Saturday, February 09, 2008

Some observations on 8 1/2

As I mentioned here, the first film in the inaugural film series at my college was to be Fellini's 1963 film 8 1/2. And indeed: though a week later than intended, seven of us gathered last night to watch it on the biggish screen. Though our group was small, we had a lively discussion afterward.

IMDB's plot summary is pretty good, so I'll refer you to that without summarizing here. The clip below is early from the film and requires a bit of set-up in addition to what the summary tells: Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) is at a spa under a doctor's orders to take the waters there while working on his film; he is prone to flights of revery and will have one in this scene. The woman he meets at the train station at the end of the clip is his mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo). Though early in the film, what you'll see is representative of the whole: its playful humor, above-mentioned reveries, and visual style:

Below the fold: Some stuff I made up off the top of my head last night about this film's camera work, and about films-about-film in general.

In scenes in 8 1/2 involving large groups of people, of which there are several, the camera's tendency is to pan about. That in and of itself is not so unusual. In most films, though, the intent is like that of an establishing shot: the camera moves about, allowing the viewer to get a sense of where s/he is in space. Moreover, in such shots the scene's prominent features tend to be more or less at the same distance from the viewer. In the opening pan for 8 1/2's spa scene, though, note how, as the camera moves, we first see a line of people in the middle distance; then, suddenly from the left, almost in our faces appear more people, one of whom parade-waves at us; another will later blow a kiss in our direction; then, at the 1:10 mark, we're almost whacked upside the head by the conductor of an orchestra (!)--which, still, every time I see it, makes me want to whirl around to look behind me. Far from being like the 4th wall of Ibsen's imagining of audiences for his plays (also the role film audiences play), we're in this scene: people recognize us; heck--we may be playing a wind instrument, for all we know. Where are we?

It's disorienting, in other words; we're not permitted to be the detached observers, as regards our physical location relative to the action onscreen, that most films allow us to be.

That leads me to an observation I made about films-about-film before we started watching this one: Most films do all they can to make us forget that we are watching them. They make as invisible as possible all the machinery of actors and writers and equipment it took to produce what we are seeing--and by "invisible" I don't just mean "off-camera." Most film, therefore, even straight-ahead "realistic" narratives, are pure illusion when they are at their best. 8 1/2 has its share of strange moments in it, no question. Like other meta-films, though, its strangeness arises in large measure from the fact that Fellini is not just reminding us that there's a machine that is responsible for a film's getting made, he shows that machine to us, via Guido's harried, variously-preoccupied mind--consumed, in every sense of that word, by a machine of his making. When we finally get to see a set for the film Guido wants to make, it's that place that looks alien to us (appropriately, the set is a launch-pad for a space-ship--and don't ask . . . don't ask Guido in particular).

The paradox, then, is that for all this film's strangeness, and for all that of the films we'll be seeing on down the road, meta-film just may be the least-illusory kind of film there is.

Next up: Barton Fink.

Bonus clips:

8 1/2's justly-famous opening sequence:

Here (with apologies for the murky video), a mind-reader and her assistant perform for the spa's guests, leading Guido to a mysterious (and beautifully-staged--though you'll have to trust me on that, given the murkiness) childhood revery:

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