Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Thirteen

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#13 — 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)
I have an aversion to dreamlike story structures, or even dream sequences in films, largely because they are often done so poorly. Never mind the frequency with which they’re little more than a fake-out, structured to set a character bolting upright in bed over whatever wicked turn just glimpsed in dreamland, an supposedly unnerving headspace depicted with essentially the same tone and approach as every other part of the film, all the better to deke the viewer. The real problem is that the depiction usually doesn’t resemble a dream all that much, instead cohering to a writer or director’s bumbling imagination, usually leading to crazy imagery that doesn’t add up to anything. Though he didn’t invent the notion of cinematic dream sequences or narratives steeped in dream logic, it can be argued that Federico Fellini made it look equally easy enough and profound enough to encourage all his directorial descendants to feel empowered to try it out themselves. The problem is simple: there was only one Fellini.

Actually, there’s sort of a second Fellini, and that’s the one that shows up inside his films, thinly disguised representations of the director himself as he works out his various anxieties onscreen. In the masterful 8 1/2, it’s Guido Anselmi, a famed Italian director played with casually engrossing charisma by Marcello Mastroianni. Guido is a man unmoored, struck by a profound block to his creativity that leaves him mining his own memories and fantasies with such vigor that they shuffle in to stand alongside his reality, taking the tangible world into a waltz of benignly surreal madness. This could all be little more than visual tomfoolery, which would have reasonably been enough to convey the unbalanced state of a visual artist. Instead, Fellini brings in the discombobulating elements with great care. Every bit of it carries weight, conveys something about the central character or his perceptions of the greater world that has set him reeling. The entire film is purposeful enough to make it seem as though it’s actually sprung directly from its creator’s subconscious.

Perhaps the sense of greater control, greater intent to the fanciful stretches is attributable to the immaculate craft brought to every level of film. Mastroianni is wonderful, staying true to the reality of his role while consistently finding creative ways around a line or a moment, in a manner fully in keeping with the film’s slanting sanity. There is Gianni Di Venanzo’s gorgeous black-and-white photography and the bright, slippery music of Nino Rota. Of course, the most striking contribution comes from Fellini himself, walking the highest of wires as he creates a sort of cinematic poetry that finds meaning in cadence, tone and shifting energy. It’s a film that isn’t gripping in any sort of conventional way, and indeed it doesn’t make an evident attempt to hold the viewer as it plays out. Instead, its odd, embedded power is in growing in stature and impact as it transfers from experience to memory, as if Fellini has found a way to sprinkle his personal shifting thoughts, emotions and memories into those of the people who take in his work. 8 1/2 seems most at home in the softening reality of recollection. That is a movie magic act that I truly believe only Fellini could have ever performed.

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