26 September 2011

"8 1/2" Criterion Collection Blu-ray Disc

Otto e mezzo [8 1/2]
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo
Story by Federico Fellini and Ennio Flaiano
Screenplay by Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano & Brunello Rondi
Created and Directed by Federico Fellini
Cinescopes Personality Types: Charismatic Performer, Existential Savior
Blu-ray Disc Release: 12 January 2010
List Price: $39.95
The Criterion Collection #140
Criterion Themes: Federico Fellini, Oscar Winners, Allan Arkush's Top 10, Chris Hegedus's Top 10Götz Spielmann’s Top 10

The Film
I streamed this from Netflix in February, and was left feeling a respect for the obvious craftsmanship and artistry of 8 1/2, but the truth is it left me somewhat cold.  I was amused, intrigued and impressed, but I was not entertained, engaged or amazed.  I was content to chalk it up to my pedestrian taste and a failure to properly get into the milieu of Fellini's work, until I happened upon the Criterion Blu-ray on sale at Half Price Books over the summer for a paltry $12.00.  For that irresistible price, I elected to revisit it this month as part of the second annual DVD Talk Criterion Collection Challenge.  Since my previous viewing, I've gone through some important stuff mentally and emotionally, and it is to this more than anything else that I attribute the fact I have discovered I am in love with 8 1/2.

The premise is simple enough: director Guido (Mastroianni) is supposed to be working on his next masterpiece, but finds the pressures of the business and his personal life weigh upon him so severely he cannot function.  "What's the story?" he's asked, and he honestly doesn't know.  He can't not make the movie; he's too prolific for that.  Yet, he has no idea what story he wants to tell--because he has no sense of himself.  Fellini himself is said to have made 8 1/2 as an autobiographical catharsis and nearly a self-satire depending on your perspective.  It shows.  8 1/2 could only have been made by a man who knew what it was like to have the entire world ask you questions about yourself you cannot answer.  Guido is inundated with reminders of his past, searching various stages of his growth for clues about what to do in the present.  Nearly all of his recollections lead directly to a woman in one way or another, from his mother to his wife, with mistresses a-plenty along the way.  Are there lessons to be learned from the failed relationships of yesterday, or do they compound Guido's sense of disarray?
Marcello Mastroianni proves Italians can rock a cowboy hat.
Far better qualified people than me have dedicated whole volumes to analyzing and criticizing 8 1/2, so I won't bother with that myself.  Rather, I will merely say that of late, I too have felt pulled by various people for numerous reasons, as though they looked to me for something I wasn't sure I could provide.  I've been quite humbled to find in recent months my blog posts about Crohn's disease, depression and LGBT issues resonating with an expanding readership.  It's the most rewarding thing in the world to have people who don't know you from Adam say to you, "Thank you for writing this..." and then sharing the most intimate stories you might imagine.  Those occasions make this entire blog worthwhile, and I am thankful for every such interaction.  Yet, I'd be lying if I didn't feel inadequate to the praise.  There's a sense that I have that these readers are hoping to find something poignant and inspiring from me, and instead all I can bring myself to churn out lately are comic book posts, it seems.  I very much empathized with Guido, avoiding the producer and mollifying actresses that, sure, they'll have plenty of lines in a screenplay he hasn't actually written.

The message of 8 1/2, I believe, is that there can be art even in a state of chaos.  We may not even find answers to our questions--not in the past, nor in the present--but that asking them in the first place can lead us along.  Perhaps not to anything meaningful at the time at all (Guido eventually does find a direction for his film), but in life we cannot withdraw until we are ready to proceed.  We must constantly move forward, for that is the nature of our linear existence.  8 1/2 is a comforting reminder that it's okay that we may not know where we're going, or even sure where we've been.  I may have recognized but dismissed this in February, but here in September it was a godsend for me.

The Supplements
The Criterion Collection is renowned for its wealth of bonus content and 8 1/2 is as fine an example as you'll find.  Here are my thoughts on the exhaustive supplements to be found on this spectacular Blu-ray Disc.

"I, Fellini" [excerpt] - Federico Fellini interviewed by Charlotte Chandler ****

Fellini recounts the genesis of the film, including an anecdote about being invited to a birthday party for one of the grips or electricians in which it became apparent to him that if he didn't make some movie, those people would be out of work.  It's exactly the kind of motivation that resonates so powerfully with me at present.

"When 'He' Became 'I'" by Tullio Kezich ****

Fellini's biographer summarizes the evolution of the film from concept to legacy.  What I found intriguing was to learn of Fellini's rather contentious relationship with writers--myself having the utmost admiration for the craft.

"A Film with Itself as Its Subject" by Alexander Sesonske **

The weak spot in this booklet, Sesonske lavishes praise upon 8 1/2 in the way that only someone writing decades after critics have changed their minds about a film can.  For Sesonske, time has vindicated Fellini and it's time to crow about it.  I'm sure it's a valid argument to be made, but it doesn't make for particularly compelling reading.

"I, Fellini (Reprise)" ***

Fellini's work creed is spelled out, articulating his need for malleability.  Nothing eye-opening, but it does include the following gem:
"Understanding what makes a thing difficult doesn't make it less difficult, and understanding how difficult it is can make it more difficult to attempt."
Disc Supplements
Commentary - Audio essay read by actress Tanya Zaicon; interviews with Gideon Bachmann and NYU film professor Antonio Monda. Recorded in 2001. *****

It's always nice when a commentary track goes beyond idle praise for those on screen and haphazard recollections of what took place behind the scenes.  This commentary track is devoted to a scholarly interpretation of the film's surreal narrative, relying partly on several primary sources to help place the production in the context of Federico Fellini's life and state of mind at the time of production.  Maybe it's just that I'm at a point in my life where I feel as clueless and as overwhelmed as I'm told Fellini felt throughout the production of 8 1/2, but this commentary track greatly endeared me to the movie.

"The Janus Films Director Introduction Series presents Terry Gilliam on Federico Fellini's 8 /12" (7:30) ***

The nature of this introduction is too brief to allow for much substance, though it's interesting to hear Gilliam cite specific parts of 8 1/2 that influenced him as a storyteller.  I suspect this is more appealing to fans of Gilliam than to fans of Fellini or this film.

"Fellini: A Director's Notebook" (51:16) **

A TV special depicts the process of preparing and casting for a film.  The A/V quality would be fine if I was fluent in Italian and/or Latin, but I'm not and so it was difficult for me to follow some of the nuances.  My initial reaction is that the concept was more interesting than the actual product of this piece.

Fellini Letter ****

Text translation of a letter sent by Fellini to producer Peter Goldfarb in which he describes his idea for the TV special, inspired by the various larger-than-life people he had met and experiences he had in preparing his films.  Verbose, certainly, but it makes clear his enthusiasm for such interactions.  If I had received such a letter, I too would have wanted to produce the TV special.

The back side of Claudia Cardinale
"The Last Sequence" (50:24) *****

A documentary produced in 2003 to explore what is or was known about a different ending for the film, set aboard a train.  The footage is lost (likely destroyed by Fellini himself), and not every participant even recalls filming it.  It's as interesting a study of Fellini as it is of film-making in general.  A brief passage dedicated to the sound design of the excised train alone was worth the time of viewing.

"Zwischen Kino und Konzert: Der Komonist Nino Rota" ["Nino Rota: Between Cinema and Concert"] (47:28) *****

This 1993 German documentary that explores the professional career of composer Nina Rota is absolutely terrific.  His legacy of work stands as evidence to support his thesis that there is dignity in all works of art, and I found this particularly engaging.  A must for anyone interested in music of any style, genre or medium.

Sandra Milo and Marcello Mastroianni
Sandra Milo (26:37) ****

Milo's reminisces as an actress aren't terribly important, but her perspective on Fellini as his mistress of 17 years are quite engaging and touching.  One gets the sense that she has romanticized Fellini after all these years, but there's an emotional vulnerability that makes this interview captivating.

Lina Wertmuller (17:28) ***

Wertmuller shares her recollection of working with Fellini on 8 1/2, mostly in the context of being a peer.  Nothing particularly stood out here, perhaps because Wertmuller shares more nuggets in other bonus content elsewhere.

Vittorio Storaro (17:24) ****

Cinematographer Storaro breaks down the evolution of the use of light in film, and touches on 8 1/2 largely as it relates to the craft of film-making.  He speaks English, so there are no subtitles but his accent is strong enough that I wish there were subtitles anyway.  Still, these are the kinds of things you need to pay attention to if you're interested in learning about film-making and if you can overcome the accent you'll find he does a great job being accessible.

Trailer (3:09) *** 1/2

Wow.  Just...wow.  The trailer makes it look like a sexploitation movie, but also like a chaotic train wreck on the order of, say, the 1967 Casino Royale.  I'd love to hear what people who saw the trailer before seeing the movie felt about it.  Incidentally, the finale of the film was originally shot to be the trailer, until Fellini decided instead to make it the ending and abort the aforementioned originally planned and shot conclusion.

Photographs by Gideon Bachmann ****

There are only about a dozen photos, and frankly I'm not a fan of viewing stills on a TV screen, but they're gorgeous photos nonetheless.  I'd love to see a coffee table-sized book of Bachmann's work (which I suspect exists).

Stills Gallery ****

More photos, not attributed to Bachmann but just as interesting to view.