La Bella Confusione: The Cinematic Legacy of Fellini’s 8 ½

We should all be so lucky to suffer a mid-life crisis as well as Federico Fellini. When the Italian maestro hit a mental, physical and creative wall following his 40th birthday in 1960, he dug his way underneath it by turning inward to himself, emerging two years later with his greatest masterpiece, a film so towering in its magnificence that it birthed an entire cinematic subgenre, one that filmmakers have returned to time and again in the 60 years since. 

By the time 8 ½ came out, Fellini was already considered the greatest director in the world by a good many of his peers, thanks to an incredible run of films over the past decade that included the Academy Award winners La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1957), as well as the huge international sensation, La Dolce Vita (1962). But the pressures that attended his success and notoriety, combined with marital problems caused by his various infidelities, resulted in the first creative block he’d suffered since he began working in the Italian film industry two decades prior.

Therapy sessions and an interest in Jungian psychology forced Fellini to plumb his subconscious for answers. This eventually led to an idea for his next film–initially titled La Bella Confusione—about a writer struggling with writer’s block. After Fellini’s favorite leading man, Marcello Matroianni, played a similarly disenfranchised scribe in Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Note that same year, he changed the character from a writer into a film director, one who, like Fellini himself, had grown exhausted by the demands and expectations of fame and acclaim (as well as the various romantic entanglements and betrayals he embarks on), and searches for meaning in his personal dreams, desires and memories.

Like the film-within-the-film, 8 ½  swaps “a central conflict or philosophical premise” in favor of “a series of gratuitous episodes”, but far from being a meandering ego trip, the end result is a hypnotic and dizzying masterwork, one that, in the words of modern-day Fellini acolyte Paulo Sorrentino, showcases the director’s visionary mix of “spontaneity with technical mastery.”

But the influence of the film goes beyond the technical and the aesthetic. While there were any number of movies about movies prior to 8 ½, Fellini took cinematic metatextuality to new levels. To quote Martin Scorsese’s achingly beautiful recent tribute to his hero, in 8 ½  “the creative process is the structure.” 

This would prove revelatory for filmmakers of the time, particularly the young generation set to take Hollywood by storm in the 1970s.  Scorsese notes the enormous effect 8 ½ had on himself and his peers, citing several films of the following decade that were directly inspired by it. These include Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970), Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz (1979), and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980). 

Of those three films, Alex in Wonderland—about a hippie-ish director (Donald Sutherland) attempting to settle on a new idea following his successful debut, while also struggling to make peace with his family’s rise up the socio-economic ladder—is most direct in its acknowledgment of 8 ½’s influence, going so far as to feature Fellini himself, playing himself. At one point, Sutherland’s director even considers—before laughing off—the notion that his next film should be an autobiographical exploration in the vein of 8 ½.  

Stardust Memories, on the other hand, never specifically mentions 8 ½, although every second of it evokes Fellini’s film, thanks mostly to the high contrast black-and-white cinematography from Gordon Willis, as well as the train-set scenes that bookmark it, which are clearly paying homage to 8 ½ ‘s lost original ending. Unlike the protagonists of Fellini’s and Mazursky’s films, Allen’s alter ego, Sandy Bates, isn’t suffering from creative blockage, but rather struggling to stay true to his artistic vision, despite the constant refrain he hears from his producers and the public about his recent work not measuring up to his “early, funny stuff.” Stardust Memories is as much Allen’s response to his films post-Annie Hall (which itself bears a strong 8 ½ influence by way of its numerous day-dream non-sequiturs), as well as an homage to Ingmar Bergman’s similarly memory-drenched, death-haunted Wild Strawberries (1957), as it is to Fellini’s film.

Then there is All That Jazz, which is the least overt in its references to 8 ½ , while standing as its truest spiritual successor. The autobiographical film from brilliant choreographer-turned-film director Bob Fosse stars Roy Schneider as Fosse stand-in Joe Gideon, who, between the long hours spent staging an expensive new Broadway show and the difficult editing of his latest movie; his turbulent relationships with his ex-wife/creative muse, current girlfriend, new mistress, and young daughter; and the copious amounts of pills, booze and cigarettes he ingests, finds himself careening towards an early grave. Like Guido, Gideon retreats into memories and visions while engaging in a phantasmagorical bull session with a beautiful and mysterious woman named Angelique, who we quickly come to realize is not merely some idealized object of grace—ala Claudia Cardinale in 8 ½ or Jean Moreau in Alex in Wonderland (both playing themselves), or Sharon Stone’s nameless beauty in Stardust Memories—but the actual Angel of Death. 

Of all the New Hollywood films inspired by 8 ½ (you can also add to that list Robert Altman’s carnivalesque Brewster McCloud), All That Jazz is by far the greatest artistic achievement, a full-tilt exorcism almost as awe-inspiring in its haunting and hallucinatory power as Fellini’s film.

As 8 ½ solidified itself over the decades as one of, if not the essential works of international arthouse cinema, its imprint could be seen on numerous other works, including similarly themed films-about-films such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore, Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night, Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, and Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion); films about dreams and the subconscious, including Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (originally titled 1984 ½), Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, Jake Scott’s music video for R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts, and most of David Lynch’s oeuvre; and films about creative blocks, most noticeably  Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, which, like 8 ½ becomes the story its describing, and his sprawling, surreal Synecdoche, New York, which does the same about a dozen times over.

(There are also a handful of movies with more ancillary connections, including Peter Greenways 8 ½ Women and the Russian crime-comedy 8 ½ $, which reference Fellini’s film but don’t try to replicate it’s themes or structure; as well as the significance of the titular numerical digit in the meta-marketing for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.)

There is, of course, also Nine, Rob Marshall’s 2009 adaptation of the 1982 Broadway musical, itself a direct adaptation of 8 ½. Somehow that film—in which Daniel Day Lewis and a bevy of A-list actresses (including Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz) step into the roles originated by Mastroianni, Cardinale, Sandra Milo and Anouk Aimée—manages to strip Fellini’s story of all of its dreamy grandeur and theatricality, despite being an actual musical. It also replaces 8 ½’s moody sense of ennui with a pat moral denouement meant to placate a multiplex audience and which couldn’t feel further removed from Fellini’s sensibility. Not simply a terrible movie, Nine is a work of pure cinematic sacrilege, and it’s a shame that, as of this moment, it’s the last major film to engage in a dialog with the original.

That dialog is a key component in understanding the continued relevance of 8 ½, specifically the way these films seem to respond to one another, often to an uncanny, even creepy degree. At the end of 8 ½, Guido has seriously damaged his career and reputation by stepping away from his would-be science fiction epic after millions have already been spent building a massive set. A few years later in real life, Fellini would do the exact same thing, leaving the expensive science fiction epic Il viaggo di G. Mastorni after producer Dino de Laurentiis had already spent a large sum on pre-production.

In Alex in Wonderland, Fellini was introduced to Donald Sutherland, who he’d go on to cast as the title character in his film Casanova (although he chose Sutherland not because he was impressed with his work in Alex, but because the actor made him think of “a sperm-filled waxwork with the eyes of a masturbator”). During another scene in Alex, Sutherland’s character considers making a biopic of none other than Lenny Bruce. Bob Fosse would direct that exact movie four years later with Lenny, which he’d heavily reference throughout All That Jazz five years after that. The other major reference point in Jazz is the Broadway musical Chicago, which he staged in 1975 and which would get a hugely successful film adaptation courtesy of Nine director Rob Marshall in 2002. All That Jazz also seemed to predict Fosse’s actual demise, as he would die in the arms of his real-life muse Gwen Verdon (played in Jazz by actress Leland Palmer) after suffering a massive heart attack while hard at work on a revival of Sweet Charity. This relationship was at the center of the recent FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon, which covered the making of All That Jazz, thereby adding yet another meta-layer to everything.

(Along these same lines—albeit far more disturbingly–Stardust Memories contains a few references to child molestation that mirror almost exactly the accusations levelled against Woody Allen twelve years down the line.)

Almost 60 years after its release, is as much a work of prophecy as it is one of self-exploration. The film’s critics—and there are more than a few—would hold it up as a pretentious bit of navel gazing and egomania, one that’s inspired far too many works about the tortured genius of their creators, who are almost exclusively men. But along with discarding the immense beauty of it’s craft, this ignores how merciless (and funny) Fellini is in his self-examination. And while we should certainly welcome more diverse spins on any future movies that cover this ground–I for one would love to see a similar story from a woman director’s point of view—the current cinematic landscape is so openly hostile to personal visions that it seems ridiculous to castigate it for such.

Today’s film market is so devoted to faceless corporate product, with only a small space carved out for politically-oriented works of the type favored by the pretentious intellectual critic played by Jean Rougeul in 8 ½, who admonishes Guido’s work—and by extension, Fellini’s—for lacking any “connection to a true critical conscience”, while encouraging him to take up “a higher degree of culture” and more logic.

Now, more than ever, we need filmmakers to discard such logical advice and instead follow in the dancing footsteps of Fellini; to turn inward into their own personal dreams, desires, neurosis and memories and embrace the beautiful confusion of their truest artistic self.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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