by Pauline Kael
Some years ago a handsome, narcissistic actor who was entertaining me with stories about his love affairs with various ladies and gentlemen, concluded by smiling seductively as he announced, “Sometimes I have so many ideas I don’t know which one to choose.” I recall thinking — as I edged him to the door — that he had a strange notion of what an idea was.
The director-hero of 8½ is the center of the film universe, the creator on whose word everything waits, the man sought after by everyone, the one for whom all possibilities are open. Guido can do anything, and so much possibility confuses him. He’s like the movies’ famous couturier who can’t decide what he’s going to do for the spring collection. (“I’ve simply got to get an idea. I’ll go mad if I don’t. Everybody’s depending on me.”) I’m afraid that Guido’s notion of an “idea” isn’t much more highly developed than my silly actor friend’s, and it’s rather shockingly like the notion of those god-awful boobs who know they could be great writers because they have a great story — they just need someone to put it into words. Indeed the director conforms to the popular notions of a successful genius, and our ladies-magazine fiction has always been fond of the “sophisticated” writer or director looking for a story and finding it in romance, or in his own backyard. “Accept me as I am” is Guido’s final, and successful, plea to the wife-figure (although that is what she has been rejecting for over two hours).
Just as La Dolce Vita confirmed popular suspicions about the depravity of the rich and gifted, 8½ confirms the popular view of a “big” film director’s life — the world is his once he finds that important “idea” (it’s so important that the boobs will never tell theirs for fear of “giving it away,” i.e., having it stolen — the fewer their “ideas,” the greater their fear of plagiarism). Perhaps the irrelevance of what we see (principally his conflicts between his love for his wife, the pleasures of his mistress, his ideal of innocence, and his dreams of a harem) to the composition of a work of art may be indicated by a comparison: can one imagine that Dostoyevsky, say, or Goya or Berlioz or D. W. Griffith or whoever, resolved his personal life before producing a work, or that his personal problems of the moment were even necessarily relevant to the work at hand? This notion of an artist “facing himself” or “coming to grips with himself” as a precondition to “creation” is, however, familiar to us from the popular Freudianized lives of artists (and of everyone else).
It is perhaps easy for educated audiences to see an “advance” in film when a film maker deals with a “creative crisis” or “artist’s block,” a subject so often dealt with in modern writing; but is it applicable to film? What movie in the half-century history of movies has been held up by the director’s having a creative block? No movie with a budget and crew, writers and sets. The irrelevance of what we see to the processes of making a movie can, of course, be explained away with, “He’s having a breakdown and all this is his fantasy life.” Someone’s fantasy life is perfectly good material for a movie if it is imaginative and fascinating in itself, or if it illuminates his non-fantasy life in some interesting way. But 8½ is neither; it’s surprisingly like the confectionary dreams of Hollywood heroines, transported by a hack’s notions of Freudian anxiety and wish fulfillment. 8½ is an incredibly externalized version of an artist’s “inner” life — a gorgeous multi-ringed circus that has very little connection with what, even for a movie director, is most likely to be solitary, concentrated hard work. It’s more like the fantasy life of someone who wishes he were a movie director, someone who has soaked up those movie versions of an artist’s life, in which in the midst of a carnival or ball the hero receives inspiration and dashes away to transmute life into art. “What’s the film about? What’s on your mind this time?” asks Guido’s wife. In 8½ the two questions are one.
Creativity is the new cant — parents are advised not to hit it with a stick, schoolteachers are primed to watch for it, foundations encourage it, colleges and subsidized health farms nourish it in a regulated atmosphere; the government is advised to honor it. We’re all supposed to be so in awe of it that when it’s in crisis, the screen should be tom asunder by the conflicts. But the creativity con-game, a great subject for comedy, is rather embarrassing when it’s treated only semi-satirically. When a satire on big, expensive movies is itself a big, expensive movie, how can we distinguish it from its target? When a man makes himself the butt of his own joke, we may feel too uncomfortable to laugh. Exhibitionism is its own reward.
8½ suggests some of Fellini’s problems as a director, but they are not so fantastic nor so psychoanalytic as the ones he parades. A major one is the grubby, disheartening economic problem that probably affects Fellini in an intensified form precisely because of the commercial success of La Dolce Vita and the business hopes it raised. A movie director has two “worst” enemies: commercial failure and commercial success. After a failure, he has a difficult time raising money for his next film; after a success, his next must be bigger and “better.” In recent years no major Hollywood director with a string of “big” successes has been able to finance a small, inexpensive production — and this is not for want of trying. From the point of view of studios and banks, an expenditure of half a million dollars is a much bigger risk than an investment of several million on a “name” property with big stars, a huge advertising campaign and almost guaranteed bookings. Commenting on the cost of 8½ (and Visconti’s The Leopard), Show reported that “In terms of lire spent, they have nearly been Italian Cleopatras. But what Hollywood bought dearly in Cleopatra was a big empty box . . . What the Italians got in 8½ was a work of immense visual beauty and impressive philosophy, a sort of spectacle of the spirit that was more than they had paid for. A masterpiece is always a bargain.” Show’s “philosophy” is the kind you look for, like Fellini’s “ideas.” 8½ does indeed make a spectacle of the spirit: what else can you do with spirit when you’re expected to turn out masterpieces?
According to Fellini, we “need new criteria of judgment to appreciate this film.” Yeah. “In my picture everything happens,” says Guido, which is intended to mean that he is an artist-magician; but the man who trusts to alchemy is like the man who hopes to create a masterpiece in his sleep and find it miraculously there upon awakening. Fellini throws in his disorganized ideas, and lets the audiences sort out the meanings for themselves. 8½ is big, it’s “beautiful”: but what is it? Is it really a magical work of art? There is an optimum size for a house: if it becomes too big it becomes a mansion or a show-place and we no longer feel the vital connections of family life, or the way the rooms reflect personalities and habits and tastes. When a movie becomes a spectacle, we lose close involvement in the story; we may admire the action and the pageantry or, as in 8½, the decor, the witty phantasmagoria, the superb “professionalism” (“That Fellini sure can make movies”), but it has become too big and impressive to relate to lives and feelings. Fellini’s last home movie was Nights of Cabiria; 8½ is a madhouse for a movie director who celebrates La Dolce Vita, i.e., a funhouse. “What marvelous casting,” his admirers exclaim, responding not to the people in his films, but to his cleverness in finding them. That is all one can respond to, because the first appearance of his “characters” tells us all that is to be known about them. They are “set” — embalmed. No acting is necessary: he uses them for a kind of instant caricature. His “magic” is that his casting couch is the world. He uses “real” aristocrats and “real” celebrities as themselves, he turns businessmen into stars, and then he confesses that he’s confused about life and art —the confusion which gives his films that special, “professional” chic.
Like those professors of English who boast that they’re not interested in what’s going on in the world, they’re interested only in literature, or critics who say they’re not interested in content but in structure, or young poets who tell us they’re not interested in anything except their own creativity, Guido announces, “I have nothing to say but I want to say it.” ‘Hie less self, the more need to express it? Or, as the wife said to her drunken husband, “If you had any brains, you’d take them out and play with them.”
And the “spa” is just the place to do it, as Marienbad demonstrated. Those who honed their wits interpreting what transpired Last Year at Marienbad now go to work on 8½, separating out “memories” and fantasies from “reality.” A professor who teaches film told me he had gone to see 8½ several times to test out various theories of how the shifts between the three
categories were accomplished, and still hadn’t discovered the answer. When I suggested that he had set himself an insoluble problem, because 8½ is all fantasy, he became very angry at what he called my perversity and cited as a clear example of “reality” the sequence of the screen tests for the mistress and wife (one of the most nightmarish episodes in the film) and as an example of “memory” the Saraghina dancing on the beach (which compares as a “memory” with, say, the monster washed up at the end of La Dolce Vita).
This is the first (and, predictably, not the last) movie in which the director seems to be primarily interested in glorifying his self-imprisonment. And this failure to reach out imaginatively — which traditionally has been considered artistic suicide — is acclaimed as a milestone in film art by those who accept self-absorption as “creativity.”
8½ began as a “sequel” to La Dolce Vita — taking up the story of the “Umbrian angel.” Now Fellini turns her into Claudia Cardinale, a rather full-bosomed angel with an ambiguous smile. Fluttering about diaphanously, she’s not so different from Cyd Charisse or Rita Hayworth in gauze on the ramps of an MGM or Columbia production number. She becomes a showman’s ideal of innocence- pulchritudinous purity, the angel-muse as “star” (of the movie and the movie within the movie) — a stalemate endlessly reflected, an infinite regression.
Pauline Kael, I Lost it at the Movies: Film Writings, 1954-1965. M. Boyars, 1965 – Performing Arts – pp. 261-266