all the people from his past walking around what seems to be a circus ring. Guido begs Luisa for forgiveness. She is ambivalent, but will try to accept him, flaws and all. Guido plans a new film, one that is ‘honest’. Guido directs the characters to form a large dance circle, that he and Luisa join. The dance line moves offstage, leaving only some musicians, and the young Guido, from the Saraghina, and other earlier, scenes. He directs the other musicians to leave stage right, then marches out of the spotlight alone, as the screen fades to black. This was supposedly a scene only to be used for the film trailer, but Fellini decided to scrap an alternate ending. It works well.
One of the problems with films that are subtitled, such as this Criterion Collection DVD set, is that subtitles force one to have to rewatch the film to get visual subtleties lost in the process of reading. Dubbing does not, even if not bad. I rewatched it listening to the hit and miss DVD commentary, but I’m glad I did, for this allowed me to take in the film more fully, and it improves with rewatching, for it is a film chock with subtleties the forced reading denies the first time around. I long for all foreign films on DVD to be dubbed. There simply is no excuse for a visual medium like film, especially the best of the form, as this is- despite its flaws, to be so crippled, especially since so much of the Italian dialogue was poorly redubbed. What the DVD commentary explained well was that Italian film studios, in the silent era, were not soundproof, and when sound came the costs to soundproof the studios were prohibitive. Thus, all Italian films were redubbed. In fact, 8½, according to the DVD experts, was the first film where Claudia Cardinale’s real voice was used, for it was considered too smoky, sexy, deep, and erotic for a woman. That’s an odd objection, given that eros is all any man could think of looking at the actress. Yet, given this reality, even a typical 1960s era Godzilla film could not be more poorly dubbed than this version of the film. That the DVD is lacking this necessary feature really galls true cineastes.
As for the rest of the commentary? Film critic Gideon Bachmann and film professor Antonio Monda do a decent job, although the prepared essay text that bridges their good comments, read by a female voice, is rather inane and obvious in what it points out, often merely emphasizing Fellini’s intent over the film’s accomplishment. The film’s introduction by filmmaker and ex-Monty Pythoner Terry Gilliam is rather pointless. The second disk is a bit better. It has a 52 minute 1969 NBC tv pseudo-documentary called Fellini: A Director's Notebook which is interesting in form, if not particularly informative on the filmmaker nor this film. There is a solid 48 minute documentary, on the music of Fellini’s films, called Nino Rota: Between Cinema and Concert. There is a stills gallery, and interviews with actress Sandra Milo (Carla), director Lina Wertmuller, and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Additionally, there is an informative booklet with essays by Fellini, critic Tullio Kezich, and film historian Alexander Sesonske.
Incidentally, there is some confusion over why the film is called what it
is called. The truth is that the film’s final title 8½ refers to the
number of films Fellini directed to that point- six features, two short (½)
films, and his first film, half a feature, Luci del Varieta, which he
co-directed with Alberto Lattuada, thus totaling 7½ films. This was therefore
his 8½th film. As for the critical
reception and continuing misconstruals this film receives, both positive and
negative, it is easy to see why. Much of this confusion is recapitulated in the
film’s original title La Bella Confusione (The
Beautiful Confusion). It is not clear
whether or not this internal artistic confusion was genuine, in Fellini’s
case, but it does not matter to his puppet, Guido Anselmi, for intent is
meaningless in art. The end result is all, always all. Thus, 8 ½ is a
weird mélange of Freudian pop nonsense (id, ego, superego), and Salvador Dalì
lite imagery, that badly dates the film intellectually. All of it is well
handled, in beautiful black and white cinematography by Gianni de Venanzo, with
an intriguing and well-placed musical score by Nino Rota,
to enhance the artificiality of it all, but all the personal references, which
in the film do little to enhance an understanding of Guido, even as they may
lend obsessive critics insight into Fellini’s life, drag the film down by its
own overblown heft.
I’ve mentioned the Saraghina trope, but another trope which seems pointless is the recurrence of a former Italian movie goddess from the 1930s, unnamed in the film, but portrayed by actress Caterina Boratto. She appears several times in the film, but nothing is ever made of it. Ingmar Bergman made a point in some of his personalist experimental films from the late 1960s of always having a brief shot of a certain type of religious female statue in the film. But he shot it and moved on. Fellini’s recurrence of the Boratto motif goes nowhere. It’s gotten the first time Guido longingly desires her that she is an ideal, and one from his youth, in a moment where the film jumbles time up, so that all the periods of Guido’s life are happening at once. Time simply ceases to exist within him. Also, many of the references to young Guido go on too long. We learn he suffered under Catholic school sadism. Well….duh! A simple line from Guido’s adult mouth could save another ten minutes of pointless digression, in poorly written and acted scenes of a young Guido, that is never picked up on later. When critics have charged that the film is masturbatory and self-indulgent, they are certainly correct. That does not deny the brilliance of Fellini’s self-satisfaction, but brilliant scenes that are extraneous to the film’s core, in today’s world, would more properly belong in the DVD deleted scenes, not the film itself.
This self-obsession, and lack of artistic discipline, is what drags Fellini’s film down from a greatness is could have achieved at 70% its current length, and what stands out so clarion in Woody Allen’s reimagining of this artistic dilemma in Stardust Memories, by its lack. Few critics realized that what they saw as Allen merely ripping Fellini off, or paying homage, is more, in fact, Allen skillfully cribbing, mocking and skewering Fellini’s pretensions, even as he says, ‘Here, Federico, this is how you do it right.’ There is a sincerity, or good imitation of it, in 8½, when Fellini has Guido utter such banal existential lines as, ‘I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same,’ (which oddly echoes a talentless artist wannabe character named Joey, from Allen’s Bergmanian Interiors) or ‘Happiness consists of being able to tell the truth without hurting anyone.’ Yet, this very sincerity seems to have overridden Fellini’s sense of good narrative and cinema. Compare those two quotes to the caustic motto of Stardust Memories, uttered derisively by space aliens to Sandy Bates, ‘You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.’ Allen deals with laughter, art, public personae, and film, not merely his own self and more self. Fellini did not. And not only is Fellini far too focused on himself, via his doppelganger Guido, but his obsession is flimsy. All of Guido’s fantasies and dreams that are seen are simplistic, straight out of Freudian 101. There is no real nor deep dream imagery, rather a film’s idea of dream imagery. We are never once confused between reality and dream, and shaken by the confusion, unlike, say, in Bergman’s films, where a quick cut takes us from the film’s reality to sheer fantasy, especially if we’re not certain. Most films flub this portrayal as often as they do the portrayal of ghosts. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, along with Bergman’s films, are some of the few that realistically depict the seeming reality of dreams, fantasies, and the haunted realm. Fellini’s take is not even a burlesque of such, as Allen’s is. Therefore his whole attempt at depth rings hollow, one dimensional, merely filmically- the film is just about film, not real psychology as applied to film, and when Fellini indulges that shallow end of the art his film tanks with some pointless, if not outright bad, moments. Again, this is all relative to some of the masterworks of Allen, Bergman, and Kubrick. Compared to most Hollywood cinema, then or now, 8½ is a quite daring and impressive work. Perspective, as said, is everything, and forty-three years allows such parallaxing, and proper placement of the film into its niche in the canon.
This ability, however, of Allen’s to step outside himself and mock his film and characters, on more than one level, is what places Stardust Memories above mere imitation or homage, and into the realm of greatness, masterpiece, and consequently relegates 8½ to mere precursor form, a sort of Protoceratops to Allen’s ferocious Triceratops. Yet, most critics seem more focused on the intent Fellini had in the film’s making, than its artistic merits, just as they harped on Allen’s supposed homage, rather than seeing his film independently. While I’m glad I finally saw 8½, for it is a good film, its real worth is in allowing a cineaste to appreciate what Allen did seventeen years later, in a truly great film. 8½ improves with rewatching, but it’s still too long, filled with clumsy satire- Saraghina and the Cardinal, pointless digressions, and the like. Allen also ends his film with a masterstroke that restates and tops Fellini’s. His film ends with the actors who are playing the characters in the film within Sandy Bates’ film (which we do not find out till the end) within the real film, walking out of the theater and commenting not too enthusiastically on what they’ve just seen, as the lights dim out on Sandy Bates. Their comments are far too harsh, of course, for what Sandy Bates has made, but would be far more apt for Fellini’s film. I think Woody was on to something. I urge you to watch both films, and see that we’re both right.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? website.]
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