Explaining the Unexplainable: 8 ˝
Every person has a beginning film that charges their interest. At the basic level, it is entertainment that sweeps the filmgoer at a young age. Die Hard was my film there. Then the need for depth reaches out in everyone and they start looking to other films they hold up as talismans. I evolved from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to 2001: A Space Odyssey and in the turning of keys to find the right one to open the door, I settled at Federico Fellini's 8 1/2. It is the film I saw when I was younger that I still champion as much today as I did back then.
The effect was doubled for many other filmmakers. Terry Gilliam, in his introduction to the DVD, said the effect was a feeling of liberation for many filmmakers. That is an odd statement to make. The film was made in 1963 and was a precursor to many great films to come later on in the 60s and even 70s, but the film was also made at the end of the French New Wave movement which was successful in breaking down every barrier that stood in the way of independent filmmaking. The film did nothing structurally or morally that would be seen as groundbreaking. There is also nothing significant about 8 1/2 technically that would issue such grand regard. Every filmmaking trick that Fellini utilized with the camera had already been available for decades. Silent cinema revolutionized the abilities of the camera and then sound cinema took the development back twenty years and then the French New Wave was able to pick it up again.
To put further doubt in 8 1/2, the film was a step backward from La Dolce Vita in storytelling capacities. During the 50s, many Neo-realist filmmakers were reeling in how to approach their futures. They all realized that utilizing stark realism was gone in relevance. Thus many of their efforts during the 50s were less than satisfactory. Fellini, a scriptwriter in the 40s, was himself making sentimental films during this time. I Vitelloni introduced a subject and storytelling method that would become commonplace for years on end, but Fellini wasn’t able, as a director and writer, to surpass the depths of what he accomplished with Roberto Rosselini in 1945 with Rome, Open City.
La Dolce Vita, though, changed it all. It was the first Italian film (with exception to Antonioni) to start utilizing the characterizations that would become dominant in art cinema in years to come. It was also the first Italian film to canonize their national cinema to an identity in largeness and character that rivaled the influence of neo-realism. It was the beginning of Fellini-esque and while Fellini would go to greater lengths in subsequent films, he never was able to eclipse the landmark aspect that La Dolce Vita had to it.
The effect of 8 ˝, for me, was that Fellini had created the personal film. My first impression while watching the movie was that it was digging at my most intrinsic emotions. I had absolutely no relationship to the bourgeoisie characters in the film. Everything about the film was foreign, including the music. The point is the film still hit me harder than any film I treasured before. 2001: A Space Odyssey dug at the intellectual plane that film could achieve, but 8 ˝ represented the greater sense of self.
The way the film was able to do so was simple: It didn’t rely on a typical storyline. The symbolism in the film was basic and the story was half credible (even when it was made). The dream versus reality storyline was obvious the entire way through. No one believed the plot depended on the question of whether Guido did or did not kill himself at the end. It seems to only be of surface concern for Fellini. The point of the film is that Fellini is able to weave in greater emotions and masterly control their feelings for the audience. Martin Scorsese, in his introduction for TCM during his Italian series, said the film did the best job at capturing pressure. The point of the introduction, in Fellini focusing on just this one element, is that Fellini was able to elicit the greatest feelings by delving into inert feelings.
When I first began reading essays on 8 1/2, I did so to try to understand if there was a deeper truth to the film that would help me to explain my own feelings. I came away from every essay unsatisfied. The details were long and the facts of film history to explain the film never seemed to amount to much. Then I began to read art criticism and realized the similarities art criticism had to the essays I read about of 8 ˝. When criticism wasn’t dealing with art that was identifiable with a time period or style, the remarks are very impressionistic. The critic spends less time dealing with the nuances of the brush strokes and more with the feelings that run through out the imagery. In an art world like today where one style does not dominate, a majority of the criticism is impressionistic. And considering that the feelings the critic describes in a canvas are usually relegated to just the conveying of only a few feelings, 8 ˝ becomes joined at the hip to these same sensations.
But, many art critics themselves are artists and 8 ˝ really is a director’s film. It will likely become a regular on the Sight and Sound annual ten year list for best films ever made as voted on by directors. The liberation in 8 ˝ is that the film was the first major film to be just based on a few intrinsic emotions. The filmmaking depended less on a scheme that was suppose to be deft as it was suppose to be moving. Jean Cocteau, in his ideas to make poetry out of film in order to dig at the greatest emotions of self, was just indoctrinating a visual command that would become a readable language for film scholars. Luis Bunuel interpreted the dream with An Andalusian Dog and was able to create a dream on celluloid but it was hard to interpret the film than nothing more but a series of weird events. When Maya Deren made Meshes of the Afternoon, she came closer to what Fellini did, but lacked the emotional depths that Fellini had accomplished. 8 ˝ became the first wholly successful art film that was a reflection of the self.
When 8 ˝ is compared to modern films, the degree of the influence becomes much more obvious. Many filmmakers deal with the ambiguous in searching for themselves with stories that come off as eccentric to Hollywood types. The New World was a perfect example of the historic nature. That film, made under a realistic vein of presenting history, intended only to really dig at the greater emotion that Pocahontas and John Smith held for each other. The lack of a typical story and a dominarion of camera movement to the filmmaking only cemented that fact. Though many aspiring filmmakers do not see personal experience through a historic story, they do see self expression through storytelling that destroys the conventional and searches the personal.