How A Scene Symbolizes a Film
Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 is memorable today because of its many filmmaking effects. In a film world dominated by plots and various structures, Fellini answered the pull of his creative tension by making a film more based on his filmmaking imagination than storytelling. Ever since he switched from screenwriter to director, the push in his career was a continuing path to abandon formalist sensibilities and have his filmmaking personality cloud every aspect of his films. Instead of story-first films, Fellini began to make introspection based on style investigation. The generics of this comment does not need to be overstated. After La Dolce Vita, every commentator used the word “Fellini-esque” to label every new Fellini film and remind viewers that Federico Fellini who helped to write Roberto Rosselini’s classic, Open City, was never coming back. Some bemoaned and wished more balance of story and style was able to exist in the Fellini world. I think the argument is moot, but I do think films like 8 1/2 had some extremely textural matters to discuss.
It’s easy to simplify 8 1/2 by focusing on just the many amazing filmmaking moments in the story. Since Fellini was trying to make his dreams become celluloid reality, a viewer is paying justified comment by focusing on how Fellini’s dreams carry over to universal thoughts, fantasies, fears, and wishes. I don’t disagree with the universal ability of the film. My concern in this particular piece is on the textural relationship the filmmaking imagination of dream relaying has with formalist symbolism in the film. For every filmmaking moment that beautifully synthesizes the feeling of a dream in a perfectly edited moment that cannot be broken down by structural commentary, there is another moment that does have very specific and readable symbolism moments. The problem with the symbolism is that it is very superficial and easy to understand. Both dynamics run throughout the film so a viewer can see the film as a glass either half full or half empty based on whether they are reading into the filmmaking or the symbolism.
The opening scene perfectly illustrates the traditional symbolism. In a simple dream scene, Guido (played by Marcello Mastrioni) is in his car and stuck in traffic. Looking out, all he sees is a flood of vehicles. In every car is also someone from his life. Most are staring back at Guido. Feeling their concentration on him, Guido starts to squirm in his seat. The camera over emphasizes the staring by freeze framing at a number of faces so the audience perfectly understands their staring nature. Suddenly, smoke starts to holster the interior of Guido’s car. He’s squirming more and forcibly trying to escape. The natural smog in the car is a reference to suffocating nature of his work as a premiere director who has to appease everyone around. They reinforce the pressure he feels by standing pat and waiting for him to solve an impossible situation. The camera multiplies the sense of everyone waiting on Guido with exterior traffic shots showing numerous people listlessly leaving their hands out the window of a bus. Then from the trenches of his car – the camera is positioned at the bottom of the roof of the car – Guido starts to crawl out of his car. In a pan shot, the camera fluctuates from another traffic shot and then glides with Guido as he escapes station by flying out of the overpass and into the sky. A few shots and moments fixate on realizing the nature of his flight. These shots of embellishing fantasy will carry throughout the film, but even these sensational moments have a few traditional benchmarks. As Guido hovers above a perfect beach, he realizes his legs are tied to a rope and at other end is his producer who wants him to come back to earth so he ferociously pulls him back down. In tragic terror, Guido falls hopelessly back to reality. The moment is beautiful, but the symbolism could not be more heavy handed.
The scene is the tale of two tonal structures. At the beginning, the authorship by Fellini focuses on the symbolism around Guido’s entrapment in the car. The handheld camera movement in-and-around the car shows Guido’s frustration and it still feels like secondary design for the scene. His frustration is packaged in brief splotches within the editing. More attention is paid to underscoring the glaring predicament of all Guido’s friends being in cars around him. Their presence is sensationalized so they stand outside of reality and are positioned to be visual representations of reality. With careful composition and editing, Fellini crafts an elaborate design work within moments to show how they are supposed to be a reflective mirror of Guido’s life. Since Guido needs assistance and the mirror image around him is not reflecting peace or accommodation (they’re just staring), he is trying to break free. Spatial distance and visual representation of colliding situations play into the hands of traditional visual art representation in the film. Before filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s changed filmmaking aesthetics forever, filmmakers like Maya Deren and Jean Cocteau were more inspired to base their films around imagery and representations in their story. Like poetry needs words to connect together and make linkage between word designs, film needed visual images to act like words and stand for something in the eye of viewer.
Cocteau and Deren made films before establishments of criticism and pre-disposition to specific styles existed. In Europe during the 1930s and early 40s, filmmakers were still experimenting and doing their best to define a relatively new art. Some filmmakers were hitting oil on dry wells and would be credited years later for being influential, but the truth about the majority of ambitious European cinema is is that it was more interested in symbolism first. The first half of the opening scene in 8 1/2 is a rundown of visual cues that could have been present in a number of European films from the 1920s and on. If someone takes interest in world world trends, they see a plethora of styles and theories which were popular within circles but never took off fully. In Russian schools in the 1920s, filmmakers were writing about a number of styles which they thought could help to academically understand filmmaking art. Each advancement they made was important, but they were decided to be footnotes of history. Not many later filmmakers have continued to use their theories extensively after their generational swell. The history of symbolism dominance in film is that it too would be succeeded by other effects taking dominance. The convenience of 8 1/2 is that you get a feeling for a generational divide that was happening. 8 1/2 was at the heart of it.
On the flip side, there is the indescribable filmic nature of Guido’s flight into the sky along with the recreation of his dreams and memories. Traditional symbolism will sometime crowd the back ends of these scenes, but they all are about texture. From the 1960s on, filmmakers have been more interested in veering away from symbolism and finding abject ways to dig into the inertia of their cinematic capabilities to reside within the inner emotions of a character or situation. During the heights of his filmmaking prowess, Ingmar Bergman once said film was the art which could closely dig into the heart of an emotion. In his time, Bergman was symbolism friendly during the 1950s with The Seventh Seal and other films, but his development later on was to focus on finding textures in tonal structures to relay emotions within the text. Whether a filmmaker does it in sub key ways by dialing down the editing or heightening it to relay hyper reality, directors generally keep traditional symbolism in the background. 8 1/2 is the dominant example of a film that constantly struggles between traditional symbolism and the effects of a tonal structure being used to dig deeper into a scene. Fellini does little to develop traditional parameters of other story and structure. The whole film is an exercise of two halves competing against each other.
His previous film, La Dolce Vita is a full tonal exercise and cannot be used as a progression leading up to 8 1/2. However, the back story of this film is that Fellini was intending to make a science fiction and flustered himself in trying to complete the project. Instead of work through it and make less than an inspired film, Fellini made a film about his making of the film. It is interesting he was working on a science fiction film since it sounds more genre heavy than anything he made before. The formalist nature of the project may have opened up his imagination bank to see with his dreams and inspirations. Every heavyweight world filmmaker has been coaxed into traditional genre at some point. Fellini tried, failed and it gave way way to his “Fellini-esque” style filmmaking. It is one of the most famous textures of filmmaking ever and 8 1/2 was a launching pad to 30 more years of filmmaking by texture first. In the battle going on in 8 1/2, symbolism lost out as the frontrunner choice to understanding character and emotions.