Review: 8 1/2 (1963)

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Is the subject of this film a religious one? – A Religious Leader 

Yes, well, in a manner of speaking. – Guido

It famously opens with a dream. Our main character stuck in a silent traffic jam, completely disillusioned by the scene around him until he’s able to escape everything inhibiting him and soar into the upper echelons of the atmosphere. But it hardly lasts. Soon he finds himself tethered, being brought back down to earth.

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Our protagonist of sorts turns out to be Guido (the famed Italian icon Marcello Mastroianni), a film director who is going through a spell of director’s block. His most recent activities include an extended stay at a luxury spa at the behest of his doctors. It’s also early on in the film that someone asks him if his next film is also going to be one devoid of hope. It’s a very quick statement but in some sense, it sets the groundwork for Fellini’s entire film.

And it is a very personal film and a fascinating exploration of the art of filmmaking — the thing making it the most compelling is the strange suspicion that parts of Fellini himself dwell inside of Guido. Perhaps Guido shares a bit of his philosophy and stance or more precisely Fellini is like his main character.

The film within a film soon becomes evident and in that sense, it’s also a personal picture. Its title being derived from the number of pictures the Maestro had directed thus far. And numerous meta qualities come to the fore, most obviously when Guido is going through the screen tests his producer (Guido Alberti) and wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee) among those viewing the proceedings.

But going back to that issue of hope, the film’s finale has always been striking to me but I realized that it takes on new meaning put in the context of higher issues altogether. In some respects, Guido or Fellini, whichever you prefer, is trying to derive some sort of higher meaning, whatever that means to him.

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That’s in part why he has his legions of characters join hands in an almost communal dance of absurdity. Simultaneously, a journalist can be heard throwing his questions out, “Are you for or against eroticism?” and in the same breath, “Do you believe in God?” Because this is Fellini’s answer — the solution he has drawn up for himself. There is a sense of grandiose absurdity which is full of dreamscapes — where the distinction between reality and fantasy hardly means anything. Because in the eye of the beholder they are hardly different.

On purely a level of spectacle, it’s indubitably a fascinating set-up. Fellini is known for his quintessential style. To be Felliniesque is to be wrapped up in the surreal and the fantastic. But the philosophical conclusions that go hand in hand with such a provocative approach to film are rather disheartening. If this is part of what Fellini is trying to grapple with as it pertains to love and ultimate truth then 8 1/2 does fall back on a rather dismal ending.

As Guido explains to the man of the cloth, he is looking for some flash of understanding, some obvious moment of truth, like Saul at Damascus. He, like all his peers, carries the foundations of a Catholic upbringing. The religious authorities tell them that there is no salvation outside the church. His strict Catholic school told him what was wrong. Likewise, Guido plans to have a spaceship in his next film — humanities “new Noah’s Ark.” And it’s true that space exploration has been the final frontier, a beacon of potential hopes and truths. You see that in later works like 2001 and Solaris.  However, Noah’s Ark was also a vessel to escape destruction as much as it was a ship of exploration.

In drawing other cinematic comparisons, Fellini’s film revolves around a pointless MacGuffin (the phrase Asa Nisi Masa) rather like Welles famed Rosebud. Truthfully, this is a comedy in the same way perhaps Citizen Kane is a comedy. In a similar way, Guido seems isolated, but his mind, in particular, is twisted up with fantasies.

The most divisive scene in the film is yet another fantasy conjured up by Guido that is either extraordinary humorous or sadly indicative of his state of being depending on how you view it. He dreams himself in the stead of all the women he has crossed paths with thus far. — all ready and waiting on his whim — his personal harem of sorts — totally and completely objectified for his pleasure. Again, it’s played for truly comic effect but what are the implications?

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As the eternal beauty Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) notes, “He doesn’t know how to love.” She speaks of Guido’s protagonist but as the meta-ness suggests, this protagonist is Guido himself and going down even a layer further maybe even Fellini too. It’s precisely these problems that tie back into Guido’s disillusionment. “There’s no part in the film. And there’s no film. There’s nothing anywhere,” he says to Claudia.

Chaos and nothingness. True perfection is nothingness. His final conclusion? Life is a celebration. Let’s live it together. In essence, it’s true but the carnival showmanship and parlor tricks cannot obscure the bottom line here. As Francis Schaeffer once noted someone like Fellini “has no way to distinguish between right and wrong, or even between what is objectively true as opposed to illusion or fantasy.” That’s a terrifying world to come to terms with. During filming, Fellini supposedly kept a note on his camera to remind himself that this was a comedy film. But much like Citizen Kane, perhaps there’s a need to label it a Tragicomedy. You cannot deal with such issues without elation being matched with some amount of melancholy.

5/5 Stars

Model Shop (1969)

Model_Shop_FilmPoster.jpegAt face value, Model Shop is an ordinary film of little consequence but look a little deeper and it’s actually a fascinating portrait of the L.A. milieu in 1969. Part of that is due to the man behind it all.

Jacques Demy is among the foremost of French directors, most obviously for his work in musicals like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. And Model Shop, his first American production, functions in some capacity as a type musical (featuring a score from SoCal rock band Spirit), while also incorporating Anouk Aimee’s character from his earlier success Lola (1961).

It’s a musical in the way that American Graffiti is a musical except its soundtrack is a mixture of Spirit and classical music in equal measures emanating from car radios. But it also maintains Demy’s type of storytelling where he weaves characters together with acts of fate.

The film follows a typical day in the life of Gary Lockwood who is an architecture grad floundering in a general malaise as he lives in a shack with his girlfriend who is making a go of becoming an actress. He’s not ready for a long-term commitment and the fact that his car is about to be impounded pretty much sums up his life.

On a whim, he follows a beautiful woman up into the hills by car and nothing happens right away, although he is taken by the panoramic views of Los Angeles. The sequences that follow develop L.A. into a character on its own. One moment George stops for a girl who quickly rolls a joint and offers him one as KRLA hums over the radio waves, in another, he is making his way down the Sunset Strip. There’s a substantial cameo from Spirit keyboardist Jay Ferguson, who genially gives George a helping hand while trading a bit of small talk. It’s might seem a rather odd inclusion and yet from Demy’s point of view, this group evokes something of the L.A. ethos. It’s understandable.

The biggest reveal comes midway through the film when George learns he’s been drafted to go fight in Vietnam. It’s a bitter twist of fate that shakes up his existence in only a matter of minutes. His freedom has instantly been constrained to a matter of days. That’s all the time he has to get to know this mysterious woman who he professes love to. These are the last moments he will see his girlfriend as their relationship subsequently goes down the tube.

So in some ways, Model Shop shares a bit of Demy’s earlier sensibilities but it by no means feels like he’s trying to transport his style flatly to an American audience. If I didn’t know any better, initially, I would say that this was a purely American production because it feels relevant and realistic to the degree that it can be. Except as he always does Demy is making a sort of fantasy, even if we don’t realize it at first. There’s the reverence of an outsider, someone who sees this City of Angels for its beauty and utopian qualities, while others have begun taking it for granted, seeing only the smog and the violence. That’s what Demy lends to this story, a hint of admiration. And in the moments the dialogue gets more introspective it hardly feels stale but really evokes a candidness.

It strikes me that George is mesmerized by the French woman, although his own girlfriend is very pretty. In my own mind, for me, it becomes a sort of an allegory for European versus Hollywood cinema. One perhaps is more glamorous, namely Hollywood, but other countries oftentimes have far more intriguing films. However, it’s important to note that Demy seems to have an appreciation for both. He more than some had a deep admiration for the musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age especially.

Another fascinating caveat about this unassuming film is the fact that it could have featured a performance from a young unknown named Harrison Ford. Wouldn’t that have been interesting? But in the studio’s infinite wisdom they assumed Lockwood would be a bigger box office draw. It’s probably because he was in a little film called 2001 A Space Odyssey the year prior. For what it’s worth, Demy’s film didn’t do so well and it still resides in relative obscurity. However, it gives an image of Los Angeles that is rather like a time capsule, starkly different than Demy’s other work and still beautifully tied together with his previous films through a photo album showcasing faces that are very familiar. It’s a striking callback and in some strange way, it connects the director’s work together in a surprisingly satisfying way. Jacques Demy is still worth a watch.

3.5/5 Stars

Bay of Angels (1963)

bayof3Bay of Angels is quite different than anything else I have seen by Jacques Demy. Similar to Lola (1961) it is shot in starkly beautiful black and white and it has a kind of love story, but it lacks the music or general whimsy that often characterized Demy’s later works.

This film finds its subject matter in gambling, and it follows one woman’s obsession and another man’s growing interest in roulette. At first, Jean is a rather bored young bank employee, who is coaxed by a colleague bayof2to take up gambling. Initially, he is skeptical, looking down at the pastime as a frivolous waste of time and money, after all, he is a sensible young man. However, he parts with the sensibilities that his father would have for him and instead take a few weeks of vacation to spend some time in the casinos of Nice and Monte Carlo.

Soon he gets bitten by the gambling bug and he’s hooked. He finds an equally enthused companion in Jackie (Jeanne Moreau), who has had a far longer history with roulette. Jean falls for her very quickly and Jackie holds onto him like her good luck charm. Their many days spent in the casinos are constantly fluctuating roller coasters of luck. Once gambler’s fallacy has taken hold it’s hard to kick the habit, and Jackie constantly blows her money. If not at the wheels, it gets spent on fine dining and clothes. She has no restraint when it comes to spending and Jean indulges her willfully. It gets so bad that Jean begins to get as reckless as his companion, and he cannot bear to leave her, although she really does have a problem.

bayof4The formally reserved persona of Jean becomes violent and passionate for Jackie’s affection, but she’s not quite as ready to give it out. The ending felt a bit forced, but yet again Demy delivers a story that is riddled with feelings of love and passion.

It is an interesting observation that his male characters pale in comparison with his female leads ranging from Anouk Aimee, Jeanne Moreau, and Catherine Deneuve. These ladies who are always the object of affection, steal the screen with their mesmerizing performances. In fact, Claude Mann has a rather slumping posture, a glum face, and not particularly good looks. Thus, in contrast, Jeanne Moreau looks like an especially alluring beauty, who seems at home in gaudy gambling houses billowing with smoke or seaside promenades.

Bay of Angels is supposedly the place that brings the pair luck, but the reality is that this film is all about chance. Not fate so much as Demy usually explores, but a topic that is still somewhat similar. It is also a film that makes me never want to play roulette. I do not want the mundane lifestyle of Jean, but I would like to find my excitement somewhere else. I suppose that’s what made Moreau’s character so fascinating because her obsession was so great and yet she simply accepted it and thought little of it. But it drove her life.

We’re partners in a game. Let’s leave it at that.” ~ Jackie

4/5 Stars

Lola (1961)

Lola1961As the debut of Jacques Demy, Lola has some qualities that, for lack of a better term, are very un-Demy. First off, he was a member of the French New Wave period of filmmakers and yet he resigned himself to making mostly musicals, taking inspiration from Hollywood and setting them in his own unique world. He was not concerned with the experimenting or political undertones of many of his peers. However, this is probably the most typical looking of his work and thus a jumping off point for the rest of his career.

Not quite as elegant in camera movements as Max Ophul’s work which received a nod, Lola still has a pleasing sleek visual style representative of the French New Wave. Its silky smooth, black and white cinematography courtesy of Raoul Coutard (Breathless), however, makes the film look more like something from Godard.

Lola is what Demy himself coined “a musical without music,” I suppose because it lacks the signature singing of his later films, but keeps the music and some of the other elements. Demy’s film also has a sense of cinematic realism with characters crossing paths with one another in various coincidental moments. It may be highly unbelievable in its plotting and yet it works within the Demy world of romance and fatalism which he would often revisit later on.

lola3This film follows a cabaret singer named Lola (Anouk Aimee) in a small seaside village called Nantes. She has a young son and a lover who she has long waited for. In the meantime, childhood friend Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) trudges on with his life without much drive. He is a befriended by a lady and her daughter Cecile at the local bookstore where they strike up a quick friendship. Then, by chance Cassard runs into to Lola, or Cecile as he used to know her when they were children. It’s been many years and although she has been getting together with an American sailor (Alan Scott) named Frankie, she is excited to go out for an evening with Roland. However, in another interesting meeting young Cecile runs into Frankie while buying a comic book and they have some fun together.

lola6In the end, Lola tells Roland that she will never truly love him and they must remain friends. It’s a bitter time for Roland as he decides to leave like he was originally planning. Finally, Michel returns and Lola is reunited with her love. It’s another bittersweet tale of love from the mind of Jacques Demy. Whimsical, poignant, and wistful too. That’s not the last we will see of Roland, though his luck doesn’t get much better (Umbrellas of Cherbourg), and  Lola returns too (Model Shop). Now only to go back and watch The Blue Angel (1930) from von Sternberg and Lola (1981) by Fassbinder which both bookend this work by Demy also chronicling a cabaret singer. There’s a lot of history here still to be seen and Jacques Demy is a worthy addition to the lineage even if this is not his best film.

4/5 Stars

La Dolce Vita (1960)

bc0c3-la_dolce_vita_1960_film_coverartStarring Marcello Mastroianni and directed by Federico Fellini, this Italian film set in Rome follows a tabloid reporter named Marcello. If he is not finding a scoop with other ravenous reporters, he spends time with his wary girlfriend, falls for an American bombshell, talks with a cultured family man, or spends time with his good natured father who he does not really know. All the while he witnesses the lives of the rich and has many romantic relations. The underlining theme of it all is boredom,  unhappiness, and superficial lifestyles. This film is not really about a main plot but rather Marcello’s many different episodes and experiences. Some are funny and others maddening, but he muddles his way through. This film, much like Breathless, is international and chic. The cinematography and score are both effective in helping to create this feel.

5/5 Stars