On January 12, 2010, the good folks at Criterion released 8 ½ on Blu-ray, smartly capitalizing on the release of Rob Marshall's musical Nine in order to raise awareness among contemporary moviegoers (particularly non-cinephiles) who might not be aware that the musical in part based its story on Federico Fellini's 1963 film. I didn't own Fellini's film prior to its release in high definition, and hadn't seen it in many years – which meant that Marshall's interpretation of the material was unfortunately foremost when thoughts of any version of the story came to mind.
But despite Marshall's award-winning success shepherding Chicago to the screen in 2002, he failed this time to overcome the most obvious challenge inherent in his source material – namely, finding a way to make his main character compelling, much less sympathetic. Less an oblivious, distracted visionary than a self-absorbed megalomaniac, Guido Anselmi in Marshall's film was singularly, consistently unlikeable, and offered few clues why anyone would consider him an artist, much less a "significant" one; if leading man Daniel Day-Lewis' performance evoked anything, it wasn't Marcello Mastroianni's work as Guido in Fellini's film or even Raul Julia's turn in the role on Broadway, but the menacing, failed charm of Robert De Niro as saxophonist Jimmy Doyle in Scorsese's stillborn 1977 opus New York, New York.
In which case, watching the original film wasn't merely preferable, it was necessary. Was Guido always a petulant, irresponsible, irredeemable philanderer? Or did Fellini find greater depths within the character's seemingly superficial heart? And moreover, discover that the tapestry of inspirations and experiences Guido has in the film actually exert some influence over his creativity, intellect, and his passions? It was these questions that lingered as I popped in Criterion's new Blu-ray and sat down to watch 8 ½ again, for the first time.
Released in 1963 and so-named as the eighth-and-a-half film of Fellini's career, 8 ½ earned widespread praise upon its initial release, although in some cases – such as at Cannes, it received no official awards. Meanwhile, the AMPAS awarded it Best Foreign Film and Best Costume Design, Black and White, and it also won Best Foreign Language Film from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review. 8 ½ also currently enjoys a 97 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
Subsequently, the film has been hailed by critics as one of the best and most important portraits of the creative process; according to Roger Ebert, "it remains the definitive film about director's block." In 1987, a group of 30 European intellectual declared 8 1/2 the greatest European film ever made, and in 2002, it ranked at #3 in Sight and Sound Magazine's Director's Poll (behind only Citizen Kane and The Godfather Parts 1 and 2).
What Still Works: Ebert's right – there has perhaps never been a better film about the challenges of creative fulfillment, and more importantly, the strange, wonderful and terrifying ways in which artists find and process inspiration. It is at its essence a deconstruction of the devices, images and conventions used to convey ideas, thoughts and emotions on film, from Claudia Cardinale's personification of purity and redemption to the intangible spaceship's embodiment of Guido's ambitious folly. As an examination of the creative process through self-reflection, Fellini exorcises his own director's block by creating a film that is a tidal wave of visual and emotional sensation, unbound by linear momentum or narrative logic.
Simultaneously, he sharpens that mélange of imagery into a pointed and revelatory portrait of the sum total of both an artist's influences and his output, they way the two of them impact one another, and how helpless truly creative people are to the whims of their muses. It of course helps that Fellini acknowledges his own immaturity, his own appetite for base pleasures, but the fact that he examines and executes those simplistic interests in sophisticated ways not only shows an artist perhaps literally maturing in front of the camera, but a quantum leap forward for filmmaking structure and form, discovering that the experimentation with form from decades past could function successfully inside a story that seems otherwise conventional.
What Doesn't Work: The gender politics of 8 ½ is troubling, particularly for contemporary audiences – and it's no doubt one reason why a remake/ update like Marshall's fails at creating sympathy for Guido: he's a self-justifying philanderer, an indecisive purveyor of half-truths and lies, and it's to be accepted if not filtered through his perceived "genius" that his romantic misbehavior is a necessary evil. Today it seems virtually impossible to forgive if not root for a character like that, especially when we seems to see so few of his other, more attractive qualities, but the original film has the advantage of being more successful at romanticizing this kind of behavior, much less the character, if only because of the era in which it was made. (It also features a considerably more immediately likeable actor in the role – Mastroianni was an effortless charmer obliviously indulging creative excesses, while Day-Lewis exude intense self-delusion and desperation without sexiness or frivolity to soften Guido's rough insensitivity.)
Interestingly, however, the original film actually conveys greater strength in its female characters than Marshall's film does, despite Nine's efforts to portray the women as indelible contributors to Guido's intellectual and emotional makeup. Part of this is because the female characters in 8 ½ aren't merely musical detours from the film's proper narrative, as they are in Nine; but more importantly, Fellini seems to acknowledge more openly the influence these women exert on Guido himself, and portrays them as participants with real thoughts and feelings, even if the film occasionally shares Guido's sentiment that they're playthings to be manipulated.
This is especially the case during a dream sequence in which Guido's fantasy harem turns on him, forcing him to keep the revolting women at bay with a bullwhip. But even just Guido's wife Luisa, played with strength and fragility by Marion Cotillard in the new film, manages to communicate more authority and presence via Anouk Aimee's performance in 8 ½, fuming at Guido's infidelities before abandoning him in his creative uncertainty, and cutting hi down to size with scathing words that reflect not only how hurt she is, but how angry as well.
Otherwise, suffice it to say that the film's structure is, well, inhospitable for filmgoers who have something more straightforward in mind, and many may find themselves lost in its unpredictable, elliptical, dreamlike, and generally unconventional storytelling. But it also seems to have been released at a time that was sort of a perfect nexus between early experimentation and the decaying formalism that was already being deconstructed by the French Nouvelle Vague, inspiring audiences to want to see things that were unexpected and even deliberately contrary to the safer, less interesting clichés that were becoming the stuff of Hollywood boilerplate. As such that oddball construction feels like a virtue especially when viewed in the context of its original release, but it may be a little bit too obtuse for casual audiences, especially those enchanted with the empty form and color of Marshall's update.
What's The Verdict: 8 ½ holds up gorgeously, although it certainly feels like a product of the era in which it was made. (Criterion's glorious high-definition transfer, thankfully, further enhances the viewing experience, brilliantly rendering Fellini's operatic camerawork and idiosyncratic storytelling with unprecedented clarity and cleanliness.) Razing filmmaking formula and redefining the possibilities of self-analysis and artistic exploration on screen, 8 ½ came along at the right time and achieved the right impact – namely, to reveal the art behind the entertainment. Now, amazingly, it remains as inspirational - and, yes, entertaining - as ever, which is why Fellini's reaction to, and eventually, celebration of his own indecision continues to be the standard by which virtually all cinematic self-reflection is measured.