An aging classic proves forever fresh

The more the filmgoer changes the more Fellini's '8 1/2' has to offer

June 06, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

I almost didn't see "8 1/2 " again. A press screening of Federico Fellini's 1963 film, which opened at the Charles on Friday, was scheduled during a particularly harried week. When that Friday rolled around, my eyes were, as we say in the trade, seriously bleeding. "How big a deal would it be if I canceled?" I wondered. "I must have seen '8 1/2 ' a dozen times by now."

My conscience won the day, and I went to the Charles anyway. And what I saw was a brand new movie. It wasn't just the sparkling new 35 mm print, with its velvet blacks and dazzling whites. And it wasn't seeing the director's masterpiece on the big screen, after years of seeing it within the confines of video or 16 mm revival houses.

This time, "8 1/2 " resonated on an entirely different and deeper level than it ever had, leading to the sort of reminiscence that propels the movie's dreamily hallucinatory action. And as I recalled the various times I saw "8 1/2 ," I realized more clearly than ever that the measure of a classic is the elasticity with which it bends and expands to fit the heart and mind of each viewer.

In the film, Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido Anselmi, a 43-year-old film director who, in the throes of a creative block, retreats to a health spa outside Rome. There, he falls in and out of daydreams about his youth, the Catholic church and the movie he's trying to make. His wife, lover, friends and colleagues gather around in a larger-than-life support group.

The first time I saw "8 1/2 " I was in college, had just discovered feminism, and was duly outraged at the film's appalling sexism. Not only was the story about yet another white guy, but the entire film was nothing more than a celebration of the male artist's self-aggrandizing sexual fantasies, his chronic philandering and his objectification of women.

Guido's -- and, by extension, Fellini's -- unrepentant misogyny reached its depth in the movie's most notorious dream sequence in which Guido assembles his wife and mistress (Anouk Aimee and Sandra Milo), as well as every other woman in his life, into a harem of sexual servants. The scene was staged by Fellini with the director's signature circuslike atmosphere, but the sight of Mastroianni whipping at his dream-women and riding them like ponies was anything but funny to me. (Among the newly radicalized, a sense of irony is usually the first to go.)

The next time I saw "8 1/2 " was several years later in New York, probably at one of the city's venerable revival houses like the Film Forum or the Thalia. By this time, my doctrinaire ire had abated in direct proportion to my enjoyment of the more decadent pleasures of Manhattan's cafe society, and I was able to watch the harem scene without feeling the need to hurl red paint at the screen.

In fact, this time I saw "8 1/2 " in a new light, appreciating for the first time Fellini's satirical portrait of the phonies who inhabited Guido's world: the upper-middle-aged producer and his young, blond girlfriend; a toadying American journalist; the grotesque denizens of Guido's spa retreat.

Indeed, the image of Guido observing these pathetic creatures, through a pair of perfectly chic sunglasses, fit neatly with my own self-image. At the time, I felt young, fashionable and invincible. Life was just a circus, and everybody was a phony concoction of affectations and ambition -- at least everybody else.

I would watch "8 1/2 " again over the years, at the occasional double-feature with "La Dolce Vita" or whenever it was shown on television, but my appreciation of its purely cinematic pleasures -- those elements that made "8 1/2 " the favorite of directors like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese -- arrived late. It's been within the last decade that I was struck by all those things for which it has been justifiably rhapsodized: the black and white cinematography, a study in contrasts, tonal values and composition; Nino Rota's classic circuslike score; and Fellini's adroit way of merging Guido's real life with the dreams and fantasies that increasingly encroach on it.

To watch "8 1/2 " as a film fan is to experience the medium at its most visually eloquent, atmospheric and astutely self-reflexive. Satirizing the director's obsessively eroticizing gaze, Fellini made the ultimate movie about directors as voyeurs. In the harem scene that had so offended me in my 20s, Guido suddenly looked pitiful, adrift in the impotent dream of a man sapped of his creative powers. Fellini's genius had finally begun to sink in.

When I contemplated watching "8 1/2 " again two weeks ago, I wasn't sure there was much more to be learned from this particular Rosetta stone. But this time, the movie, which over the years had metamorphosed from a document of one man's sexual obsession, to a portrait of psychic and spiritual ennui, to a wry comment on the filmmaking process, had become yet something else: a spirited and surprisingly sincere credo for the redemptive power of art. "8 1/2 " had managed to transform itself yet again.

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