throwback the undertones

blu-ray series #21: 8 1/2 (federico fellini, 1963)

Ever since grad school (maybe even before that), I’ve struggled with the notion of an artistic canon. The best thing I’ve ever written on this subject came more than 20 years ago (!) with “Curing the Canon”. In that essay, I argued for what I called a “personal canon”, which is something of a contradiction in terms ... a canon usually refers to work that is generally considered the best of the best, with “generally” assuming a community of scholars, which purposely doesn’t leave room for “personal”. A canonical work has inherent value, value that exists outside of opinion. It is self-evident, at least to anyone who spends the time to study the work closely. Adding “personal” to the mix takes a step away from inherent value ... it says that I have a canon, you have a canon, everyone has a canon, which is to say there is no overarching canon. (I make a similar case in a soon-to-be published essay on Pauline Kael, “Expansive Subjectivity”.)

One of the most important things to remember, though, is that one shouldn’t mistake taste preferences for inherent value. We all do it ... it’s usually easier to say “this is great” than to say “I think this is great”. For myself, I hope people assume that “I think” is implied. (When I taught writing, I would tell students who had been directed otherwise in high school that it was fine if they used the word “I” in their essays. I also told them it wasn’t really necessary, since I always assumed the “I” in what they said.) If enough people share a particular taste preference, and they manage to work their way to a position of authority (teacher, critic, whatever), they might argue that their taste preferences reflect inherent value because so many of them agree. They might even establish rules of greatness. But they never get past their own taste preferences, even if they impose them on the rest of us as if they were special.

The irony is that I rely heavily on the film canon, at least when deciding what to watch. I’m always referring to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They, which collates critical opinion and creates best-of lists. I like being lifted out of my comfort zone; TSPDT leads me to movies I might have missed. (On the other hand, I love getting requests, because they also lead me to undiscovered places, only from the perspective of an individual rather than a collated list.) The result is that I end up watching things like We Are the Best! (a request/recommendation), Fitzcarraldo (critical fave), and San Andreas (personal what-the-fuck-let’s-watch-The-Rock).

And so, 8 1/2. Federico Fellini is considered one of the great directors in the history of cinema. (He ranks #4 on the TSPDT list of the top directors of all time, behind Hitchcock, Welles, and Kubrick.) 8 1/2 ranks as the 6th-best movie of all time, one place above The Godfather. Personally, I’m not sure I’d place 8 1/2 in my list of the top six Fellini movies I’ve seen.

There are many things to like about 8 1/2. The B&W cinematography is beautiful ... the use of light and shadow is exquisite, and Marcello Mastroianni was made for black-and-white. The imaginative settings and characters, which are what comes to my mind when I think of “Fellini-esque”, are remarkable. Fellini doesn’t do much with the actors not named Marcello ... he uses their faces as part of the Fellini Carnival, and there are some impressive faces, but as characters they are flat. Claudia Cardinale is a dream woman named “Claudia”, Anouk Aimee is “The Wife”, and they do what they can, but they aren’t asked to do much. I can’t complain, though, about the presence of personal fave Barbara Steele. I’m sure Steele is a fine actress, but I’m always so taken with her look that I’m overwhelmed. She’s another one made for black-and-white, with her jet black hair and her eye makeup and cheekbones. I used to think Steele looked like no one else, but then Eva Green came along. In any event, Steele steals every scene she is in, pun not intended, simply by bringing her odd face to the picture ... she’s the one actor in the film who doesn’t seem to need Fellini to get her look right.

But ... I’m unimpressed by the theme (man with “director’s block”), I don’t care much to see Fellini use Mastroianni as his stand-in ... in truth, I find 8 1/2 rather boring. Give Fellini credit, though. He anticipated the responses of people like me, using a film critic as a wet blanket on the greatness of the director:

You see, what stands out at a first reading is the lack of a central issue or a philosophical stance. That makes the film a chain of gratuitous episodes which may even be amusing in their ambivalent realism. You wonder, what is the director really trying to do? Make us think? Scare us? That ploy betrays a basic lack of poetic inspiration....

[W]e critics... do what we can. Our true mission is... sweeping away the thousands of miscarriages that everyday... obscenely... try to come to the light. And you would actually dare leave behind you a whole film, like a cripple who leaves behind his crooked footprint. Such a monstrous presumption to think that others could benefit from the squalid catalogue of your mistakes! And how do you benefit from stringing together the tattered pieces of your life?

I see a chain of gratuitous episodes, tattered pieces of life. Most others see a brilliant examination of the creative mind. Taste preferences. 6/10.