Is Fellini’s ‘8 1/2’ Sublime or Self-Indulgent?

Marcello Mastroianni In 8 1/2
By  · Published on October 23rd, 2012

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius are using the Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the greatest movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they celebrate reaching #10 on the list, so instead of talking about Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, they create a discussion about creating discussions about movies that are about making movies. It’s what Fellini would have wanted.

Landon: So we’re 10 movies in and already we’ve arrived at our second movie about movies. I suspect, however, that you’d agree that 8 1/2 has a special place in the hearts and minds of cinephiles that Man with the Movie Camera might not. It’s almost a rite of passage for movie lovers. So my question for you is, what does Fellini say about filmmaking that’s so damned special?

Cole: Way to start with ambition. It’s a tough question, but the answer might be some of these things or all of them combined.

  1. Fellini was already established as a director (like the title says, it’s his 8-and-a-halfth film).
  2. Unlike Man with a Movie Camera, 8 1/2 is more directly about the filmmaking process.
  3. It’s a gorgeous, excellently-crafted movie.
  4. It’s not really about making movies so much as it is about a man struggling with his work…which happens to be making movies.
  5. Critical circles can be pretentious, and boy is this a great name to drop when discussing movies about movies.

How am I doing so far?

Landon: We clearly need 3 and a half more reasons. I’ll give it a swing

  1. Marcello Mastroianni. One of the great actor/director teams alongside John Ford/John Wayne and Orson Welles/Orson Welles.
  2. You have no idea where it’s going or how the hell it’s going to get there the first time you see it, but at the same time it all feels like it makes sense.
  3. Like La Dolce Vita, it’s fucking stylish. You feel like you’re at a confusing, sometimes dark mod-Roman party.
  4. Nine. Just watch Nine. Then watch 8 1/2.

Cole: There’s also something tough to talk about here. It’s a great movie, but it’s also hugely, unrepentently self-aggrandixing. It makes the work of filmmakers seem terribly important.

Landon: Agreed. But I’m wondering if at this point in Fellini’s career, and it this point in 1960s European art filmmaking, it didn’t feel exactly this way. Coming off La Dolce Vita, it’d be hard to convince Fellini that films don’t have a significant impact or implications in terms of representing people’s lives.

Cole: How so?

Landon: La Dolce Vita came out in 1960, and captured a new modern Rome right as it was happening. It also coined several phrases (the title and “paparazzo”) and was a global phenomenon. This was also the same year of Breathless, L’Avventura, and Psycho. If you didn’t believe movies were an important art form in 1959, you definitely believed it in 1960.

So I think there’s a cult of the director that Fellini might have been working off of that was undeniably real.

Cole: It seems like movies about movies tend to fall into two big categories (that might represent how we feel about the importance of film).

The 8 1/2s: important works that underline how important the work is (echoing a sentiment that film can be life-altering or at the very least effecting on a personal/social level).

The Singin’ in the Rains: Entertaining movies that use the process or the environment of filmmaking in order to have fun (echoing the idea that, it’s not brain surgery here, it’s movie-making).

Landon: I like those categories, but I think the interesting thing about both those films is that they can be serious on the outside/playful on the inside and vice versa because films themselves often embody that dichotomy. Singin’ in the Rain ends as a movie about what constitutes authenticity through a medium that always fakes reality. 8 1/2 ends with comparing filmmaking to a circus.

Cole: And Dumbo ends with a flying circus elephant. Clearly a reference to Fellini and 8 1/2.

I’m being stupid, but I imagine more than a few filmmakers might say getting a movie made is a lot like getting an elephant to fly.

Landon: And that pink elephants are way psychedelic. I’m pretty sure that’s where the Stargate sequence from 2001 originated from.

I think Fellini himself felt exactly like how you describe. How do you follow-up La Dolce Vita? Make a movie about following up La Dolce Vita. So, yes, to your point, 8 1/2 is at its core quite self-indulgent. Do you think it’s self-awarely so, or is its opinion of the seriousness of filmmaking worn on its sleeve?

Cole: That might be entirely up the each viewer. Those who see Guido as a serious hero may place the ideas behind the film on a pedestal that’s on top of a pedestal. Those who see Guido as taking himself far, far too seriously might roll their eyes through the laughter of his experiences and hand-wringing.

I don’t have a real job (there’s no way writing about movies counts), and even I keep thinking he needs to just get his shit together and get ‘r’ done, Cable Guy style.

Landon: This movie gives me the false hope that if I struggle for weeks on an editorial and never finish writing it, people will appreciate my process anyway.

Cole: Exactly. And I feel like I’m coming as not liking 8 1/2, but there’s another question that looms because of the environment that sprang up years after it.

Isn’t making a movie about making movies…too easy? It’s it kind of a cop out storywise?

Landon: Maybe at the time it wasn’t an obvious choice as subject matter. Also, while I don’t think the movie is critical about the things it represents, it does seem to be aware of – and sometimes playful about – its own excesses. While it may lack depth and insight outside the moment of its making, 8 1/2 lasts because its one of the most beautifully composed examples of black-and-white there’s ever been.

And I think the reasons you’ve listed explain why this movie is something of a calling card for movie lovers: is asks us how we feel about the seriousness of filmmaking.

But I don’t think at any point Fellini felt like he was making the next Bicycle Thieves.

Cole: He just happened to make something that ranks higher critically.

Do you think there’s something about the position of 8 1/2 on the Critic List (10th) versus its position on the Director List (4th)? Maybe it’s loved by critics, but it’s really a movie for filmmakers themselves?

Landon: That’s interesting. Because my bet is that this doesn’t resemble in any way the day-to-day process of filmmaking.

Case in point: can’t imagine an AD saying, “Time for a break at the ancient water bar with the ethereal everywoman while Barber of Seville plays.”

Cole: An AD said that once on a set I worked on, and people ripped both of his arms off.

But 8 1/2 gets at the feeling of the creative process. It bottles the impossibility and the absurdity of filmmaking (especially) because of that dichotomy we talked about earlier.

How can the most expensive art form also be intimate and personal and broadly popular and emotionally impactful?

Landon: Good point. And I’m not sure if Fellini ever figured out that difficult equation after this. Most of his movies became batshit crazy.

I’m curious as to why La Dolce Vita doesn’t compete with this for top honors more. Maybe because of 8 1/2’s appeal to people invested in the filmmaking process.

Cole: Oh, it must. And this is no fault of Fellini’s, but movies about movies are too common. It’s “Write What You Know” shoved into a vacuum. Granted, there are some amazing movies about process…like Barton Fink, Adaptation, For Your Consideration, A Serbian Film, The Artist…But making your movie directly about a director making a movie is instantly masturbatory, and few filmmakers have climbed out of that hole to create something really great with the subject matter.

Landon: It’s weird. La Dolce Vita deals with subject matter that is just as superficial, but outside the artistry of both films, it’s easier for me to argue for the “importance” of it for the exact reason you gave. I also, have a poster of La Dolce Vita on my wall, which I think should come into serious consideration on S&S list-making.

At least Adaptation has a scene of the artist literally masturbating.

Cole: And Charlie Kaufman is one of the few who can approach it with humility. It boils down to proving you can tell a story outside your own experience. Writers writing about writers writing? Give me a break. Go learn something, then write about that.

Or be Charlie Kaufman.

Landon: I think what this proves is that Fellini was at a point in his career in which he could get away with anything. And instead of remaking Psycho shot-for-shot, he climbed inside his brain and never came out.

Cole: Hahaha. And the movie succeeds because he finds the drama that we can connect with. Writers writing about writers, and filmmakers making films about filmmaking are at the same disadvantage as teenagers who think their problems aren’t wholly superficial and annoying.

Fellini found a real frustration and communicated it in such a way (mostly through Guido’s relationships) that it became a cipher for something more general.

“What’s horribly difficult about your work? That’s what I’m talking about here.”

Landon: I never found myself emotionally connected with Guido, though I never felt like I was asked to (there’s something compelling about Mastroianni onscreen even if he’s doing nothing) His wife, yes, on the other hand…that scene where she sees cinematic representations of his mistresses is heartbreaking.

But for me what elevates 8 1/2 is the craftsmanship. Every shot deserves to be put on a wall in a museum, but then you’d hate so separate these impeccable images from music, dialogue, and camera movement.

Cole: Right. It’d be staggeringly difficult to claim that the movie isn’t beautifully made. And while we don’t have to sympathize with Guido (because, really, that guy?), we don’t have to see him purely as a filmmaker either. Sure, that’s what he’s working on, but Fellini isn’t common enough to get tunnel vision subject-wise. We see a bigger picture and gain a greater understanding.

Landon: Indeed.

Asa Nisi Masa, Cole. Asa Nisi Masa.

A phrase I can’t recall the meaning to might be a fitting way to sum up a movie like this.

Cole: So we’re going to go watch 9 now, right?

Landon: Absolutely. It’s 8 1/2 with more half!

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