Writing about film is like dancing about food. You can’t, at least not in a good way. A case in point is Fellini’s 8½. Ebert called it “the best film ever made about filmmaking” (not quite true), Kauffmann said, “In terms of execution I cannot remember a more brilliant film” and of which Canby back in 1963 wrote, “It has no more plot than a horse race”. An LA reviewer put it in plain, brainless terms: “What if your deadline arrived, but you had written nothing? What if people came to hear you, but you had nothing to say? What would happen if you ran out of ideas?” That’s one of the geniuses of 8½. Dumb people like it too, especially for its cool images of eyeglasses: Marcello Mastroianni does make spectacles look ineluctably desirable (note I did not say “spectacular”).
At first, I thought 8½ was secret code for the measurement of Fellini’s penis
I’ve seen 8½ many times and each time been left baffled by it. I’ve watched and enjoyed Fellini’s 1963 classic while pushing away the feeling it was a joke I didn’t get. I laughed, sure, but I didn’t mean it. At first, I thought 8½ was secret code for the measurement of Fellini’s penis. I was young and stupid then. Then I thought maybe the in-jokes were about 8½’s gleeful dubbing: English speakers being able to read very distinctly the Anglo-speech patterns on the lips of some of the actors. But that was too autistic, even for me. I didn’t know it was because Fellini had made six full-length films and three anthology “half” segments and this film was merely the next after those.
What seems like a mad dash into the guts of filmmaking is actually easy to understand: Guido Anselmi aka Snaporazo (Mastroianni) is a film director who hates the film business. He abhors talking to producers, casting actors, sorting out sets. He’d rather dream or have a silly romp with his generously proportioned married playmate.
On the camera during the first days of shooting, Fellini stuck a bit of brown tape to his camera that read, “Ricordati che è un film comico” (“remember that this is a comic film”). So, what our hero says he means. His legs go out from under him and he tries to run away when faced by the film journalists, and why not? I am a film journalist and I’d want to run away from a room of people like me too, with their stupid or too clever questions, their prying personal queries and their impossible briefs given to them by editors looking out for their own jobs.
Like Day For Night, it is a film about making a film that turns out to be itself. But nobody should be clever when they write about film. Like the execution of the film critic near the end of the film, I too hate myself and anyone else who gets profound, vicious or intellectual about a film – any film – because film is to watch not write about. You should only write about it to get people to see it. Film is the queen of experience, second only and sometimes superior to sensation itself. There. Pomposity over.
I urge you to see it on the big screen on its rerelease, remembering that it is a literal dream. Now, 52 years after it was released, finally, I get it. 8½ is a two hour journey into dreams and truth. And I’m being precise.