Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.
Where 8½ (1963) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 47 of the first edition hardback, Ebert refers to 8½ in the discussion of his devout Catholicism as a youth. In particular, he mentions that a photograph of the saint from whom he took his confirmation name, Dominic Savio, appears on the wall of the grade school in the film’s childhood flashbacks.
What Ebert had to say in his reviews: “‘La Dolce Vita’ remains, for my money, the best of Fellini’s films; it’s a sad, shocking, exuberant portrait of a Roman gossip columnist having a crisis of the spirit. But ‘8 1/2’ is a great film in its own way, and despite the efforts of several other filmmakers to make their own versions of the same story, it remains the definitive film about director’s block.” -From his 1993 review for the Chicago Sun Times
“‘8 1/2’ is the best film ever made about filmmaking. […] It does what is almost impossible: Fellini is a magician who discusses, reveals, explains and deconstructs his tricks, while still fooling us with them. He claims he doesn’t know what he wants or how to achieve it, and the film proves he knows exactly, and rejoices in his knowledge.” -From his 2000 review in his “Great Movies” series
One surefire way to get past writer’s block is to write about the writer’s block itself. It worked for Charlie Kaufman when he penned the loopy, meta philosophical crisis Adaptation and it worked for Federico Fellini when he created the art house classic 8½. Ebert called 8½ “the best film ever made about filmmaking”, but I don’t think that’s what 8½ is about at all. More accurately, I think 8½ is a film about filmmakers. It captures the conflicting mess of oversized ego, patience (and at times impatience) for criticism, and constant self-doubt required to make a big budget feature film come together. With 8½ Fellini paints himself as the ultimate control freak. No longer content to merely direct films, he yearns to direct his life, all the people who populate it (especially the women, who include B-movie goddess Barbara Steele among them), and the fabric of reality itself. When I watched 8½ I got the distinct feeling of watching Dewey Cox going through his Bryan Wilson/Pet Sounds phase in Walk Hard. Fellini (and his fictional surrogate Guido) are reaching for such a transcendent elevation beyond the limits of film as a medium that what ends up being made is a total mess that accomplishes nothing at all except as a document of that far-reaching ambition.
I’ll admit that I find much of 8½‘s early proceedings to be largely frustrating. The film has a way of mixing the “reality” of a stressed-out filmmaker avoiding progress on a grand scale production with the surreality of his own self-indulgent navel-gazing that’s fascinating stuff, but rarely full committed. Often, 8½ will pull back from its dream logic self-reflection & ego-stroking to voice criticism about that impulse. It’s the same have your cake & eat it too attitude that frustrated me with (forgive me for the horrifically crass comparison) Deadpool: the film is content to exploit the basic tropes of its genre (obscured art house self-absorption in this case), but also over-eager to step back & mock itself for that indulgence at every turn. I also found many of the film’s early stretches to be noisy & chaotic in away that was undoubtedly intentional, but also difficult to focus on. In the long run, though, the parts of 8½ I found to be frustrating proved themselves to be entirely necessary groundwork for the film’s masterful concluding 40 minutes. Like a lot of art house cinema that tackles “great truths” about life & art, the film requires a lot of effort on the audience’s end, but the rewards are plenty for those who make it through.
8½ doesn’t truly come alive until the walls separating “reality” & fantasy fully collapse in its final hour. Guido spends the first couple acts stressing over his own creative process, his critics, his producers, and the tension between his wife & mistresses. It isn’t until this fictional stop & start film production lets go if its self-examination & sardonic self-deprecation and devolves into a literal circus that I was fully engaged with what Fellini was reaching for here. There are three major sequences in 8½’s concluding hour that really floored me. In the first, Guido’s wife sits in on a painfully awkward producers’ meeting in which the director must choose actresses to portray his wife & mistress from various screen tests. In the second, Guido fantasizes that his wife is suddenly agreeable with his philandering & all the women in his life come together to live in a harem under his command to please his every whim (marking the break where the film finally abandons all pretense of keeping its dream logic quarantined). The third sequence, of course, is the film’s infamous beach setting conclusion in which Fellini/Guido finally gets his wish and begins to direct all the players in his life in a literal circus.
It’s difficult to grasp whether or not these three sequences (or three ring circus, if you will) completely make up for the frustrating groundwork required to make them work in a narrative sense. 8½ doesn’t transcend into something truly special until it lets go of its own self-doubt & criticism, but it seems Fellini knew exactly what he was doing with that structural choice. In the all-important harem sequence when “reality” & fantasy truly homogenize for the first time, a woman asks Guido, “Is this how the film ends?” and he ominously responds, “No, this is how it starts.” The film leading up to that break felt almost like doing my cinematic homework, but I’m glad I pushed through. Those last 40 minutes or so were a rewarding glimpse into the self-absorbed psyche of a filmmaker seeking total control beyond the confines of a movie set. I believe 8½ has far more to say about the filmmaker’s mental disposition than it does about the transcendence of cinema itself, but that’s honestly a much more rarely-covered topic, whether or not it’s a self-indulgent one. I couldn’t quite match the general enthusiasm that has lauded this film as a complete masterwork, but I still enjoyed it a great deal.
Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)
Brandon’s Rating: (3.5/5, 70%)
Next lesson: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)