Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ is a movie which I loved as a teenager, but which I’ve ignored for much of my adulthood. It’s one of those things which I almost unconsciously drifted towards a negative perception of, coming to view it as a visually inventive but ultimately vapid exercise in style: the sort of movie that would wow a kid who was just discovering Art for the first time, but which doesn’t hold up to any real scrutiny. That Fellini’s other movies were a tad disappointing only cemented 8 ½ as a momentary affair.
Actually rewatching it all these years proves that I was actually an idiot, and that I still really love it. I’d almost call it my surprise secret favourite movie, but I feel inclined to give it a more meaningful label: 8 1/2 is a movie which sums up everything I like about movies (well, this and Jurassic Park, let’s say).
On the surface, 8 ½ looks like the worst movie ever, seemingly being another essay in the genre of “boring adulterous rich dude has a midlife crisis.” And indeed we find filmmaker Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastoriani) cheating on his wife at a fancy spa while freaking out about his inability to find any artistic inspiration for his next movie, which is already in pre-production. The plot, in meta fashion, reflects Fellini’s own artistic frustration over what 8 ½ was supposed to be about (even the title is just a reference to the number of movies he had made up to that point). So it also threatens to become an exercise in artistic navel-gazing.
But the thing is that talking about the plot of 8 ½ is almost entirely pointless, as it serves only as a baseline from which Fellini launches into various cinematic reveries of surreal and fantastical imagery that exist because they are moving, charming, silly or haunting in their own right, as if he were leading you through an art gallery of images. It’s a movie where concern for, and delight in, imagery overwhelms virtually all other concerns.
Which brings me to my claim about the movie representing something essential to me about cinema, which Roger Ebert underlines in his own review of 8 ½ : “A filmmaker who prefers ideas to images will never advance above the second rank because he is fighting the nature of his art. The printed word is ideal for ideas; film is made for images, and images are best when they are free to evoke many associations and are not linked to narrowly defined purposes.”
This is something that is often confused with vagueness, and many with less talent are vague out of a desire to seem profound. But a good image is one which has an intrinsic power while also evocative of other things, and Fellini here has a knack for finding striking images and organizing them into a complete experience (and I don’t think this is necessarily an artsy-fartsy exercise: everyone loved Fury Road for all the evocative and startling imagery it built up out of a threadbare script. It’s just movie magic to let you see things that can’t possibly be real, but nevertheless feel real).
It’s Fellini’s unique, and ultimately unrepeatable, accomplishment in 8 ½ to take very personal experiences and reflections and to translate them into the shared headspace of cinema, such that they emotionally and intuitively make sense to us. For all its weirdness and surrealism, it never becomes esoteric or weird for the sake of being weird because the experiences ring true for us. It also helps that Fellini never pretends that his status as an filmmaker makes his life uniquely profound or anything (although he is perhaps a little too willing to let his protagonist off the hook for being a crappy husband).
The movie is at heart a comedy, and one which devotes a considerable amount of energy to taking the piss out of itself. The screenwriter/critic character Daumier (Jean Rougeul) is always throwing withering critiques at the movie’s sequences for failing to have any intellectual purpose. But then a lot of the other characters themselves turn into a peanut gallery of glib intellectualism, caught up in their own theories, ideologies and politics. 8 ½ mocks its own pretentiousness, and the pretentiousness of people who turn movie watching into a dry exercise of conceptual analysis.
The movie has no “point”, but it is quite beautiful, and does beauty require a justification? I think a lot of movies that have tried to imitate 8 ½ fail for failing to grasp one side or the other of this, either becoming indifferent to the beautiful, or narcissistically turning one’s own life into a thesis statement on life itself (the only other work of self-reflexive filmmaking that I feel comfortable comparing with it is, oddly, Jurassic Park; a silly dinosaur movie that also functions as a metaphor for making a silly dinosaur movie is its own justification, as far as I’m concerned).
Fellini was a lapsed Catholic, and I think a lot was gained by 8 ½ being the work of an imagination that was formed in the Church; the idea of beauty as transcendental, and of the world as in some sense an enchanted place, is still operative here in the imagination, even if not in faith.
In that regard, it’s probably the best surrealist movie ever.