Friday, May 14, 2010

8 1/2

What can one do after watching Nine but go watch 8 1/2, the Federico Fellini movie on which the lame musical was based. The movie was checked out at two video stores, showing that others have had this idea as well, but luck was on my side and it was available for instant viewing on Netflix. What was even better was that yesterday my most recent purchase from the Library of America arrived, American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents until Now, expanded edition, edited by Phillip Lopate. And yes, on pp. 371-384 right in the center of the book is a review of 8 1/2 by Dwight MacDonald.

DM thinks the movie is a "masterpiece," although he doesn't really like Fellini or his films, he uses that word at least twice. He writes: "This portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man is the most brilliant, varied and entertaining movie I've seen since Citizen Kane. I saw it twice in as many weeks and the second time I discovered many points that had escaped me in the first viewing, so headlong is its tempo, so fertile its invention.... A great deal is packed into every scene, like Kane: of well-observed detail; of visual pleasure; of fine acting in minor roles.... And finally, like Kane, it deals with large topics like art, society, sex, money, aging, pretense and hypocrisy-- all that Trollope wrote about in The Way We Live Now -- just the opposite of these cautious little (though not short) art films that lingeringly explore some tiny area of impingement between three undefined characters or, if the director feels in an epic mood, four."

I agree-- if you think that because it's a classic and in black-and-white it will be slow, you are quite mistaken. You have to keep on your toes all the time. Steve dozed for a few minutes, then asked what he missed, and really it was too much for me to explain. I can't remember the last time that happened. Steve continued to doze, and try to find his way by what he knew of the plot of Nine when he was awake. But although there were many simiarities in the scenes and characters: here is where the mistress and wife show up at the same restaurant-- the scenes were so completely different and went in such utterly different-- and more complex-- directions, there was no touchstone, no way to keep track. The movies are incomparable.

It made me think that Nine must be making Dwight MacDonald and Federico Fellini turn in their graves. The only reason one would try to remake this movie (as a musical no less) would be because one completely underestimated the complexity of the original. It doesn't just miss the message-- and boy oh boy, the nod it gives to Catholicism is such a set piece and so irrelevant to Nine, so essential and at the heart of 8 1/2, that I now consider the former's use verging on offensive. The intensely crafted camerawork that captures the cardinal going in and out of a series of towels as he goes in and out of "the waters" at the health spa, helped by his assistant priests, with his obviously Montgomery Burns-like form barely hidden, is in itself worth watching the film to see. And that is just one moment-- the film is packed with them.

What is more, it's one "real" moment, although the reality in 8 1/2 is as stylized as the fantasy scenes are realistic. As DM writes, "Everything flows in this protean movie, constantly shifting between reality, memory, and fantasy." Somehow you keep your place and always know what is real, memory and fantasy (perhaps until the end, where it is not completely clear when or if the press conference ends and the fantasy begins, although it is a matter of great importance how you read that shift). What is more, some of the memory is fantasy, and much of the reality verges on fantasy as well. What is revealed in all three is Guido (Marcello Mastroianni). He loves women, is counfounded by women, doesn't make good choices except in his films and now is making horrible choices there as well.

This Guido (like Guido in Nine), also has no script, but his film is ostensibly a science fiction picture about a group of people who escape from earth after a nuclear holocaust. (This makes much more sense in terms of why the project would confound him, whereas I never believe that Guido/Fellini in Nine doesn't know what to say about Italy-- as the Kate Hudson character points out, he invented  '60s Italy).

This sci-fi plot works quite well, as the money is flowing into the construction of a gigantic space ship, a folly that he will never use. When finally he is forced by the producer to watch the screen tests, to cast his movie, the women aren't reading for roles in that film, but acting out scenes we've already seen-- from his memory and his real life. This combination shows how far around the bend Guido has gone and also how hopeless the film he's making is going to be. There will be no film, and so we just wait for the inevitable way that it will all fall apart, and what he will do with the pieces.

What he does with them is puts them in a beautiful fantasy, where his child self, wearing a white version of his black Catholic schoolboy's uniform, leads a parade of all the characters from Guido's complex reality/fantasy/memory.

It would be interesting to consider this film in relation to others like it-- Husbands and Wives comes to mind although Stardust Memories is more obvious as Woody Allen's remake of 8 1/2, and also Synechdoche, NY, the Charlie Kaufmann manic disaster of a middle-aged artist lost in a huge construction. I'm sure there are others as well-- any recommendations?

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