Thoughts On: 8 1/2 - Man, Misogyny And Cinema


8 1/2 - Man, Misogyny And Cinema

Thoughts On: 8 1/2

Before we start, I've got to contradict myself. This is the greatest film ever made. I said the same with Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, but... I don't know. I don't know what I think half the time. But, the fact remains that both this and Sunrise are up there--right at the very top--as one of the greats. To me, 8 1/2 easily beats out Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The Godfather. We'll get to why in a moment, but introductions first. This masterpiece by Fellini follows Guido, a director trying to organise his new film amidst the his chaos personal life.

Like no other film, 8 1/2 blurs the line between fantasy and reality, both in the cinematic and real world, presenting itself as an autobiographical look in on Fellini, Guido, the film he's trying to make and just a cluster of spiraling inner worlds. When you watch this film you can at times be certain that some sequences are projections of the character's imagination, but what you can never be sure of is the film's basis in reality, where the ground floor is. This is because of Fellini's genius as a director. He never lets us know exactly what is real and what the film is about for the purpose of the narrative message. 8 1/2 is an astounding film mainly because it's the only one I know of that doesn't have a fourth wall. This film is built in a world without rules, it has no containment, no walls, so when we're winked at, blown kisses, asked questions, we can never be sure if we're seeing a POV shot or if the audience is actually a character in the film. With lighting and framing Fellini hides so much, yet with sound, pacing and atmosphere you feel like you're running blind at a thousand miles an hour. Major sequences in the film take place in near darkness, others blinding light that almost whitewashes the screen, and all so we are forced into what could be Guido's perspective. This is a film about life as Guido seems to know it. It has no real plot and to be honest it's not really about anything, but everything--everything Guido knows and feels. By blurring the line between reality and fantasy, taking away the fourth, third, second and first wall, by making a film about everything a character, we don't truly know, knows, Fellini assembles a joy ride, a poetic, intangible, look at perception and life. There's films we say you experience and this is the epitome of that idea. With this film, Fellini almost becomes Bergman, Tarkovsky, Goddard, Kubrick, Tarantino, Keaton, Murnau, Bay (yes, Michael Bay!) and all at the same time. You can feel Bergman's brooding and macabre philosophising; Tarkovsky's poetic surrealism and fantastical intangibility; Goddard's boisterousness, his ability to surpass tradition; Kubrick's capacity to transcend humanity and narrative; Tarantino's boyish fun and pure joy that emanates from every frame; Keaton's abject comedy, his ability to create worlds with his own sense of reality; Murnau's nostalgia and romance that steals an audience; Michael Bay's unapologetic sensationalism and self-consumption. In short, Fellini is Fellini. One of the greatest, part of that special breed of human.

I feel this film will mean a lot of different things to different viewers as it really requires you to bring yourself to it. But, this film speaks to me best with two questions. The first is of what it is to be a man and the second is what it is to be an artist. We'll start with the film's look at masculinity and males, but before we do, I merely discuss my views--I obviously can't talk about what it means to be any man, all men, but what the film says to my sensibilities. At face value this film is about women, it's also about misogyny. But, take a closer look, and it's not. People love to throw around the term 'misogyny' or 'misogynist'. By common definition, Guido is a misogynist. But, if we pick apart what it is to be a misogynist we can see what the film is trying to tell us. Misogyny is simply not liking women, it's objectifying, dehumanising, discriminating, belittling. But, who exactly? That sounds like a ridiculous question, but let me explain. Women don't exist. That's going to need a little more explaining. In short, if we're all trapped in our own heads, how can we dehumanise? If we're the only human we know exists, is it even possible to reduce any of the walking, talking, fleshy sacks of blood, organs and bile to something less, when we can't know if those fleshy sacks hold a mind, if they're really human? No. In this respect, Guido can't be a misogynist, women are a projection of his imagination. When he interacts with one woman he's really interacting with every woman he's ever come into contact with - his mother, sister, friends, wife, girlfriends, mere passerbys. This pertains to every categorising name we use. In other words, nouns are nothing more than adjectives. When people see one phone they really see all phones, when they see one person they see all people. This is attribution. You can't get a 'something' without there being a 'something else'. Knowing this, we can look at Guido's fantasies as insights into his character, not faults. If I'm honest, Guido's fantasies speak of all our characters, and to see fault in them is to dehumanise yourself, at the least, lie - to yourself and others.

Guido's fantasy with the numerous women in his secluded home where they depend on him and pander to his every need in the hope of not being exiled upstairs, is one of the greatest moments in cinematic history. People like to question what one artifact we should send off into outer space to have aliens find that could speak for all of humanity - and I think this scene is the one. This is the scene that perfectly sums up what was said in the previous paragraph. At face value, this fantasy is deeply twisted, but why? In simple terms, it's because it's misogynist, authoritarian and illiberal. The scene features exactly what we (what I) wish the world was like at times. The women Guido loves never age, they get along and have their defining characteristic (that Guido loves them for) encompasses them. Is that not heaven? Is not having everything you need and love constantly available and completely under your control the ultimate fantasy? What this scene reveals is Guido's complete self-consumption. To say he's misogynist, that he shouldn't think this way, is to say he should get out of his own head. But where should he go? If Guido were Prince Charming and the idealistic human, his fantasy would have him pandering to the each and every need of the women he loves as they're irrationally impulsive, simply doing what they want. He'd be Christ washing the feet of the people he loves and are supposed to love him back. For that to be his fantasy is incredibly flawed--it's messed up to say the least. But, that's the story people love to hear. Why? Because they see themselves as the people getting their feet washed whilst they fantasise about everyone else they love pandering to their needs as well. In short, this is the twisted mentality that makes people believe selflessness exists and that selfishness is bad. I've talked about this before though. To call Guido a misogynists is to say he's actively reducing women to something less. But, 'women' are yourself (if you're female) and/or the women you know. For him to offend them is to offend you, when, in reality, he's not thinking about you, he's not even thinking about his wife, girlfriend, sister, friends, but the idea of them--his projection. What this scene perfectly demonstrates is the fact that not only is Guido completely self-consumed, but that we all are. Why do you think Michael Bay is so successful? A point for another time though.

Whilst this scene reveals a lot about people in general, it also speaks a lot to me as apart of the male half of the species. The 'other half' is an incredibly important factor of life no matter how much of an individualist you may be. The other half is not just about gender, but the whole concept of equal and opposites. As I said before, there's no something without a something else. But, the relationship between those ideas, as presented through gender, isn't as simple as it should be in concept. The paradigm this scene reveals is like that of infinities within infinities--there being infinity between 0 and 1, not just infinity from 0 and the greatest number conceivable. Whilst there are opposites and equals in general, there are conflicting opposites within opposites that keep the balance. This is shown in the fantasy scene (and many other points throughout the film) with the fact that the women Guido interacts with in his fantasies are not real, but under his will. Why, in his fantasy, should the showgirl not want to be sent away? Why should she object? Why should Guido have to take out the whip? It probably links to what you've been screaming in your head whilst I've been talking about being trapped in our own worlds, being self-consumed and having fantasies of authoritarian illiberalism. We don't want to have those we love under our complete control--merely fantasies about the idea. We want them to be them--that's why we love them--imperfections and all. This is why Guido has to start whipping the women he loves - because he sees them as having free will, letting reality seep into fantasy, and loves all that makes them imperfect. The 'other half' is so important because without conflict there is complete equilibrium and with that comes inertia. Opposites are roughly equal, but always fight and are in a constant tug of war over that 49% to 51% mark. Guido loves women, but can't stand them at the same time--this is why heart throbs, boy bands and your favourite rom-com characters tell you they love all your little imperfection whilst the rest of the men in the room turn away and yack. We hate to love you--if we didn't, we couldn't. I assume the same goes for women, but, I, Guido and Fellini probably don't know much about the condition, so we'll leave it as is.

We'll move to the second question you probably forgot about two paragraph ago now. The second concept 8 1/2 explores is in a question of what it is to be an artist. The core conflict Guido is enduring comes with the purpose of art. Who is art for? It's common to hear that artist create films, paintings, books for themselves - I would make the claim myself. But, something Alejandro González Iñárritu said really makes you question the aphorism. He, at a round table discussion with Tarantino, Ridley Scott, Danny Boyle and a few others, combated the idea that people make films for themselves with this question: what if a nuclear bomb went off and you were the only person to survive, would you then make a film? The response was a laugh, nothing more, because the answer clearly was no. So, it seems we only produce art for others. Mmmm... it's not that simple. We produce art to entertain, to speak to, interact with, others, but only so we can talk about ourselves. Guido in 8 1/2, however, is having trouble with this very idea. If art is ultimately talking to others about ourselves, what are we supposed to say? Guido says this constantly, 'I have nothing to say'. And so, 8 1/2 ends with the film Guido's making being cancelled and a question of his own career that Fellini himself faced a lot being presented (then ignored). Like Guido will probably experience after the cast stops with the rumba, goes home and the film ends, Fellini had a lot trouble financing movies. One of the greatest filmmakers of all time wasn't allowed to make films - the same happened with Welles, Jodorowsky and I'm sure so many others. What did Fellini, Welles and Jodorowsky have in common? They had major balls, they made the films they wanted to. But, despite Citizen Kane, 8 1/2 and The Holy Mountain, such a thing like Dune has become an archetypal 'what if?' - a film geek's wet dream. If you're unaware, Alejandro Jodorowsky was going to make the Frank Herbert novel Dune into a film. His plans and vision were far beyond their time. It was speculated that the film would have blow 2001 out of the water--and come almost a decade before. It's also said that the DNA of Jodorowsky's Dune is in Alien, Terminator--practically every great sci-fi film made after it. To find out more I'd suggest watching the documentary, Jodorowsky's Dune, I may even have to talk about it at another time, but we've lost our way here.

Back to it, if some of the best films ever made weren't made by committee, but by auteurs, people making films for themself, why didn't Bergman, Tarkovsky, Welles, Jodorowsky, Fellini make billions upon billions? The answer is that 'great' is subjective and 'good' isn't. The most successful films fit into a perfect niche of good, or great, but not perfect. In short, they are universally acceptable and it's easy to say that Avatar, Titanic, (as franchises) Star Wars, Avengers, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter and Fast and Furious are good, really good in some cases, but not perfect. However, it's a little harder to say what is definitively the greatest film of all time--hence, the intro (P.S no, I didn't plan that and, yes, I'm a mad genius). Anyway, Guido's conflict comes with the fundamental dispute between great and successful. Guido's main conflict is that he wants a little too much - especially with his women. He believes in, 'Asa Nisa Masa', that a magic lady can come at night and give him all his riches. Nonsense, right? That's what the phrase is. Guido's core conflict comes with a need for catharsis, as presented through his religious upbringing and sexual suppression. This gives reason for him wanting so much love from so many women in his life and furthers the first part of the discussion. We, in a general sense, only want because we're don't have. Again, opposites forcing a need, a conflict. But, what this translates to in terms of artistry is Guido wanting to speak to a huge audience by having his film contain 'everything' from space ships to nukes whilst being poetic, a medium of self-expression that allows everyone to 'bury all that's dead inside'. This is Guido's all encompassing conflict, he needs so many friends and so many women because he needs the comfort of society, but, finds himself in a cycle of reciprocation where he doesn't want to give back. He'll sleep with another man's wife but turn off when she wants his help. He loves his wife, but wants others at the same time. On top of that he doesn't want to hear her go on about his cheating, much less cheat back. This core conflict is the epitome of success vs. greatness. Success can be thought of as compromise--Fast and Furious compromises sense for cool explosions and so it's main characters can survive literally anything, Avatar compromises deeper character work for 3D visuals--you can figure out the rest. Greatness is uncompromising. You think Welles would have the sets be smaller? No, Kane is all about excess. You think a Kubrick would have wanted an A-list actor in 2001? No, the film's not about the individuals. But, is Guido great? Is he compromising, is he just stubborn?

Guido's neither and this is his real conflict. Guido is an escapist, he hides from having to be uncompromising in the hope that a few Asa Nisa Masas will give him his script and get all the women, actors, producers off his back. Guido, as an artist, can't make a film for himself because he can't assert himself. He can't make one for an audience because he's too consumed in himself and what he wants. If a nuke went off and left Guido alone on Earth, he wouldn't make a film, he probably couldn't do much in the way of anything. But, how can one be a pragmatist in a world of chaos? The film doesn't condemn Guido because of that very question--on top of that we see through his perception, so he's telling us his story - and he hasn't the solution for his own problems. Guido accepts his life as chaotic and is happy to live with hope, chanting a few Asa Nisa Masas into his chest every now and then. In short, his conflict will always be with him and the only way for him to feel a little bit of levity is to let the film fail and live life as a party. This is the crux of the film. It's a film about not being able to make a film, a story about a man wanting to turn his life, his perception, into a story, but not being able to. Here's Fellini's wall tumbling poeticism, his surreal genius. Film is Fellini's/Guido's escape, as it is everyone's, but the world of filmmaking is far from a fantasy. This is true of almost everything we find important in life. Love, great on screen and in books, not so easy in real life. Identity, a simple concept--before the film started women were women. Now? Yeah, even more of a mess. Same goes for the identity as a whole. We think we know who we are, who others are, but the reality is we're all lost and undefineable--that's not even a word--but it proves the point nicely.

All in all, 8 1/2 is about change, trying changing oneself, but failing to. The film argues that in place of change should be an endeavour toward acceptance. With life lived as a party you can expect to have fun, but also the hangover the next morning. You can expect the probable and be more or less prepared for it. This is the point Fellini proves by alluding to the idea that his film is autobiographical. Maybe Guido does mess his film up, but he had fun doing it and, with a bit of hope, could go on to actually get one made. But more than that, Guido's failure makes for great tale of acceptance that is incredibly entertaining. Irony you can only laugh along with.

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