Fellini’s 8½: A Warning to the Solipsistic Artist

The amazing team here at 25YL has graciously allowed me access to a platform where I can write the kind of film reviews I love writing. Creative freedom like what we’re afforded is difficult to find. Like any decent artist, I push limits, but I won’t leave this place until they kick me out the door. Along with a degree of creative control most writers never see, I have legitimate exposure to my preferred audience. My mind is blown, because writing is a field so psychotically competitive, it verges on being more trouble than it’s worth. Not to mention, I’m a bit of an unconventional writer. Probability says I’m going nowhere. Even still, my work shows up here and there, but joining the team for a site dedicated to David Lynch and art film in general, to me that sounds an awful lot like home. Landing here tells me I’m doing things right, and that my commitment to avoiding “writing jobs” in lieu of sticking to my passions, as I’ve always done, is in fact a method for success just absurd enough to work for me. Conventional freelance writers scoff, while I heed the only writing advice I ever needed: write. As you may have noticed, this article is off to something of a self-congratulatory start, but that’s all part of the artistic process.

Often, artists are fairly self-absorbed people, living inside their own heads, obsessed with creating something amazing. No, they’re not interested in creating something OK, or good, or even really good, it has to be amazing. Anything less is an abysmal failure. It gets worse; artists sometimes begin buying so much into their own hype, they become self-aware, and self-referential, stopping to appreciate themselves and their contributions, while simultaneously lamenting on all they sacrifice to do what they do. A prime example being the case of Guido, the protagonist of Federico Fellini’s .

Those who analyze  as a depiction of the tortured director dealing with the pressures of releasing his next film, I feel are missing a large portion of the point. Yes, he is under pressure to follow up his last hit film, but so what? He’s beholden to no one. Nothing is stopping him from dropping everything and saying “sorry folks, I’m currently uninspired as all hell, I’m going home to spend time with my wife. Call you if something interesting comes to mind.” Instead he succumbs to vanity, going so far as hiring a film critic as a consultant so Guido can bounce around ideas to ensure cliché is avoided. It was always my view that Guido is stressing so much because he’s terrified of losing momentum and becoming irrelevant. He doesn’t want all that adoration and importance to fade, and questions if he’s actually just a hack who got lucky. He retreats into his own mind throughout the film, as it seems to be the only place he finds comfort. What’s more interesting is that Guido is generally understood to be a kind of projection of Federico Fellini himself. To me, this suggests not just a keen self-awareness, but an indictment of that self. This works to offset self-absorption as being a sole defining characteristic of artistry, by incorporating with it, the universally agreed upon actual defining characteristic of artistry, self-loathing.

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Guido has aimless conversations with folks he seems to vaguely recognize, barely humoring every irrelevant extra entering his life. People come in and out of frames, as if lost on the film set, annoying Guido and interrupting his precious thought flow. Fellini’s camera work here is brilliant. At times, the camera seems to abruptly forget people it was once focusing on, choosing instead to follow Guido, or to focus on someone else who has gotten Guido’s attention. Characters are reduced to the irrelevance of Guido’s perception.

At the time of the film’s release, purists felt Fellini was abandoning his roots of Italian Neorealism, but the residual evidence of that style is glaring in . Italian Neorealism was known for being a bit loose with its narrative structure, trading rigid plot for wild tangents that, while interesting and often profound, aren’t essential to the story. This meandering, conversational approach to narrative and dialogue was a staple of Italian Neorealism, and it’s still largely present in . Solipsistic fantasies and surreal dream sequences abound, acknowledged by filmmaker David Lynch as a significant influence on his own films. Conversations in  often decline to move the story forward, but they’re still quite welcome. Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith owe a lot to Fellini and to Italian Neorealism as a whole.

is well established as a beautiful film, difficult to turn away from, and I have a particular fondness for black and white cinematography, so I’m partial, but I maintain, no one isn’t equal parts blown away and anxious by the shot of Guido suspended in the air as a human kite, rope around his foot. Fellini’s camerawork is busy, often in constant motion, which works to keep the viewer engaged in what, could easily become tedious. The most famous sequence within  is a miracle of technical achievement titled: “Guido’s Harem,” a fantasy where we find Guido’s as a sort of king in a castle, surrounded by women who live only to serve him. Without belaboring obvious points about a scene discussed in film circles for the past fifty years, I’ll just say, the sequence does live up to the hype. To me, though, the most interesting moment within “Guido’s Harem” is a quiet, human moment, where all the servants disappear from view and Guido is left to observe a single, solemn woman as she does his laundry. Fellini abandons view of the others to focus on the woman most taken for granted by Guido, but also the only one who matters: Luisa, his wife. Guido realizes he has dismissed Luisa’s genuine love and understanding, in pursuit of artistic brilliance and fleeting admiration from strangers.

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At its core, isn’t an indictment of artistry, but it’s a film about the life an artist sacrifices while in pursuit of success. By the time Guido realizes what he’s lost, it’s too late. Luisa has had enough of being an afterthought in Guido’s life, and leaves him. What does a divorce really matter at this point? Wasn’t she already alone? She walks out of his life, and Guido descends.

The reality of being a “tortured artist” would be deeply unappealing to any sane person, but the image of being a tortured artist is remains glamorized. Suffering for an artist doesn’t usually come in the form of a brilliant epiphany about the evils of the outside world, only to be converted into an emotionally resonant soliloquy, dripping with existential profundity. More often, artists, especially the famous ones, are tortured internally by guilt, hanging onto immense regret after realizing how neglectful they’re being to loved ones, and then exploiting that regret as fuel for their art. They’re rarely willing to put creativity and fame on the back burner for long enough to repair their relationships. Artists make great ex-husbands and ex-wives, as no one wants to stay with a partner who forgets they exist. Not to mention, the prevalence of untreated mental illness and drug addiction issues among creatives, but that’s a different article.

It isn’t to say Federico Fellini had any of the above going on in his life — that’s something I have no information on — but I think he definitely understood the difference between the glorified public image of an artist who suffered for his work, and the much uglier reality of being an artist. He knew that your favorite artist, whoever that may be, has a dark side. And not the cool, mysterious kind of dark side they want you to see, but an unflattering one.

The film ends on a happy note, with Guido shooting himself in the head. The suicide is symbolic, he’s committed what he always envisioned as career suicide by cancelling production of his film. In accepting the reality of being merely a flawed human and abandoning delusions of grandeur, he finds liberation in no longer being the center of his own universe. Everyone in his life gets to quite literally take center stage and be the stars of the show. While Guido’s commitment to film making might have been fruit-bearing in many aspects, in the end, Guido determines the ends don’t justify the means, and that artistry should never come at the expense of the people we love.


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