On Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and the directorial dream film.

by Jacqueline Valencia

There are two modern films that stick out for me when I think of Federico Fellini‘s 8 1/2: Christopher Nolan‘s Inception and Shane Carruth‘s Upstream Color. After revisiting the academic texts of Lacan, Deleuze, and Debord (as reviewers inevitably, albeit indirectly or subconsciously do), the psychological & sociological distortions of the directorial mind are augmented on film. What better way than the power of the dream and the subconscious to showcase where the real film magic happens: a director’s view as rendered in an audience’s brain.

Let’s think on Inception and Upstream Color, for a second, before I explore this brainworm in 8 1/2. In Inception, our protagonist, Cobb, has a team of dream architects to build various levels of worlds to reveal secrets in the subconscious subject’s mind. Cobb travels within those minds while his team supplicates investigatory roles and lookouts in his navigation. In Upstream Color, Kris, with the help of Jeff, must work out the clues, aka programmed compulsions she engages in, in order to locate the true the source of her neurosis. Neither Cobb nor Kris can be freed from their stilted existence until they kill the source of their destructive obsessions.

In many ways, film is like this for the director and the audience in their rendering of that director’s vision. The director has a picture in her head and has a set plan to make it the way she sees it. What makes a film unique is in the director’s methodology in bringing that film from concept to its final screening. Thus, the choices made are birthed in the directorial brain which lead to the collective epistolary images the audience will view and interpret in the theatre. Various directors have their own opinions on philosophical, religious, and political spectrums. It’s like having strings in your brain and the pattern in how you pull them is exclusive to that brain. Politics, philosophy, religion, and a entire feast of experiences lie within the director’s brain: these are the strings she decides to pull every which way. Therefore, what the audience watches on screen is the idea birthed in the mind made reality after the strings have been pulled by the director to create a film. We are taking a peek into the directorial vision and in the cases of Cobb and Kris, we are living inside the brain of the directors which in turn are inhabiting the imaginary brain of their characters.

Stagnancy plays a big part in both Inception and Upstream Color. In 8 1/2, Fellini explores the idea of the director writer’s block. It’s like any block, really. Many forces come into play with writer’s block. Having suffered it a good chunk of my life (and l still have increments of it come and go…it’s terrifying), it’s hard not to identify with the block and it’s eventual black dog. Guido (played by Marcello Mastroianni) is a famous director coming off a great success and is now under pressure from his crew to make another hit. He thinks his next film should be an easy one to make since it will be an autobiography, but he gets stuck on the idea of realism. He’s hung up on his need not to lie on screen. He seeks relaxation to incite his creative juices, and in doing so, his mind wanders to the hedonistic comforts he feels with the women in his life.

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These women are a fascinating archetype which are so beautifully and collectively embodied by the sensual Saraghina (played by Eddra Gale). Don’t deny that she truly is every woman.

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La Saraghina is a whore who lives in a cave by sea. As a young boy, Guido and his friends used to pay the Saraghina to dance for them. In that innocence, Guido starts to explore his cravings and needs only to have them suppressed by the Catholic guilt (as the priest shows up to scold him), that pervades his subconscious. Guido travels from dream world to dream woman, eventually ending up in a dream harem of all of his lovers and mother figures, past and present. You can never truly tell which of these women is real in the actual world or in the subconscious world. They pretty much meld together even as he dances freely with one of them on the streets.

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The iconic dream sequence of Guido stuck in traffic:

The camera slowly follows in the back of Guido’s car. Suddenly traffic is at a standstill. Guido turns to look at the surrounding cars and their passengers. Everyone looks blankly as they move to slowly pose doing nothing much in their cars. He cleans the windows from the inside since smoke is billowing in. The car becomes claustrophobic as he feels it is overheating. Guido bangs at the windows. The passengers continue  around him observe him passively. He gets out through the sunroof and starts gliding above the cars, he flies out of the tunnel, and soars into the sky. The sound of loud wind penetrates the ears (looking up the symbolism of wind: vigor, life force, a language of truths unknown), and suddenly we see Guido lounging on the sand. As a priest approaches him in repose, Guido quickly stands up and pulls at a rope that is tied to a kite; the kite is the present Guido. As he’s being tugged down, he falls into a turbulent ocean.

Dream sequences like the above are repeated throughout the film along the running thread of the director’s imagination block. Fellini posits that the film is a subjective medium where the director forces his brain to be the stage for the objective. To Fellini, this is an impossible task. There’s no way a director (I could say the same thing for any kind of artistic medium, including critiques and reviews) can be objective in his/her creative output. The story, even if written by an entirely different person*, becomes the director’s dream in its progressive stages towards the big screen. Guido’s inexorable obsession with directorial truth is absurd and in its absurdity he finds that truth can only be told in the way he sees it; even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone, but himself.

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The characters within his dreams, the crew that constantly feeds off of him, and his familiars that haunt him, become passive as soon as he realizes this, and stand ready at their roles in the end. The circus-like procession is a grandiose thing, but they all sing and act for Guido. Guido has finally broken free from that one blocking constraint:  truth and memory are subjective and can never be objective until he’s willing to give up his vision to the audience. This is why I believe Fellini ends off most of his films in surreal ways. My favourite of these is the rhinoceros in the boat at the end of Il la nave va. If you haven’t seen that film, please do so (in fact, here’s one of my favourite scenes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPD3NZGf3Lc). It’s such a ravishing feast for the eyes, but the individual struggles you see most of the characters go through there are the same as Guido’s in 8 1/2.

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The dream in film is a Deleuzian construct of the powers of the false ( “Beware! This is cinema”. It is a source of inspiration’ (Deleuze, 2001:131)). As a filmmaker, one can take the mannerist ideal of gesture, decor, and imagery to make a play at the palpably common, if yet unknown, world of the human dream. It’s a different kind of realism that directors employ utilizing archetypes, the heroic journey in the surrealist muck of the subconscious, but it’s a relatable one. Being bereft out of creativity or even a drive towards creativity is a prevailing force within all of us. If we put it in basic animalistic terms, the struggle is akin to the need to reproduce or to put one’s imprint immortal upon the world.

(It’s a generalization there, that I must explore at some point: this modern need to label the introverted and extroverted psychosis, however, an introverted director is hardly invisible.)

Fellini, Nolan, and Carruth offer us character studies in the form of dreams. The dream is an illusionary tactic to work through the writing and rendering process in making a film. It starts off as an idea. Then the idea becomes sequences, and after all of the components come together, the idea becomes a material reality staged in the audience’s brain for interpretation. Upstream Color, Inception, and 8 1/2 (8 1/2 also denotes the amount of Fellini had made at the time), are the kinds of film that are nerd-fare for film lovers and film critics. They get bonus points for the great imagery they showcase. Utilizing archetypes in the sensual, architectural, and animal realm they tap into a viewer’s brain, provoking receptors they might not have known they had.

Imagine building something out of plasticine in your brain. Then imagine recreating it in lego in real life. The figure is all abstract, but it makes sense to you; your brain renders the image as you see it. An exploratory director or writer, one who isn’t afraid to take on risks, will often mourn a little bit when that image is outside of them (much like the birth of child that you’ve been carrying  suddenly leaves the comforting reassurance of your body), fully knowing that their creation isn’t theirs anymore. However, they often think:

“I can’t wait for someone to walk by to tell me what this all means.”

The audience or reader is in full control now of the characters in Upstream Color, Inception, and 8 1/2. Guido, Kris, and Cobb walk freely into the audience’s brain and wonder what their next adventure will be. The mind is made up of chimerical filigree.

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Orlando and the rhino from Fellini’s “Il la nave va.”

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* It is interesting to note that Inception, Upstream Color, and 8 1/2 were all written by their directors. I would have included The Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink in here (because hello, writer ennui), but seeing as I’m going to see it again (albeit on the big screen) this week, I might want to delve deeper into it for its own analysis.

* I can’t explain to you the fun it’s been exploring ideas in Jacques Lacan’s My Teaching. His straightforwardness and deadpan humour is an entirely new species to me in theoretical text. This doesn’t mean I’m falling for the arrogant tone he’s tackled this with, but rather it’s enlightening to see psychoanalysis through language and still know that I’m reading a fallible human being.

* I’d also like to do a more in depth feminist analysis of female directorial film. While Pirjo Honkasalo once said she was interested in exploring the “silence of men,” I’d love to investigate what female directors want to explore in their own psychology. It’s hard to find concrete subjects here, but I think it just needs more exploration on my part.

jackie1   Experimental/Avant-garde film

Experimental/ Avant-garde films at the TIFF Bell Lightbox

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