I saw Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 twice in film school, and I never understood why my professors and textbooks were so enamored. The IMDB’s biography for Fellini (September 2010) lists his trade mark as “Bizarre, abstract plots peppered with risque humor” (a shallow and misleading summary of his career, by the way), which is about as deeply as I understood his work when I was a student.
Back to School
It wasn’t a daily concern, but after college I missed the opportunity to revel in the wonders of Western civilization — to have as my only duty that day to read a great novel or maybe a little history and listen to someone dissect a great film. Post-college, it’s hard to make time and easy to make excuses.
I knew from experience it could be rewarding to re-read Dickens and Kafka, study the Greeks and Romans on Wikipedia, or re-watch a classic film. When I considered rewatching Fellini’s 8 1/2, I decided to try harder.
I knew that 8 1/2 refers to the cardinality of the film in Fellini’s work (it’s his 8 1/2th film). So my wife and I decided to watch all of his work, in sequence, so that when we got to 8 1/2 we could appreciate it as his contemporaries did.
It took several months to absorb all of Fellini’s films, but by the time we got to Intervista (1987 — The Voice of the Moon(1990) still isn’t widely available in the U.S.), we had a great understanding of what all the fuss was about. Fellini’s work started to seem more grounded and less weird. He was just a guy with all of the same hang-ups as the rest of us (except for the toga, cowboy hat, and whip). We realized we need not fear art. Just take it for what it is and try to notice your immediate and personal reaction.
> 8 1/2
We came to recognize phases in Fellini’s career. His early films, for example, don’t come close to fitting the desc
Familiarity does not breed contempt, but rather fondness. We began to look forward to the next dip into his neurotic but loving Italian world. We also came to appreciate 8 1/2 much better, not as a work of art to force on college students like my nieces and nephews, but as a movie made by someone who poured his soul into the Italian film industry, and had the industry pour itself into his soul. We came to like his work for what it is, not as a “bizarre” puzzle to be solved in a term paper.
I also discovered films I liked much better than 8 1/2. Nights of Cabiria brought me to tears, not of despair, nor of joy, but of sheer humanity; it has one of the best endings I’ve ever seen. And Intervista was an unexpected treat; one of Fellini’s last films features a man looking back on his life (even though it’s not over yet), and finding it good.
Phase 1 Successful: On to Phase 2
Watching the work of an auteur in sequence was satisfying and much more informative than cherry-picking the highlights of a career. So we will probably be watching a director’s work in-sequence for as long as we’re watching movies. Of course we’ll watch other films too, but we’ll always have our own little ongoing series.
After our Fellini success, we made a list of auteurs who we thought might be worthy of a serial retrospective via Netflix (in our case, The Video Station). I use the word “auteur” on purpose, not to sound snooty, but to separate those filmmakers who leave their fingerprints on everything they touch from those who just happen to direct films. Our list is below for your discussion.
For better or for worse, our next target is Alfred Hitchcock. He seems an unlikely choice because everyone has seen a Hitchcock film or three, and he doesn’t have a reputation that requires clarification. But Hitch made more than 50 films in his career, not just that handful of well-known films, and he proudly left his fingerprints on them. His signature cameo was a deliberate decision on his part. We’re barely out of his silent-era films and we’ve already seen precursors to shots, scenes, and tropes made famous in his later, better-known films. Maybe he’s an inspired choice after all. We’ll let you know in a few months after we finish Family Plot.
After that, we’ll tackle one of these other directors, or perhaps one that you suggest in the comments.
Auteurs with bodies of work
Powell & Pressburger
Maybe not, for various reasons
Jean-Luc Godard - too tedious?
Steven Spielberg - too easy?
Martin Scoresese - too easy?
Pier Palo Pasolini - too painful?
Andrei Tarkovsky - too boring?
Maybe not consistent enough to consider
What do you think?