Fellini’s film 8 1/2 is considered his magnum opus, the defining film of his career, and a monumental work of Italian cinema. It’s also a film that, in my view, has been eclipsed by later works influenced by it, in particular Bob Fosse’s film All That Jazz. I’ll explain.
(There will be some spoilers for both films)
8 1/2 follows an Italian director, who is clearly written as being a surrogate for Fellini himself (indeed, a massive body of work has been done pointing out who in the film is a stand in for other real people in Fellini’s life). The director is facing a creative crisis when it comes to the production of his next film. The script is up in the air (in a way similar to how Fellini’s films are often shot on the fly), the director is in something of a nervous breakdown, the studio is on his butt, and after he’s invited his mistress to join him at the spy he’s come to in order to mentally recover and compose himself for the film’s production – his wife shows up as well. Through all of this the Director goes through various fantasy sequences showing his past, and his inner torments and desires, often shifting back and forth between fantasy and reality.
So, I bring up All That Jazz in comparison to this because in that film Joe Gideon (a surrogate for Fosse played by Rob Schneider), is in the middle of working on his new broadway production – NY-LA (a surrogate for the still in the works Chicago), while his latest film is in the editing room, and is running into hiccups (a surrogate for the critically panned Lenny, a bio-pic on Lenny Bruce), while chain-smoking, taking dexedrine, having an relationship with one of the members of the play’s cast while semi-trying to get back together to his ex, and spending time with their daughter. Through this, there are similar fantasy interludes where Gideon flashes back on to his past, often chatting up and dancing with an Angel of Death named Angelique.
This is fairly similar – except for one big difference. In All That Jazz, it’s clear that the life Gideon is living is killing him – the sex, the drugs, the stress – it’s playing hell on his health, and (spoilers for an almost 40 year old film), it eventually does kill him. Further, the people in Gideon’s life generally consider him to be kinda shitty. There are certainly thinks about him people find charming, and people like him as a person, but there’s no doubt that he’s an asshole, and when he’s called on the carpet, his behavior is shown as indeed being harmful – ultimately coming to a head with his death.
By comparison, in 8 1/2, Fellini’s surrogate, Guido Anselmi, gets off much easier by comparison. There is no real repercussions for his behavior – indeed, in one of the film’s fantasy sequences, where the women in his life call him on his bullshit, Guido busts out a whip and, like a lion tamer, lashes the women into shape. Guido’s ultimate catharsis isn’t that his behavior isn’t self-indulgent and that he’s treating the women in his life like garbage. Instead, it’s him coming to the conclusion that he should accept that his behavior is okay and he should not worry about it.
Again, the structure and concept of the two works are very similar, but where they shift is in the conclusions the two protagonists (and by extension, the filmmakers) have. Fosse’s surrogate is destroyed by his behavior – clearly indicating that Fosse knew the toll his lifestyle was taking (and making the film’s conclusion seem almost semi-prophetic considering he died of a heart attack). By comparison, Fellini’s surrogate draws the conclusion of “I’m a philandering jerk, and that’s okay (I bone at night and I film all day)!”
So, while 8 1/2 is highly regarded as a work of cinema, and of Fellini’s body of work in particular, I can’t help but feel that while it is visually entertaining and structurally interesting, I don’t feel the love that it gets from so many entertainers, particularly since All That Jazz grabbed me so much more.