Some creations need no more than a cryptic, numeric designation to evoke their full power. A more descriptive title, while helpful in alluding to a story, character, or mood, might fail to measure up somehow to the mathematical certainty of a number in terms of enchantment, seductiveness, and in time, reputation. Such is the case with Chanel Number 5. So it is with Fellini’s 8½ (1963), newly released on Criterion Collection DVD.
Slightly less mysterious yet no less evocative was Fellini’s working title for the film, “La Bella Confusione,” or “The Beautiful Confusion.” Fellini is a virtuoso of controlled chaos, and 8½ is an exhilarating meditation on artistic inspiration, uncertainty, and creative paralysis.
The film sets in motion a dizzying spiral of vignettes that both thwart and allude to the commercial cinema’s tradition of straightforward, invisible storytelling. Plot elements proceed not logically but metaphorically, suspense is suspended in favor of digression, and the resolution that caps the film is emotional rather than explanatory. Narrative becomes an act of autobiographic examination in which cohesiveness is tossed to the wind like a handful of confetti: vivid snippets of visions, dreams, fantasies, memories, and even actuality collide in a kaleidoscopic interplay of elements which dazzle and illuminate. 8½ is narcissism in a fun-house mirror.
- Scene-specific audio essay by film critic and Fellini friend Gideon Bachmann & NYU professor of film Antonio Monda
- Theatrical trailer(s)
- Introduction by director Terry Gilliam
- Fellini: A Director's Notebook - a television film made for NBC in 1969
- Nino Rota: Between Cinema and Concert a 48-minute documentary about the maestro behind the music of Fellini's films
- Interviews with actress Sandra Milo ("Carla"), director Lina Wertmuller, and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro
- Extensive stills gallery including rare photographs from the collection of Gideon Bachmann
- 22-page booklet featuring essays by Fellini, longtime Fellini collaborator and critic Tullio Kezich, and film professor Alexander Sesonske
Ostensibly, 8½ is about a filmmaker’s attempt to develop and shoot, and the eventual abandonment of the very movie that is unfolding before our eyes. Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroainni) has checked into a fashionable health spa in an effort to restore his physical well being, sanity, and artistic powers. The curative mineral waters and therapeutic mud baths do little to cure Guido of his ailments, however, as he is suffocated by an escalating series of personal entanglements, professional obligations, looming deadlines, and the expectation that he “create something significant on demand.” Producers tell him his film is hopeless and without meaning, actors decry the absence of full-bodied roles or a completed script, a restless production team awaits firm direction, while wife (Anouk Aimee) and mistress (Sandra Milo) compete for his ever-fractured affections and attention. Money has been spent, sets stand dormant, actors fret and pace, and no film is in sight.
How can an artist juggle fidelity to his own vision and the necessary dependence on external factors? The collaborative process has bogged down into a confrontational one in which Guido must gingerly tread a minefield of financial pressure, fragile egos, wounded feelings, and a frenzied onslaught of agents, journalists, and hangers-on. How can an artist be true to himself when self-examination is perceived as a betrayal of everyone else around him, and creativity is denounced as an excuse for lies, deception, and self-delusion? Lucidity is snuffed out by confusion, and the screen goes dark.
The miracle of 8½ is that its depiction of personal and artistic exhaustion is in itself one of the most exhilarating and effervescent films in the history of cinema. Every scene has the visceral power of a hallucination: the traffic jam that opens the film in which every windshield is a stalled projection of erotic frustration and fulfillment, entrapment and escape; a procession of nebulous, shrouded figures descending into a cavernous sauna that resembles the misty rings of Dante’s Hell; “La Saraghina’s” lurid dance on the beach, offering a first glimpse of sex to eager schoolboys with her flabby undulations; the harem revolt in which Guido’s collection of women, both imaginary and real, rises up in protest against the man who both imagined and distorted them; and the final scene of affirmation, purification and atonement, where all of the characters in the film, reunited under Guido’s baton and dressed in white, join hands in a circular dance around a circus ring.
Contrary to the negative assessment of one of the film’s characters, the film is not a pastiche of “gratuitous episodes” without meaning. While perhaps an attempt by Fellini to pre-empt criticism of his own film, this comment fails to see that each segment, while seemingly disconnected, is linked to the next in a fluid overlapping of transitions which take the form of disrupted visions, triggered memories, or misperceptions. Themes and images develop, converge, and dissolve in a torrential stream of self-consciousness.
No less disconcerting than narrative discontinuity are the ever-shifting modalities of perception and consciousness. Reality and fantasy are not mutually exclusive states in which one negates the other; life itself is played like a script, twists of fate follow the whim of the script writer, chance and spontaneity might not be anything more than premeditated contrivance. Dreams, memory, and fantasy infuse reality and contribute substantially to artistic inspiration. Repetition creates its own déjà vu. Characters portrayed in the film later reappear as different actors auditioning for the roles we’ve already seen; settings are revealed to be sets; Guido’s unfinished film ends up to be 8½ itself: albeit beautifully fashioned, meticulous, and complete.
Picture and Sound
The Criterion Collection’s new digital transfer and restoration of Fellini’s 8½ is stunning. The stark, almost painful contrast of black and white in Fellini’s original is just as phosphorescent in this version on DVD, thanks to the RSDL dual-layered edition: the white is searing and the black is so rich that dark objects, outlines, and screen space project their own glowing, inky aura. Subtleties of shading are no less rigorously painted: gradations of black and gray are smooth and diffuse without the unfortunate bands of compressed shading and checkerboard pixellations that plague certain DVD transfers.
One of the delights of 8½ is Nino Rota’s carnival of musical elements, which ranges from a hurdy-gurdy band of marching clowns to Wagnerian opera. The audio quality of the soundtrack is vivid, crisp and clear, and one could hardly imagine a more resonant use of monoral sound. It’s the aural equivalent of glorious black and white, and the perfect companion to the film’s striking visual style.
This generous double disc set of 8½ boasts bonus material to the 10th power. Disc one contains the feature film itself, a screen-specific commentary by two renowned film critics, and an introduction by filmmaker Terry Gilliam (Brazil, 12 Monkeys). Included also is a 22-page booklet with essays by Fellini and other collaborators and film writers, the theatrical trailer, and new English subtitles in both translation and visual quality, a most welcome improvement (earlier incarnations of the film were infuriating to “read,” in that the subtitles were quite often completely washed out by the blinding whites).
Disc two offers even more coveted treasures. A gallery of rare photographs and production photos follows interviews with actress Sandra Milo, director Lina Wertmuller, and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. In addition, the documentary film Nino Rota – Between Cinema and Concert is featured — a portrait of the composer of innumerable Italian and international film scores, who enjoyed a 30-year collaboration with Fellini and contributed to the inimitable sound of his films.
Most notable of all, however, is the added attraction of the rarely seen Fellini – A Director’s Notebook (1969), an hour-long film commissioned by producer Peter Goldfarb for NBC television. This pseudo documentary, which takes the form of a visual notebook, is a mesmerizing account of Fellini in the act of filming Fellini.
The fun-house mirror of the narcissist has shattered, however, and the film opens with a haunting exploration of the abandoned sets from his aborted film, The Voyage of G. Mastorna. In an empty piazza overgrown with weeds, the shell of an empty airliner rests uneasily on a fragile skeleton of scaffolding. Nearby, a cathedral on the verge of collapse looms over the square. This “absurd nightmare landscape” has been overtaken by a band of hippies, whom Fellini interviews off-camera in his charming but hard to understand, high-pitched English.
The film is fascinating in its realization of past prophecies, as well as its foreshadowing of Fellini’s future films and style. The ruins of G. Mastorna hark back to the unfinished film in 8½. The assemblage of interviews, film clips from prior works, films-within-a-film, and screen tests which double as performances in their own right prefigure such future projects as Fellini Roma, Satyricion, and Intervista. A Director’s Notebook is a psychic travelogue in which Fellini serves as tour guide and historian to his own world. Grotesques populate the earth, history is authenticated by the occult, and archeology serves to dig up not only ancient ruins, but also the remains of the most recently abandoned movie project. Fellini’s flying circus has come to town.