Assault on Mount Olympus: Or, Is 8 ½ Really That Great?
Preface: a confession. I’ve been prevaricating for the past couple of days over whether to actually post the following, as it’s sure to devalue my stock still further after my admission of disappointment with Ozu’s TOKYO STORY some weeks back. However, this is a discussion forum, and sacred cows of all hues must be prepared to take their chances in the arena with the rest. So should you feel a red mist descending while reading the following, just keep repeating: it’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie…
Thanks to a certain scene in ANNIE HALL, it could be argued that Woody Allen effectively stifled any future possibility of serious debate over the monolithic talent that is Federico Fellini… but, smiling idiot that I am, I’m going to go ahead and re-ignite that long-dead spark of controversy anyway. One sock filled with horse manure, coming right up.
First of all, I ought to make it clear that I fully realise the quixotic nature of an attempted critique on Fellini: to question the creator of 8 ½ is ultimately about as productive as criticising Jupiter, or shouting one’s disapproval at Orion’s Belt. It’s a futile heresy, an attempt to sabotage a critical orthodoxy troubled rarely (if ever) by a dissenting voice. (At least, not these days; when Fellini’s films were freshly-minted, of course, they attracted a Dam-Buster’s level of establishment flak… but now the Sanhedrin is under new management, every critic seems proud to fly Fellini’s colours atop their turrets.)
My intention here isn’t to bleat uncomprehendingly about Fellini’s wilful obscurantism (per se), decry him as poseur or charlatan or otherwise present some kind of miserable apology for linear-narrative philistinism – no sensible critic could credibly seek to deny Fellini’s eye for pictorial composition, his expert use of visual metaphor or his (largely positive) influence over the course of late 20th/early 21st- Century cinema. My argument, such as it is, hinges upon the tyrannical narcissism which clutters his work with impenetrable private signifiers that can find no true resonance in even the most cinematically-literate audience. A viewer may find Fellini’s autobiographical anecdotes superficially amusing (or penetratingly tedious, as the case may be) but will wait in vain for a sincere invitation from the ringmaster to linger at the party.
Cinema is an art of seduction which Fellini seems intent on subverting. For every welcoming overture the director makes (that transcendent opening dream sequence, for instance), there’s a following non sequitur which repels us almost immediately. It’s like going on a date with Marilyn Monroe, only to find her dinner conversation dominated by didactic recitations from Proust. (That approach may have worked for Arthur Miller, but I require a touch more romance.) Characterisation – a traditional (some might say staid) conduit for audience identification – is likewise only ever addressed in the most oblique fashion, with actors representing only certain abstract memorative qualities of the author as opposed to human beings capable of independent thought or action. (That’s not something restricted to Fellini, of course. MARIENBAD is even more abstruse in this regard, but there’s much more of a sense of mathematical precision about Robbe-Grillet’s avant-gardeism; in 8 ½, the device just seems like plain old egomania.) A surge of affection for one of Fellini’s caricatures seems as remote a possibility as empathising with a chain of paper dolls; and isn’t emotion an indispensable component of art? (1) 8 ½ is ultimately a cold and distancing experience for these reasons – and I would argue that such an uninviting work cannot, by definition, aspire to greatness.
My inability to connect with Fellini is undoubtedly a consequence of our wildly divergent personalities. (And that’s nobody’s fault, not even mine.) An introvert by nature, I recoil in horror from the kind of grotesque exhibitionism Fellini tends to demonstrate in his films (2). The promotion of the director’s own ego to centre stage could, I suppose, be applauded for encouraging a similar liberation in his audience, but the problem with this is that Fellini’s obsessions are too self-specific in their detail to invite empathy, or even a vicarious enjoyment of the director’s own psychological strip-tease (3). Fellini’s signifiers strike no chord of recognition within my own life’s array of experience, except on the most trivial of levels – like countless others on this board and beyond, I’m intimately familiar with the frustration of writer’s block, for instance, but would never dream of trumpeting my angst so shamelessly in public.(4) (I know 8 ½ is supposed to represent a subversive triumph over creative impotence, but much as in the recent ADAPTATION I have to admit to finding the recursive conceit of an author making his own dearth of inspiration the “solution” to its own problem something of an artistic cop-out. It’s like a bad comic forgetting the punchline to a joke and unconvincingly boasting that his failure represents a calculated form of avant-garde humour.) At its most extreme I find Fellini’s ego-on-parade style, frankly, to be a source of flesh-crawling embarrassment, a gorgeously-shot, impeccably-choreographed exercise in shameless self-publicity. It’s important to celebrate the individual, but Fellini’s sense of self is so overbearing as to exert an almost tyrannical influence over audience and crew alike, their individuality subordinated ruthlessly to his. In his wonderful piece “101 Things I Hate”, John Waters concludes with his 101st pet peeve: friends who eagerly rush to tell him “I had the weirdest dream last night…” It’s exactly this sort of unsolicited exhibitionism which fatally flaws 8 ½, the relentlessness of the “me, me, me” mantra eventually drowning out the poetry of the images in a deluge of esoteric minutiae. All art is a mirror of sorts, but some directors are courteous enough to tilt the glass slightly to allow reflections other than their own into the frame.
Hand-in-hand with these complaints there is also the contentious issue (albeit a subjective one) of 8 ½’s subject matter: a film about a film director who can’t decide what to make his film about. In his enthusiastic introduction to the (excellent) Criterion DVD, Terry Gilliam declares it to be the film which best describes the insane process of making a film - well, okay, but shouldn’t we expect a film to address more than its own trivial inner mechanics? (One might as well champion THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST as the film which most accurately describes the act of crucifixion. As an end in itself, it’s somewhat lacking in ambition.) I suppose I’m fundamentally uncomfortable with the whole notion of turning the camera onto itself, of the cinema as a subject inherently worthy of scrutiny; the medium is in grave danger of becoming the message, to coin a phrase.(5) Film-making is an aspect of human endeavour, of course, and as likely a place to squirrel out the eternal verities as another, but there’s an unpleasantly self-congratulatory aspect to such examples of the film industry’s “ironic” introspection which (with certain honourable exceptions) I find hard to tolerate. Besides which, the tribulations of a pampered movie director fail to strike me as the stuff of undying legend; what little drama this tale has to offer is confined to the middling recollections of a tormented genius experiencing a prolonged mid-life crisis. The worst that can happen if Mastroianni fails to make his movie is that a nitwit producer learns a valuable lesson about sycophancy and the film world is spared a work of dubious significance. The gravitas of the situation eludes me. (Admittedly, Fellini addresses his alter-ego’s predicament with a certain amount of humour, some of it actually funny, but as a tactic to convince us he’s not taking himself seriously it fails absolutely. This genius considers himself oh-so-very important, you can believe that.)
While I’m by no means convinced that 8 ½ is worth all the critical fuss, am I glad it exists? Well, sure, in the same way I’m glad that other infuriating-but-somehow-fascinating films exist, like, say, L’HUMANITE, GERRY or LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD. Without 8½, the present cinematic landscape would seem unrecognisably strange – the careers of David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Peter Greenaway would certainly have evolved in a different direction (had the market permitted them to exist at all) - but I have to confess to finding FF’s spiritual offspring far more agreeable company. When sitting down to watch Fellini, it seems to me that an audience must be prepared to subordinate their own personality absolutely to his, to a far greater degree than with any other filmmaker; for two hours or more, the viewer becomes subsumed within a universe dominated by one of Philip K. Dick’s insane Gnostic demiurges, a talent rampaging without restraint towards noumenal ends. Mystery is something I value very highly, and I certainly reject the notion that I have to “understand” every element of a work of art in order to admire it – most if not all of the so-called “great works”, in fact, are considered so precisely because they refuse readily to surrender their secrets, and must be explored and re-explored to peel away the successive layers of meaning. My problem is that I simply don’t find Fellini’s enigmas intriguing enough to join in with the speculation; and consequently, 8 ½ will forever remain a triumph of architecture over art.
To close on a positive note, the Criterion DVD can be highly recommended even to detractors of the director’s idiosyncrasies, although the cumulative effect of the supplements’ fawning reverence to Il Maestro might necessitate a period of convalescence to be set aside afterwards (I recommend at least a week). There’s a good, if somewhat dry commentary track accompanying the film on disc 1, with a very good documentary (originally made for German TV) on Nino Rota, a very bad documentary by Fellini (touted as a kind of scrap-book of his own unfinished projects, but in reality a teeth-grinding endurance test eminently suitable for familiarising US troops bound for Vietnam to the kind of insidious psychological-warfare techniques they could expect if captured by the enemy), and an absorbing selection of interviews (roughly 20-25 minutes each) with Lina Wertmuller, Vittorio Storaro (an enthusiastic eulogist of DP Gianni di Venanzo) and Fellini’s main squeeze Sandra Milo (a wonderfully endearing and fragile figure whom Fellini seems to have put through the emotional wringer). Rota emerges as the only modest, stable and remotely sane monkey in the barrel.
(1) I’ll admit that I never cared a fig for the predicament of Visconti’s Von Aschenbach either; perhaps there’s something about the Italian grandiloquence of style (as evinced by their flagship arthouse product, anyway) that I simply find counter-productive.
(2) The admittedly paltry selection of Fellini films I’ve seen: LA DOLCE VITA, 8½, SPIRITS OF THE DEAD (the only one I could say I really loved without qualification), AMARCORD, SATYRICON and parts of AND THE SHIP SAILS ON. But they’re sufficient material from which to extrapolate certain inferred truths about their author.
(3) Fellini’s persistent love affair with the circus is a particular source of irritation. My deep mistrust of the word “carnivalesque” can trace its lineage directly to 8 ½. (Jodorowsky also over-indulges a little too much in this area, for my liking, but somehow his films – while no less solipsistic – are altogether more fun than Fellini’s, although I acknowledge that the former might not have existed in his current form without the influence of the latter.)
(4) Nope, I can’t claim to be “an artist” by profession, but if pressed will admit to having some minor aspirations in this area; in moments of extreme derangement, I often wonder if the only difference between “the artist” and “the ordinary individual” lies in their respective degrees of humility, anyway. (Don’t we all engage with the world on a level that could be described as dramatic, romantic, poetic…artistic?) But I’m probably just wrong, wrong, wrong.
(5) The only genuinely successful films about filmmaking, for me, are Godard’s LE MEPRIS – a truly great, moving film which properly elevates the disintegration of a human relationship above the creation of a rather foolish anti-epic – and Kieslowski’s CAMERA BUFF, a film which conveys a destructive obsession with a grace and subtlety conspicuously absent from the self-impressed 8 ½. There are other, funny examples like LOST IN OBLIVION or even AMERICAN MOVIE, but they’re not really much more than minor aftershocks following self-consciously in 8 ½’s footsteps.
Postscript: The prefix “In my opinion…” should be inferred at any and every point in the above.