Mari Explains It: Federico Fellini's 8 1/2

It’s a hot mess, or rather, it portrays a hot mess. It speaks to me.
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Mari Sasano
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It’s a hot mess, or rather, it portrays a hot mess. It speaks to me.
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Caveat: I am not a film scholar, just someone who obsesses with certain works of art, so of course sometimes you will think I'm wrong.

One of the reasons why I am a professional writer is that years ago, my local daily newspaper let me write a column about fun things to do on the weekend. It was called 8 1/2 Things to Do because I was a twentysomething pretentious asshole. (Cut me some slack! At least I wasn't going with Otto e mezzo!) However. Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 is an important film to me (and the world). It’s a hot mess, or rather, it portrays a hot mess. It speaks to me.

When people refer to an image or situation as "Fellini-esque," this is what they mean: Hot, ugly, and ugly-hot characters oozing Italian charm interacting at a frenetic pace with wit ricocheting off the walls.

But what is it? Here we go, IN GLORIOUS BLACK AND WHITE:

Begin. We are in a car in a traffic jam. This part inspired R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" video. We see people sitting in their cars: nuns, businessmen, interesting-looking families. We see that one of the cars is filling up with smoke, and a handsome middle-aged man, Guido (the very handsome-in-real-life Marcello Mastroianni), is trapped! Pounding on the windows, he frantically tries to find a way out. Dude, maybe roll down a window?

He eventually gets out and starts to fly above the scene, and we see that he’s being held down by a rope held by a gentleman far below, who pulls until he comes down.

*Shudder* Oh wow, what a crazy dream! Guido is at a posh Italian spa. Between taking the medicinal waters and mud baths, he is being constantly pestered by various crew for pre-production planning for his next film.

OH MY GOD HE’S HANDSOME. In line for a glass of restorative water, he sees a beautiful, innocent young woman who offers him water but he’s actually daydreaming. (Guido, what are you doing?)

Incidentally, Guido’s supposed to be 43, which is not so much older than I am and therefore within an appropriate dating age bracket. But we may as well be completely different species as I am and never will be that put together.

Anyhow — boy, oh, boy — does Guido have problems: He doesn't have any answers for his producers, writers, or production designers. They’re building a massive rocket launch pad, and no one really seems to know why. Men in flawless Italian suits buzz around asking questions that Guido brushes off. He walks fast.

There's an excellent use of the Bugs Bunny — er, Barber of Seville — score and the original compositions of Nino Rota.

And then the women. THE WOMEN! Brava, ladies, on the eyeliner game!

The mistress. The wife. Multiple actresses. The confidante. All trouble, all flawless.

Fantasy sequences with the parents. Childhood memories. A wild-haired woman who lives in a hut at the beach who takes payment to dance the rumba. A famous scene where Guido is in his childhood home with all of his exes. (Something like this has happened to me too, and it is NOT PLEASANT).

This is a film — cinema! — that grabbed me when I first saw it, and I continue to return to it now that I am a grown-ass woman. I relate to it, the feeling of creative inertia and procrastination as a way of avoiding making decisions. I love films about artistic failure. This movie; All that Jazz; Irma Vep; Synecdoche, New York; probably lots more. I love the messiness, the feeling of letting it go when it doesn’t work out. That failure in itself is tragically, absurdly beautiful.

Have you seen 8 1/2? What did you think? Watch it right now and tell me in the comments.