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In his book The Great Movies (2002), Roger Ebert speaks disparagingly of those who follow the conventional wisdom that Fellini was better in his early, neo-realist films than in his later visions of personal fantasy and excess.  Ebert flat out writes “This conventional view is completely wrong.”  Sorry, Roger, but I ascribe to the conventional view.

Much ink has been spilled trying to pump up 8-1/2 (Otto e mezzo) as some kind of ultimate statement on the creative process, or as a film that has a lot to say about the process of making movies.  That is way too much credit to give this bloated, self-indulgent production.  Granted, the film is about a director who is suffering from some kind of creative ennui and wanders through the film doing everything not to make the movie he is supposed to be making.  His actors wait for their lines, his investors wait for some kind of visible progress, his set builders labor away on a Winchester Mystery Castle of a set which is supposed to be a rocket launching pad for some kind of science fiction flick.  Marcello Mastroianni looks mostly bored or depressed as Guido Anselmi, the director mired in a creative writer’s block, although he does manage to give the picture a stylish look whenever he puts on sunglasses.

Guido’s funk is never really explained, but it is somehow bound up with his childhood sexual fantasies and his adult infidelities.  The best sequence in the film is the one where Guido imagines that he is hosting a party for all the women in his life–the ones he lusted after in youth, his current wife, his mistresses–and then the party goes sour as all the women gang up on him.

I am fairly certain that Fellini lovers out there will conclude that I don’t “get” Fellini, so (in their opinion) clearly I don’t know what I’m missing.  But I am normally a sucker for fantastic realism.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez is my literary hero. And I cave to a film like Chocolat.  It is just that I don’t like Fellini’s arbitrary, garish take on fantastic realism, and I don’t like how the proceedings in a Fellini film will degenerate into some kind of carnival. The carnival ending doesn’t work in a film like this, because it seems like a cop-out instead of a genuine attempt to resolve the story. Compare the ending of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal to the ending of 8-1/2.  Both films end with the characters all holding hands and dancing their way into the closing credits.  It works in The Seventh Seal as the Grim Reaper leads everyone off to where they are going–in fact, the film has been leading up to that.  But in 8-1/2 the ending is a cop-out, as if the screenwriter didn’t know how to resolve the story and just gave up.  Another example of this sort of ending, where the screenwriters box themselves into an impossible resolution, is the final episode of Patrick McGoohan’s much vaunted TV series The Prisoner (1967-1968).  When you can’t resolve a story-line in a surrealistic film, you just have it degenerate into a circus and call it good.

Woody Allen understands Fellini perhaps better than anyone, and he has absorbed all that is good about 8-1/2 and (in my very unorthodox opinion) made a much better film with the elements:  Stardust Memories (1980). In Allen’s film, the director is forced to attend a film festival honoring the older, funnier movies that he has left behind as his career turned more serious.  During a long weekend, he is also forced to confront the detritus of old relationships.  Compare the two films.  Despite all the veneration that has been heaped on the Fellini, I would give the Allen film repeated viewings and I would beg off another slog through 8-1/2.

Woody Allen pays homage to snippets of Fellini and his other favorite (Ingmar Bergman) in many films, but he returns to Fellini full-on in Shadows and Fog (1991).  The latter film was less successful as it grafts a Fellini-esque ending (carnival stuff again) onto a Kafka-esque story.  Here again the carnival ending is a cop-out for a story-line that couldn’t be resolved.

My beloved high school Humanities teacher, Fred Hanley, ranked 8-1/2 as his favorite film of all time, and it regularly makes world cinema “best of” lists.   Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

–Dale D. Dalenberg MD