Classic Capsule: 8 1/2 (1963)

Oh, the eternal plight of the internationally-acclaimed auteur. Who better to deliver a treatise on the subject than Italian New Wave director, Federico Fellini? Yes, sir, Federico Fellini, a man so egotistically consumed with his own bloated image that he’d cast a much younger, more attractive actor (Marcello Mastroianni) to play the role of, well, him. Meanwhile, Fellini’s presenting the burden of art-house provocateur with such immense hubris that it’s consistently accompanied via Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries“.

All of which would be just fine, mind you, assuming Fellini counterbalanced it with the tiniest hint of self-deprecating humor. Perhaps this is why I enjoyed Stardust Memories – Woody Allen’s unrepentant send-up of 8 1/2 – so much more than I did Mr. Fellini’s original. The primary difference being, Allen portrayed himself as a highly neurotic, extremely flawed everyman. As such, you kind of found yourself cheering for the guy.

The same cannot be said for Fellini’s Guido, who’s constantly running amuck with a cadre of total assholes, reconsidering a big-budget film about aliens (because that’s the only thing the hoi-polloi could possibly relate to … or perhaps the hoi-polloi are the actual aliens, Ho-Ha!). Guido’s constantly at odds with the Catholic Church, which denounces the majority of his avant-garde films on principle, and – eventually – it’s all leading up to some whack-ass climax involving fools on parade. I mean, the whole thing just kind of reeks of “Hey, man, I’m so very far up here and the rest of you are all so very faaaar down there,” that it’s incredibly difficult to suffer through. This again, is part and parcel of why – and how – Stardust Memories actually hits the mark. Consider for a moment that the aliens in Woody Allen’s film are actually real; that they subsequently show up in a clearing toward the end of the movie, explaining that they “enjoy [the director’s] films, particularly the early, funny ones.”

See what Woody did there?

The point being, it’s not that I don’t get it, because I do. I get it  … I get it all, right down to the mid-point sauna scene during which all of the aristocratic Romans are sitting round in steam-towel togas. I get the the whole opening metaphor about flying high and crashing hard. I get the meta implications of someone asking an auteur director, “Why do you delight in torturing us?” I get it. I get it. A thousand grueling times or more, I promise you, I get it. I can respect the brilliant craftsmanship on the very same wavelength I can appreciate the subtext. The problem is, I simply don’t enjoy it. Nor do I find myself relating to it on any meaningful type of level. If that makes me a heretic – considering Fellini still is, in fact, the most decorated director in foreign film history – then so be it. I’d much rather be a heretic than a bullshit artist. And while I cannot say for sure, I’d be absolutely willing to bet Italian New Wave director Federico Fellini was more than a little bit of both.

(8 1/2 is currently streaming via Netflix.)

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