Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Work and Play in Fellini's "8 1/2"

Right out of the gate, Federico Fellini’s cinematic milestone, 8 ½ (1963), displays its surreal, tragicomic analysis of the dichotomy between responsibility and escapism – work and play – with iconic imagery and endless imagination. In the film’s famous opening scene, artistically frustrated and creatively drained film director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) sits in his car, locked in a traffic jam – inside of a dream. As Guido grows increasingly claustrophobic and as his breathing becomes heavier, he notices that he is being watched. Becoming frantic, Guido climbs out of his car’s window and stands on the roof. Spreading his arms to catch the wind, Guido begins to fly. While soaring through the sky, Guido notices a string is attached to his ankle, triggering his realization that he is being used as a kite by some condescending fellows on horseback, who are gallivanting on a beach. Guido’s tormentors then tug his string, causing him to crash into the ocean, resulting in his awakening from his fantasy, as he lies in bed, thrusting his outstretched hand into the air, full of desperation

In the dream sequence, the extent to which the pressure and strain of Guido’s job invade his life is expressed succinctly and clearly. Even in Guido’s fantasies – his supposed moments of liberation – he cannot escape the constricting demands of his overseers. Guido seeks freedom from the confines of his smothering work (his car) and when he is able to fly away, to experience the joy of escape and play, he is only made to realize that he is still the object of someone else’s playtime: he is a kite that forgets he is a slave to the whims of his controller. Guido’s recreation can never reach its idealized potential; the bonds of employment pull him down, sinking him in an abyss of drudgery and stress. As 8 ½’s narrative progresses, Guido continually slips into extravagant reveries, each combining humor and melancholy, during his charmingly destructive attempt to complete his current film amidst the chaos of his dissolving marriage, strained friendships, inconsolable sexual appetite, and Catholic guilt. Guido’s fantasies are always given dark, unusual facets, while upholding an unsentimental nostalgia for innocence and idealism – as in his imaginings of the perfect woman, Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), his visualized wish for an obnoxious critic/script doctor to hang himself, and, most notably, his hallucinatory harem of all of the women in his life, in which he dictatorially designates to them their places and responsibilities. During his fantasies, Guido adopts the role of the employer, doling out responsibilities and attaining the freedom that allows him to truly be at play; his desires do not illustrate a sympathetic portrait of the “working man,” but rather the cynical structure of power that even the subjugated and shat-on wish to sit on top of.
Making Guido’s situation even more ironic is the fact that he bosses so many others around, considering he is a film director, but can’t stand to be pushed around by anyone else. Guido’s attitude exemplifies a realistic and surprisingly endearing megalomania, which Fellini describes using an incredibly personal and honest script, milking Marcello Mastroianni’s irresistible warmth and intelligent masculinity. Guido’s ambitions to autonomy and power set-up a difficult problem – hinging on his lofty expectations – without an easy solution. In fact, the film’s solution to Guido’s struggle for freedom and recreation is perhaps one of the most thought provoking and ambiguous in film history.

As Guido’s film spirals out of control into a state of universal ridicule and artistic mire, the troubled director’s options seem limited and dismal. Failure looming, Guido caves in, deciding to crawl underneath a table during a hectic press conference for his film and shoot himself. Or does he? The film’s repeated fluid transitions between reality and fantasy make the scene hard to pin down as being Guido’s true fate or an imagined extension of his anxiety. What follows Guido’s “suicide” is the film’s ultimate dream (or afterlife) sequence, in which Guido plays a sort of ringleader, organizing basically every character in the film into a huge dancing line, full of cheer and gusto.

Tellingly, the carnivalesque finale is sparked by post-suicide Guido’s sight of his younger self as a marching flautist with a band of clown musicians. Guido can only attain control over his life and can only reach a state of contentment after witnessing himself as a playful child – forgetting the weariness of the world, his work, his romantic entanglements, and his guilt, by losing himself in the celebratory tunes created by his happier self. Following the raucous dancing extravaganza that ensues, the young Guido is left alone, marching in a circus ring; his fellow musicians gone and all of the lights out, except for one spotlight which follows the chipper boy as he marches off screen in the film’s last shot. Is Guido’s youthful incarnation victorious, marching to freedom beyond the limits of the screen and the pressures of work and responsibility, or are the fading lights intended to notify the audience of the fantasy’s inevitable end? Fellini doesn’t answer so that the audience must define the situation for itself. Work or play?

by Brandon Colvin

This article originally appeared in Rise Over Run Magazine.***


Brandon Colvin said...

There totally used to be a comment here.

James Hansen said...

Yeah...I had to repost this piece because somewhere in the original html was the issue that made the site all messed up for a while. The comment was from me...I can write the same thing here about my current battle with "8 1/2" and whether I really like it very much. I need to revisit it to say too much though...

Brandon Colvin said...

It sort of blows my mind that you downgraded "8 1/2" to 4 stars on Netflix.

It's definitely in my top 5, and on most days, I consider it my favorite film (it alternates with "Mirror," "Au hasard Balthazar," "Magnolia," and "Taxi Driver").

Maybe we should have a discussion of our cinematic canons on the site sometime - seems like it would inspire some lively debate.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Great post...I alternate on my favorite Fellini films. This one is near the top although I must admit that TOBY DAMIT is the one I would take on my desert island if I had to choose.
What do you think of LA DOLCE VITA guys? I have been surprised the last couple of years to read and hear a lot of negative reactions to it, as I always held it in pretty high regard.

Brandon Colvin said...

I really love "Toby Dammnit" as well.

My Fellini top 5:

1. 8 1/2
2. Juliet of the Spirits
3. La Dolce Vita
4. Toby Dammit
5. Amarcord

I haven't really experienced much of the "La Dolce Vita" backlash, but it's shocking just hearing about it.

Unknown said...

1. 8 1/2 ( probably my favorite film period)
2. I vitteloni
3. La strada
4. Nights of cabiria
5. Amarcord

James Hansen said...

I have to admit that I haven't seen all that much Fellini. We visited "8 1/2" in a couple of my classes this semester and I felt like it was very overbearing. We skimmed through basically the entire movie, but it just didn't resonate with me like it did the first time I saw it, which is why I bumped it down on Nflix. It's hard to formulate a complaint about the film, and by all means I "like" it, but its loud cinematic self-indulgence and copious ending made me question the film's strategies.

I'm not trying to backlash for debate's sake (although questioning the "canon" and its films is always healthy) but the film just didn't work for me when I saw it again recently. The next week, we watched clips of "Roma" and it worked much better for me. Who knows...

A canon discussion would be interesting for sure. I don't know if we could do it in a post, or just carry on a long conversation in a comments section, but I am all for it.

I feel like lots of backlash against canonical films these days ("La Dolce Vita" included, I suppose) is just to keep in question what should be canonized, as if we can take things out so simply. It's a healthy thing to do, but can get very frustrating as it just continues to show that not everybody can agree on any film. Oh wellz.

For what it's worth (maybe I should have mentioned these when we were talking about gaps in our viewing a while back) I went and looked and found out I have seen only 4 Fellini films. Here's my rankings, keeping in mind I have seen most of them only once and that these are the only ones I have to choose from...

1. I Vitelloni
2. Roma
3. 8 1/2
4. The White Sheik

James Hansen said...

PS- Is it funny that when I reposted this is started this discussion and response? The first time I posted it it was up for 5 days with only one comment...that means more hits and visitors! Keep on coming!

James Hansen said...

PPS- Brandon...interesting top 5. "Balthazar" would be the only overlap with mine, although I muchly l ike "Mirror" and "Magnolia"...speaking of canon discussion though, I think "Taxi Driver" is vastly overpraised. Maybe that's a discussion for another time.

My top 5/10 is in a constant state of flux, especially lately with all the amazing films from decades ago that I have just seen for the first time (Gehr's "Side/Walk/Shuttle") or in theaters for the first time ("Jeanne Dielman", "Contempt")...I
ll work on a top 5 and then we can do a mass email session about it...or something.

Brandon Colvin said...

Regardless of any overbearing elements or undue extravagance, "8 1/2" moves me as very few films can.

In some ways, it represents my view of a desirable afterlife or sense of spirituality, but that's a lot to get into in a blog comment.

I'm beginning to recoil from "Taxi Driver" a bit as well, sort of like I did with "Eraserhead" and "The Seventh Seal," although I still love them.

James Hansen said...

Again, I'm not trying to bring "8 1/2" down or so its not effective in any way. It brings a lot to the table. I would argue, at this moment, it might overdo it, but that is totally a matter of opinion so...yeah...

I have yet to recoil from "Eraserhead" although these days I prefer "Mulholland Drive." It's in my top 5 for sure. I try and select one film per director for those top film things, so lately I defer to "Mul. Drive" although I can just as easily move to "Eraserhead." I just never cared for "Taxi Driver" much, and am not all that big on Scorsese in general to be honest.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

Of the ones I have seen:

1. Toby Dammit
2. Juliet of the Spirits
3. 8 1/2
4. Amarcord
5. La Dolce Vita

Anonymous said...

Not to just jump in on the convo, but in the bigger picture--not just Fellini films--8 1/2, I'd say, is top 5 any film ever.
1. Citizen Kane
2. 8 1/2
3. Persona
4. The Godfather
5. The Searchers
...just sayin'.

And someone mentioned La Dolce Vita...great, of course, but not so much WOW good. Sorry I can't be more technical...


Brandon Colvin said...

Yeah, I'd put it in my all-time top 5.