Monday, March 18, 2013

8-1/2 is back in theaters: Is Fellini's film -- from 1963 -- the "movie" movie of all time?

Of course it is! Has there ever been a film more about film -- the making of it, the living it, the auditioning for it, the compromising, the pre-publici-zing, the thrill, the joy, the fear (mostly the fear) -- and all from the standpoint of the poor, put-upon director. But because that director was Federico Fellini, who cast as his star the classier, sexier, more handsome version of himself, Marcello Mastroianni, and then surrounded that charismatic presence with some of the most beautiful women in cinema at the time, the result -- 8-1/2 -- remains deservedly the movie to end all movies about movie-making.

It is certainly much better than the woeful and near-tuneless Broadway musical based upon the film and titled Nine, and perhaps one thousand times better than the dreadful movie musical then made from that Broadway show. No, Fellini (pictured at right) loved movies and understood how to make them, and movies are richer for that love and understanding. If you youngsters out there, who have only seen the musical and/or its accompanying movie, imagine that you know anything about the actual Fellini 8-1/2, it is time to indulge yourself in the real thing. Please.

Not having seen this film for literally decades, I was not quite sure how I would respond. I had mixed feelings about the film when I first saw it -- 50 years ago! I was too young and way too immature to understand a lot of what the poor Marcello/Fellini character (above and below) was grappling with, but I could more than appreciate the enormous visual energy and creativity with which this battle was being fought.

Seeing the film again, what most surprised me is how timely, how up-to-the-minute it remains, even -- maybe especially -- its visuals. That gorgeous black-and-white photography (by Gianni Di Venanzo) is still so ravishing that it might actually look nouveau to some burgeoning movie-makers, who, if we are lucky, will then try to reproduce some kind of equivalent in their own work.

It's all here again. From the traffic jam from which our hero, Mastroianni (playing Fellini), takes magical fight to that fabulous hotel (above) with the healthy water and all its guests, friends, relatives, business associates-- and actresses hoping to land a role in the film. And those women!

From cat-eyed Barbara Steele (above) to sad-eyed Anouk Aimee (below) through Sandra Milo (shown with Mastroianni in the penultimate photo) and Rossella Falk -- this array is as varied, stunning and perfectly chosen as a movie has ever given us.

Not to mention Eddra Gale as Saraghina (below) and Claudia Cardinale (shown at bottom) as a vision in white and then black, more purely shown here, I suspect, than anywhere else in her long career. For that "harem" scene alone, the movie's a must.

So, is 8-1/2 a great film? I don't think so. It's a great film about movies and movie-making, all right,  which is why it won a couple of Academy Awards the year it first appeared. It would win a slew more, were it to make its debut today, for Hollywood simply adores self-reverence: Look at The Artist, which won Best Picture last year, and Argo, which won this year. Both films had a lot going for them. But Best Picture? Really?

Still, 8-1/2 remains the movie-movie of all-time: as true (and false), pure (and crass), all-encompassing (and shallow) as the character of Guido Anselmi (Mastroianni/Fellini). It also gives us the-artist-as-asshole about as well as any film, while showing us the wonders that artist can produce. In its way, 8-1/2 has inspired moments or characters from everything from the original Broadway musical, Cabaret, to the film Joanna, while looking back to great movie art like The Seventh Seal. And it's about that eternal subject: the man who refuses to grow up -- again both the great strength and the mild weakness of this don't-miss, one-of-a-kind film.

8-1/2, from Corinth Films and running 138 minutes, opens theatrically here in New York City this Friday, March 22, at the Quad Cinema -- in a Restored, High Definition, Digital Cinema version that is said to look quite spectacular.

Update! I have just seen this new version, and it is indeed exquisite. The detail! The incredibly rich blacks! And every shade of gray under the sun! Even if you think you’ve seen 8-1/2, you haven’t -- until you’ve viewed it in this restored, high-definition, digital cinema version. If you love black-and-white cinema, here's a restored example that puts most everything else to shame.

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