Lovely, observant, exuberant, and illuminating video essay by Bianca Giacalone , in an experimental vein, that deploys Sontag´s work on Interpretation to attemtt to ‘reveal the sensuous surfaces’ of the film, and with an extended Creator´s Statement whose reading is an essential component of understanding and enjoying the viewing:
THE EROTICS OF 8 1/2
“To enter the theatre is to enter a woman, to surrender, happily, yet with a touch of fear and the excitement of anticipation to viscosity, liquidity, milkiness” writes Sam Rohdie when describing what cinema represented for the great cineaste Federico Fellini.
“To film, to look, to see are erotic acts” he reiterates.
What both the writer and the filmmaker mean by “erotic” does not relate though simply to the field of the sexual, even if the imaginary of the Italian director has often been particularly suggestive in that direction. The stance on erotics is more akin to the origin of the word Eros in Ancient Greece (especially the Platonic conception of it) and Susan Sontag’s theories as delineated in her essay Against Interpretation.
Eros, one of the many terms used to describe the concept of love, is the type of passionate love born out of attraction, out of the appreciation of beauty (particularly of a person). As written by Plato in his Symposium, eros helps the soul recall knowledge of beauty, and contributes to an understanding of spiritual truth.
Loyal to the heritage of the Classics, Sontag aligns with that perspective and configures Erotics as an alternative method to modern hermeneutic interpretation, which instead reappropriates the value and power of the sensory experience of the work of art.
Fellini’s grandest, most imaginative, allusive and vivid work of art 8 1/2 is a visual quest for the hidden essence of things, for something higher and able to purify a sick spirit from the effects of a depraved modern lifestyle. Erotics are what move the film, what fuel its soul.
This video essay attempts to “reveal the sensuous surface” of the film, by slowing down key moments of the film, enabling the viewer to unashamedly lust for their undeniably voluptuous formalism and calmly absorb their epiphanic and cathartic power.
Lo-fi hiphop music is used in the video to reconstruct the rhythm of selected scenes, in order to recreate their emotional effect and to immerse the viewer in the aesthetic experience of the film. This contemporary and now widely popular type of music, alternatively called “chillhop”, is indeed composed “specifically to activate neurone activity associated with focus, meditation and relaxation” and has also been defined “[…] like music for daydreaming”. The subtle analog feel also channels a tender sense of nostalgia, fitting with the sensibility of Fellini’s cinema and the themes analysed, while at the same time using its electronic elements to re-contextualise the film in a modern key.
The introductory section of the video essay serves the purpose of establishing how Fellini visually translates the sensorial experience of purity, luminosity and clarity in the film through the point of view of the main character Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), once again playing the director’s alter ego after the worldwide sensation La Dolce Vita (1960). Throughout the whole video we just briefly see Guido in order to align ourselves with his perspective and with his position as external observer in his own chaotic world (while being one of the very atoms that compose and cause that confusion).
Brian Eggert, in a Deep Focus review of the film, writes that “whenever Guido’s reality becomes too much to bear, he escapes into a memory or a fantasy that eases his current predicament”, a situation parallel to the director’s in his real life.
As a matter of fact, in the scene chosen to explain this dynamic, the nauseating confusion of his reality is interrupted by a mystical vision: Claudia Cardinale, slowly floating towards him in a candid dress and offering him sacred curing water with a soft, loving smile, like a beneficial, soothing balm.
To watch 8 1/2 is to watch this vision, again and again, appearing out of nowhere like a reassuring magician inviting you to his circus, a beautiful stranger in a hotel lobby and the ghost of a loved one. Gasping for a second, getting teary-eyed all of a sudden and then breathing out, returning to reality. Most of the times, not logically understanding what has just been witnessed. As if our mind visualised a primordial safe space.
Consequently, the main body of the essay depicts these poetic moments, revealing a pattern that connects them all and helps the audience associate them with purity, beauty and truth.
The Director of Photography Gianni Di Venanzo and the Art Director Piero Gherardi dressed the film in a tailored black and white, a bold and voluntary choice in a period when the technique was at its last moments. In this way, “black and white becomes its own idea” and consciously dramatises contrast.
The recurrent use of white cloths, veils and other items of clothing, so starkly luminous against brooding darkness and cluttered kaleidoscopic designs, makes Fellini’s thematic obsessions visually rhyme. Childhood, religion, women and death are beautifully connected in a white fluid dance. Sensual like the body of a beautiful woman, yet tender and reassuring like a child or an old cardinal being taken care of and wrapped in warm towels. Carnal and at the same time spiritual.
This simple trope, is something the director carried with him even in his works in colour, like in the 1962 The Temptation of Dr. Antonio (in which a billboard version of Anita Ekberg holds an inviting glass of milk, both sin and salvation), or most prominently in the baroque Juliet of the Spirits (1965), with its iconic finale in which Giulietta Masina accepts the benevolent presence of spirits in her life, walking out of the gates of her house and cage in a white dress against the vastity of florid woods, expressing an incomparable sense of freedom and liberation.
For how naive and unpretentious as a filmic choice this may appear, Fellini’s genius and virtuosity consists in showing how a white veil framing a woman’s face can express a multitude of meanings and yet exude always the same particular sense of melancholy (as we see in parallels between the characters of the wife and Claudia), charging the intensity of the medium to give the viewer “not a verbal idea but an emotional-packed visual experience”.
To quote again Sontag, these images have a “pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy”.
Magically, it appears that the purpose of her approach to art ultimately coincides with the resolution of the film: both converge on finding acceptance of the mystery and the magic at the basis of artistic intuition, acceptance of the non-rational, of the perceptible yet inexplicable.
We must not demand more from a work of art than its sensuous momentum, just as we must not question the irrational beauty in our lives. Peter Bondanella, writing about the “Celebration of Artistic Creativity” in 8 1/2, reinforces this vision. “Fellini’s cinema in general, and 8 1/2 in particular, argue that art has its own imperatives, that it communicates a very real kind of knowledge aesthetically (and therefore emotionally) rather than logically, and that this form of knowledge has its proper and rightful place in human culture”.
The ending sequence of the video essay marks the realisation of self-acceptance, recreating the mystic moment in Guido’s mind as he imagines the “beautiful creatures” that populate his reality and fantasy, looking even more beautiful, purified in his mind. All the people Guido “wasn’t able to love” walk together towards the sea, without a real destination but all in harmony and sheer joy.
These images are beauty, truth and soul. They feel good. All a viewer has to do is take in their curative effect.
The video ends on Anouk Aimée, whose role in the film is Guido’s wife Luisa, as she bravely walks up to the camera showing the turmoil in her expression as she elaborates her feelings, processing her forgiveness for her husband and learning with him to accept the uncertainties of a life together, both with the joys and the pain it will bring.
“Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing itself, of things being what they are”.
At the beginning and towards the end, two moments of the film are shown integral and with their original audio, not reconfigured through the use of music or editing. The first shows Guido sharing with his magician friend Maurice, a strange private thought expressed in the form of a silly phrase. “Asa Nisi Masa”, the magician assistant’s writes on the blackboard. “What does it mean?” Is the question we are left with before starting the analysis, with a tone of irony. By the end we get to see what the protagonist meant with his quirky expression, as a memory comes to life: a safe, happy childhood in the remote Italian countryside, sharing whispered jokes and tender kisses under warm white blankets.
The words come up again, through the mouth of a cousin, as a magic formula that will make everyone rich if said at the right hour. The catchy joke stands for something more: result of a word game similar to pig latin, its root is “anima”, the Italian word for soul, spirit, conscience, another wink at Fellini’s restless preoccupation with the illogical.
It is not a surprise that that thought lingers in Guido’s mind, since it represents what he yearns the most and what the film wants to achieve: a symbiosis with the magical, so strong in its ingenuity to wipe away any intellectual uncertainty. While he is asked constantly throughout the film, and not with the irreverent yet kind tone of Maurice, what his thoughts and ideas mean, to what ideologies and philosophies they adhere to, all Guido (and correspondently also Federico behind the real camera) wishes to express is “something simple and useful for everyone”, “one that can be seen and embodied on the screen but not easily explained by rational discourse”.
Through the erotic process of watching 8 1/2, we learn “to see more, to hear more, to feel more”, to accept the unfathomable, the mysterious, the poetic and the beautiful. In film and in life.
That is the legacy that the magnificent Fellini has bestowed upon us, and it is imperative to cherish it now more than ever for the 100th Anniversary of his birth.
Geduld, Carolyn (1978) Juliet of the Spirits: Guido’s Anima, in Federico Fellini: Essays in Criticism ed. by Peter Bondanella, Oxford University Press: Oxford
Hyman, Timothy (1978) 8 1/2 as an Anatomy of Melancholy, in Federico Fellini: Essays in Criticism ed. by Peter Bondanella, Oxford University Press: Oxford
Kezich, Tullio (2002) Federico Fellini: His Life and Work, translation by Minna Proctor (2006), I.B. Tauris: London and New York
La Dolce Vita (1960)
Boccaccio ’70 (1962), dir. Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, Mario Monicelli, Luchino Visconti
8 1/2 (1963)
Juliet of the Spirits (1965)