8½ | John Simon

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of 8½.
This section contains 1,526 words
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John Simon

SOURCE: "Clean Shaven," in National Review, New York, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 8, May 9, 1986, pp. 54-6.

Simon is a Yugoslavian-born critic and educator. In the following negative assessment of Ginger and Fred, he asserts that the quality of Fellini's films declined following 8 1/2.

There is a splendid story by the Italian humorist Massimo Bontempelli, La barba di Federigo, about a man with a gorgeous beard no woman (or anyone else) could resist. But the devil in disguise asked him with seeming innocence whether he slept with his beard inside or outside the covers. Trying to figure out the answer drove poor Federigo nuts, to the point where he couldn't sleep either way and, in despair, shaved off his precious beard. "He no longer had a reason for living," Bontempelli concludes, "but he didn't die for all that, as one can live exceedingly well without having the slightest reason." This might almost be the story of Federico Fellini.

When he made his early, wonderful movies, Fellini was a natural talent—perhaps the most natural of all. Despite a distinctly autobiographical flavor, the films managed to be sufficiently different; indeed, in the greatest of them, I Vitelloni, Moraldo, Fellini's alter ego, is neither the most important nor the most interesting character. The last Fellini film to show intermittent strength was 8 1/2—even as it also admitted creative bankruptcy; after that came the vertiginous decline. Psychotherapy, which could have made him self-conscious, may be part of the explanation, but there is also success and egomania, and detachment from the world: withdrawal behind a living wall of amateur adulators and professional sycophants; indifference to what other artists, cinematic or otherwise, were doing; self-indulgent, obsessive involvement with a menagerie of international freaks and loonies; and supreme laxity as well as megalomania in the shooting of almost totally improvised, almost idiotically idiosyncratic movies.

I don't know whether it was in psychiatric or other disguise that the devil asked Fellini, "How do you do it, maestro? Do you spread your genius all over your films or do you keep it neatly tucked in?" But self-conscious as well as supremely self-regarding he became, watching himself for the provenance and quiddity of the Fellini magic. One of the old collaborators, Tullio Pinelli, was still there, but Ennio Flaiano died, and I'm not sure what became of Brunello Rondi. A new collaborator on scripts, Bernardino Zapponi, proved a disaster and was, I assume, dropped; by 1973, Fellini had latched on to Antonioni's chief scenarist, Tonino Guerra, for all the good that was to do him. The films became ever more horrible, and now, in this endless parade of artistic and moral collapse, along comes Ginger & Fred.

It is a case of arrested artistic development in tandem with ever growing delusions of grandeur. Take only the music. Even if the marvelous Nino Rota scores were getting a bit thin toward the end, the drop after Rota died was catastrophic: Fellini chose not to replace but to embalm him. "Write me a Rota score," he presumably commands one of the rotating pseudo-Rotas—in this case Nicola Piovani—and the wretch coughs up some ghastly, watered-down imitation. In the same way, many of the scenes in the new film look like snippets from other Fellini movies (I noticed especially Variety Lights, The Clowns, and Roma), overproduced and underfelt. And as always when Fellini piles up huge sets and casts, more is less.

The story of a once-popular bush-league dance team, Ginger & Fred (in real life, Amelia and Pippo), who through thirty years of fascism and war entertained the provinces with their imitation of Rogers and Astaire, and who after years of separation are reunited for an appearance on a mammoth TV program, has undeniable potential. For it to work, though, the emphasis has to be on the personal element, as it would have been in early Fellini. Here, however, the story, which doesn't make sense in itself, gets submerged in all that late Fellinian gigantism, exaggeration, and self-importance, in which crass exhibitionism and unrestrained manias crush the life out of human values. The film is ostensibly an attack on the commercialism and soulless vulgarity of television, but is really a flagrant example of the cauldron of pitch calling the kettle black.

That Fellini hates the dehumanizing materialism of television is all very well, but for a large-scale frontal attack on this subject it is a bit late in the game—especially if the attack is not accurate, not rich in fresh details, and not properly integrated with what purports to be the story line. A major TV variety show, Ed ecco per voi (ineptly Englished as We Proudly Present), is offering a holiday special for which enough participants have been booked to make it an all-day affair. We get several kidnap victims and their lawyers, an old admiral who once performed a heroic rescue, a much-decorated civilian, a transvestite who caters to prison inmates, a defrocked priest and the woman for whom he lost his frock, a troupe of dancing dwarfs, a dapper and arrogant murderer with a retinue of guards, and numerous others. There are several look-alikes, including doubles of Proust and Kafka, as if there were a program in the world dealing in such esoterica. But Fellini must have his little joke at intellectuals, though its exact nature or relevance defies analysis.

In the immense shuffle, everything gets lost. What is the point of the old admiral, who has a fair portion of screen time but serves no discernible purpose? Though the transvestite seems to establish some genuine contact with Amelia and Pippo, nothing comes of this. None of the "acts" on the show is sufficiently developed to earn our interest: The clairvoyant and her son with their psychic tape recordings are as good for a giggle as the inventor of edible underwear, and nothing more. And Fred and Ginger, poor things, are themselves good only for a nervous titter, whether her moth-eaten old Ginger Rogers wig no longer looks right, or whether he cannot cadge another drink to screw up his courage.

Even amid hyperboles, some accuracy cannot be dispensed with. It is inconceivable that Pippo and Amelia, after thirty years of dancing and love-making, would completely lose track of each other, and that neither of them would make a serious effort to see a bit more of the other after the TV reunion. In any case, her embourgeoisement and his continued bohemian lifestyle deserve closer attention—and contrasting—than we get. But always now effect supersedes feeling. Thus when Amelia is alone in her impersonal hotel room, the revolving searchlight from the broadcast tower keeps invading her room at short intervals. This creates a prettily harrowing effect, but why doesn't she just pull down the blinds? So that Fellini can have his alienating effect, regardless of verisimilitude.

In the film's only location sequence, Amelia watches some of her fellow TV guests on the eve of the broadcast cavort across a misty, lamp-lit, desolate square to an all-night café, even as a gang of motorcyclists zooms viciously hither and yon. The forlorn, self-isolated woman, the dancing revelers, the mechanized brutes—it sounds so atmospheric and suggestive. But in the good, old Fellini movies, from which the components of this scene are lifted, something would have happened in such an episode, there would have been meaning as well as mood. Or take the scene where the head of the TV network visits the makeup room to survey the participants and ends up dancing with Ginger, whom he claims to remember with affection. The man speaks with a travesty of an upper-class Roman accent, and is presented as a total phony. An ounce of healthy vulgarity in the man, or a touch of self-irony, might have lent some acrid, aching truth to this moment. As Fellini now is, it exudes only perfunctory contempt. Indeed, all the TV personnel as well as sundry journalists are represented as either idiots or swine.

And even the climax [of Ginger and Fred] is muffed. As Pippo and Amelia begin to perform, and we wonder whether they can make or even fake it, there is a power failure. The fulsome, tinsely MC (Franco Fabrizi, and good) asks for complete stillness until electricity is restored; on the pitch-black studio stage, amid Stygian silence, Amelia and Pippo have their moment of truth. But it isn't. No huge, modern studio would be without its own generators, and no audience, least of all in Italy, would observe pristine silence under such conditions. Against such flagrant untruth, even in a nonrealistic film, you cannot play out a compelling epiphany.

The very post-synching is wretched. Fellini makes the actors mouth anything, and their subsequently dubbed-in dialogue distractingly bears no relation to lip movement. Dante Ferretti's production design is neither menacing nor mirthful enough. Even the subtitles are dreadful: Paso doble is translated as pas de deux, and the instruction to the participants backstage to be silent come in chiesa (as in church), one of the film's better ironies, is not translated at all. Marcello Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina give simple, faithful performances, but they cannot prevail against the surrounding farrago. Poor Federigo, without his gorgeous beard! Poor Federico, without what was once Fellini!

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