As part of The Skuriels voting process to determine The Greatest Movies Ever, I wrote a piece on my top choice Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2. I was surprised and a bit disappointed to see it didn’t make the Top 20 (Singin in the Rain guys? Really???) but it’s such a subjective process with such a large scope that I’m willing to let it go. Paul and Steve posted individual ballots today and you can see the full results at The Skuriels home page. Click the link below to read my piece on the enduring brilliance of 8 1/2:
Fellini’s 8 ½
Faced with having to follow up the massive success of La Dolce Vita and not having a clear idea how to do it Federico Fellini found himself in the midst a personal crisis. He envisioned a film about a writer, played by Marcello Mastroianni, but he thought it would be difficult to replicate a writer’s struggle on screen. To make matters worse, his contemporary Michelangelo Antonioni had just completed La Notte, which was being praised as a more intellectual take on subject matter similar to that of La Dolce Vita and starred Mastroianni as a writer struggling with both his art and his marriage. We all know now that Fellini solved his problem by turning the camera inward – using a brilliant mix of memory, fantasy and reality to tell the story of his life at the time. As for his competition, I had to laugh when I caught a line in 8 ½ where Guido (Mastroianni) says to his sister, “Don’t tell me you like movies where nothing happens? I’m putting everything in. Even a dancing sailor.” True to his word Fellini filled his masterpiece with a carnival of characters he couldn’t escape, representing the various pressure points both personal and professional that were driving him into an anxiety riddled creative block.
Reading Fellini’s notes reproduced in the Criterion Collection DVD booklet, he recounts an episode where he was dragged to the birthday party of a crew member and once there a toast went up to the maestro himself, praising him as “The Magician.” Something about this bothered Fellini and made him look deeper for an idea that would allow the production to continue. The image planted by his crew must have stuck as midway through the film the Magician appears, an old friend of Guido’s whom he asks, “Tell me what’s your trick?” The Magician answers with a smile, “It’s partly a trick, but part of it is real.” Never has a film brought to life so vividly the mental state of a director in production and this metaphor proves an apt description of the type of magic Fellini conjured up when reimagining parts of his life as the continuous stream of episodes we see in 8 ½.
When it came time to make my list I knew immediately that 8 ½ would be at the top. I was introduced to it in a class taught by noted film scholar Suranjan Ganguly and have gone back to it several times when I needed some creative rejuvenation of my own. It’s a life-affirming work of genius that grows with age, revealing something new about my own experience each time I’ve watched it. There is a scene in the film where Guido is called from the sauna, a visual metaphor for heaven, and taken to the see the Cardinal. When asked his trouble, Guido admits that he is unhappy and is quickly reproached by the Cardinal who says, “Who told you we come into this world to be happy?” This to me, is what makes 8 ½ truly great, the realization and acceptance that the bitterness of life’s trials is what makes the rare moments of happiness so sweet. After all of Guido’s struggles, there is a beautiful moment of optimism near the end of the film where the camera is focused on Luisa (Anouk Aimee) as we hear Guido’s voice say to his wife, “Life is a celebration. Let’s live it together.” This line precedes a parade of all the film’s characters descending the makeshift staircase of the launch pad and in that moment Fellini seems to be including all of us – the actors, the producers, the crew, the critics, the people in his life, even the audience, showing us that we all played a small part in making this landmark piece of cinema possible. It’s an idea I believe strongly in and a sentiment that never fails to make me smile.