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Fellini and the Self-Referential Nature of 8 1/2

04/12/2011

Much has been made about the autobiographical nature of Frederico Fellini’s 1963 film 8 ½.  The title refers to the film being his 8th feature, added with two short films equals 8 ½.  The story is about a director who does not know what film he should direct.  Fellini came up with that idea ironically while trying to decide what film he should direct.  But how is this different from any random YouTube video made by a Junior High student without a plan?  Or why is this film about itself so much more “artistic” than any car commercial, blatantly self-referential, and arguably plot-less?

I believe the answer lies in its tremendous lack of pretentiousness, and therefore, its inherent honesty.  When you watch a commercial, you feel like you’re being tricked.  The thing being advertised is begging for you not only to care about its existence, but also to be infatuated with it.  In the case of this film, our protagonist seems more interested in disappearing from the world than being known by it.  Whereas in many cases, the director of a film provides fantasies for the audience to escape from the world, this director seeks fantasies for him to escape from the audience.

There are certainly autobiographical elements in 8 ½.  And 8 ½ is not the first film to feature itself as a premise – that belongs to the old Nickelodeons if you ask me.  But 8 ½ does something more.  It builds an emotional experience while simultaneously deconstructing it.  Its like a time-lapse of a painting being created.  The interest has shifted from the painting itself, to the process of it being painted.

Fellini’s film works on all levels a typical movie is supposed to work.  But its greatness lies in its existence as a lens through which to view artistic suffering.  In the real world, Fellini’s search for a film would not have perfect pacing, elaborate coincidences, and metaphorical overtones.  But Guido, the film’s protagonist, experiences these issues with an incredibly poetic timing and rhythm.  Both his wife and his mistress find him in the same place at the same time, and instead of dealing with the problem then and there, he fantasizes about a much easier and more selfish existence where wife and mistress get along and neither of them judge him for hanging on to the other.  This fantasy is further manifest in a later seen where Guido comes home to a harem of all the women in his life.  They love him and plead for his attention.  They need him and will never leave him.

There is a significant narrative implication concerning the rules of personal fantasy in this scene.  When he first walks in to his harem home he sees his mistress walk down some steps, to which he asks, “What were you doing upstairs?” and she answers, “Keeping those poor girls company, they’re always so alone up there.”  To most members of the audience, this has no meaning whatsoever.  But I will illuminate its importance here.  When the writers of 8 ½ wrote that scene they most likely had already discussed the rules of each fantasy sequence, and coming upon this one they decided that in Guido’s harem only women under a certain age would be allowed to stay in the main floors ­– a fact that is later discussed toward the end of the scene.  They set up this “fact of fantasy” with the aforementioned bit of dialog.  The dialog itself does not say what’s upstairs that Guido is protecting his mistress from; that comes later.  This is known as a “set-up/pay-off” system of storytelling.  The initial line informs the audience that there is a distinguishing element between the upper levels and lower levels.  The pay-off later tells the audience exactly what that distinguishing element is.

Where this becomes important for the story is that Guido as a character must experience this fantasy in real-time.  He doesn’t get to have a meeting in a “writer’s room” discussing the rules of each of his fantasies.  He just creates them out of who he is and what he needs at the time.  As a filmmaker, his imagination is so conditioned to exporting ideas in a set-up/pay-off system, that his fantasy is manifest in this way.  Guido is now incapable of viewing or expressing his desires (both sexual and otherwise) in any way apart from theatrical deception and manipulation.  That is how much his inner self desires to be expressed cinematically – that his fantasies imitate the cinema.  But all the desire in the world won’t make a movie happen until you know what movie you want to make.

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One comment

  1. “Guido is now incapable of viewing or expressing his desires (both sexual and otherwise) in any way apart from theatrical deception and manipulation. That is how much his inner self desires to be expressed cinematically – that his fantasies imitate the cinema.”
    Interesting, I thought it the other way around. Cinema creates fantasies, no truths. Theatre is deceptive and manipulative, it creates desire. I thought the movie wasn’t so much about being self-referential towards the director but towards the medium an sich.



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