Sight and Sound List #10: Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963)
WHO SAID WE WERE PUT ON THIS EARTH TO BE HAPPY?
by Brianna Ashby
If you were to crack open my skull and closely examine my brain, I believe that you would find its composition rather peculiar; every neural pathway an overgrown forested tunnel, the frontal lobe nothing but a sea of rusty filing cabinets, stuffed to the gills with piles of yellowing paper and crumpled photographs, the area responsible for mathematical understanding completely obscured by cobwebs and dust. If you did a little digging, you would probably soon unearth an armoire of vintage dresses, a hand-tooled leather saddle, a jar of sea glass, a half-eaten bowl of macaroni and cheese, a small black portfolio, and a pair of socks with holes in the toe. If you were intrepid enough to make your way through this rubbish, you would then reach a door that opens into a large room full of whirring machinations, and gizmos spewing ticker tape, and buzzing intercoms—all crowding around an impenetrable safe of somewhat diminutive proportions.
And if you somehow had it in you to crack open two skulls, I believe that you would find Guido Anselmi’s brain in a similar state of disarray.
It’s amazing what we collect and store and trap in our minds. And what’s more amazing is that any of it survives the constant crush of new information, without getting smashed to atoms. I guess that’s what the safe is for: to house the people and places and things that deserve our protection, the things that we couldn’t do without. Ironically, though, it is the things that we keep closest to the vest that demand to be shared. People with the drive to create, like Guido, even like me, often struggle between the desire to connect with others through their stories and the need to guard the intimate experiences that inspire them to want to make that connection in the first place. Yet, these personal composites that ultimately inform our creative endeavors are nearly impossible to translate into film, into words, or onto canvas, at least in any obvious way. An experience can be made relatable, but you cannot relate an experience, not really. No matter how dutifully a scene is recreated or eruditely a scent is described, it will simply never be as powerful to anyone else as it is to the person holding onto its memory. Abstraction and metaphor exist for a reason, after all, and few artists seem to know this better than Federico Fellini.
Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastrioanni) is a movie director with a problem: He has no movie to direct. Production is stalled on the science fiction epic that was to revitalize Guido’s career, because he has nothing concrete to film. No script, no cast, and no inspiration—nothing but a loose and dreamy patchwork of a narrative that only he seems to be able to understand.
His “director’s block” is mystifying to the actors and crew members tentatively tied to the project, who wrongly assume that he is merely behaving like an unstable prima donna, keeping the details of the film a secret, just for kicks. Unable or unwilling to admit to his creative drought, Guido does little to dispense with this particular notion, choosing to appear difficult and elusive rather than vulnerable. Unsurprisingly, he suffers the consequences.
Everyone has questions, but no one seems to have the answers.
When the choice is made to pursue art as a career, the choice is also made to embrace, or at the very least, accept, personal commodification. While not all art is necessarily born of deep passion, it is nevertheless inextricably tied to its creator. Every novel and film and painting that is intended for consumption by an audience contains a small but crucial piece of the artist, who must be willing to sell himself off, bit by bit, to sustain his creative impulses.
Losing oneself is a terrifying prospect, but often less so than the possibility that these offerings might be rejected, and so we play to the audience. The danger in composing something to please the congregation, though, lies in their expectation that there is always more to come, that they never be left hanging or dissatisfied. The pressure to produce and gratify thus chips away at the psychic fortifications of the artist as the demand for their thoughts, emotions, and memories slowly begins to empty all of their internal vaults. Feverishly creating to fulfill thousands of individual needs is exhausting, and attempting to do so under the watchful eye of the consumer is paralyzing. Guido Anselmi has crumbled under the weight of this intense scrutiny.
The mind of a person under incredible strain (in this case, Guido’s) is a cacophonous place, whirring and jumbled and deafening, and Fellini makes sure that we understand that quiet roar. As we follow Guido—the camera panning and shifting to a first person perspective, to a third person view, and back again—we are not only seeing the world as he sees it, but hearing the discord as well. Conversations (in three different languages) perpetually overlap as actresses and crew members and friends and strangers all talk over each other, barking questions, asking favors, never letting Guido get a word in edgewise. The aggressive layering of disjointed chatter with an oppressed and melancholy internal monologue is not merely an experimental device for capturing dialogue; it very accurately depicts the headspace of an individual in turmoil. And, with a personal life even more tumultuous than his professional one, Guido, at the continual mercy of the external influences constantly vying for his attention, soon retreats inward to an elaborate tableau of dreams, memories, and fantasies. A place where the only voice that matters is his own.
While I was not under pressure from investors and production companies, or even a particularly wide audience, many of the same issues dogging Guido were also nagging at me when I recently made the decision to delete my personal blog. When I started using it as a platform for my writing, I had a handful of followers and no real impetus to make it anything more than a place for me to occasionally empty my brain. It was cathartic. Very slowly more and more people began to acknowledge my posts, but I never bothered to censor them for emotional content; I wrote what I had to in order to purge my system, not to give the internet something to read, at least, not at first.
You have to have a touch of narcissism to choose a public platform in which to air your intimate grievances, so to say that I didn’t begin to seek the validation of my readership would be disingenuous. At the same time, I started feeling like I had to really start mining the depths for material so that I wouldn’t lose whatever cache I had gained—which is exactly when it stopped feeling like a release and started feeling like an obligation. I had already written in great depth about the most painful and most joyous experiences of my entire life, offering up some of my most guarded and/or profound memories for public appraisal, and for what?
The things that shape us and shake us and fill us up are white elephants; people can only empathize with a story once they’ve connected it to something in their own experience, and once that happens, the story, no matter how deeply personal, is no longer yours. I realized that if I continued to let go of all of my most precious moments, I would be empty. Without ability to summon the distant sound of my mother’s laugh, or the spray of mist from a boat on a lake, or the terror at having been caught shoplifting, I would be nothing.
In times of crisis, my natural reaction is often to disappear into a quiet corner of myself in an attempt to recreate a time and a place completely removed from whatever is troubling me, to find comfort in reverie, much like Guido. The complexity and richness of his subconscious life is very deliberately staged despite its esoteric qualities, and Fellini makes damn sure that its significance cannot be overlooked. Time and again we are taken back to Guido’s childhood, where we catch a glimpse of the surreal threads that fabricate distant memories of formative experiences, and begin to piece together his complicated relationships with both religion and sex—two of the main concepts he wishes to tackle in his film.
Although he does seek refuge in the comfort and innocence of childhood, Guido’s flashbacks are more meditations on aging than a mechanism for self- soothing. Guido is afraid of many things, but none are as terrifying as the thought that he is suffering from creative impotence, and that his inability to perform intellectually will manifest itself in other ways. He’s afraid of losing his virility, his relevance, his youth. Guido Anselmi does not want to grow old in any sense of the word. And who can blame him?
As someoneon the cusp of turning 30, I’ve spent more time ruminating on my age lately than I ever have in my life. If you’re of a mildly fatalistic disposition, every grey hair is cause for alarm. You begin to wonder if you’re too old to do the things that you used to do, if your spouse finds you as attractive as they did when you first met, if you still have it in you to create the things that you dreamed of creating when you were younger. At what point do we become nothing more than nostalgic old fools? Of course, my answer to feeling sorry for myself is generally to drink a little bit too much wine and browse the internet for Doc Martens while listening to a playlist of songs that made me weak in the knees as a teenager. So I guess my fear isn’t quite as deep-seated as that of our beleaguered director.
Not consoled by memory alone, Guido vacillates between lucid dreams and outright fantasies. In his dreams, he exists in a state of purgatory, haunted by the ghosts of his deceased parents, and, in fantasy, he is the sultan of a harem composed of all the women that he’s ever bedded. In his subconscious he’s childish and naïve, indecisive and unhinged; qualities that were once latent, now bubbling to the surface of Guido’s waking life.
Realizing that he has entirely blurred the line between reality and fantasy, Guido begins to come to terms with the fact that he has lost all semblance of objectivity, and because of this, that his film can never be made. All along, he has essentially been working on his cinematic autobiography, but it is a concept fraught with inherent problems: he can never see himself clearly enough to flesh himself out as a character, he cannot choose a female lead because his relationships with women are intrinsically fucked up, he cannot bring to life the formative childhood experiences that excuse who he is without being accused of gross sentimentality, and he can’t solve any of these problems because the external forces behind him are exerting so much pressure he can’t even think straight. Unable to separate himself from his creative failure, Guido decides that the only thing to be done is to take himself out of it all together, to dedicate himself to silence.
Seeking to mine an “honest” work of art from the context of your own life is an endeavor fraught with peril. To have both the willingness and the courage to put forth those parts of yourself that reside in the deepest recesses of your chest is perhaps rare enough, but to be able to do so without caving in to the pressure to turn those things into something both meaningful and palatable to a larger audience is a stunning achievement. There are innumerable obstacles that prevent us from translating who we are verbatim, most of which lie in our own minds. We have to accept ourselves and our circumstances before we can begin to tell our stories, and we have to sift through those stories and decide which of them tell just enough of the truth to be given away, so that we can keep the ones that we can’t live without safely tucked away in that impenetrable safe of somewhat diminutive proportions.
Brianna Ashby may have stopped emoting all over the internet, but she is still willing to share her drawings, which can be found here.
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- cakesandtrucks said:great read
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