Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The 30 Day Movie Challenge: Day #1

Recently on Facebook, a "30 Day Movie Challenge" was created. It's not exactly a challenge (no trivia, no quizzes, etc...), but it simply gives a simple prompt regarding films to answer. I've decided to participate on Facebook, but figured that I could also blog the challenge and write something more in depth. After all, people are only willing to read so much in a status message, so why not use this blog to document my picks for each day's prompt? Without further delay, here's my (extended) answer to my pick for the first prompt:

Day 1: Favorite Film

They really didn't waste any time in jumping to the big one, did they? Well, for a while I used to go nuts over this question. I could never decide on just one, and preferred to answer that I had a handful of favorites that I didn't want to choose among. Granted, I still have said handful of favorites, although it changes from time to time depending on what amazing movies I discover on DVD and in theaters. However, for the past few years, one film has consistently stuck with me among my top favorites just a little more than the rest, and it's none other than Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963).Considered Fellini's full blown move away from Italian Neorealism and into more abstract, dream-like films (he became hugely influenced by Carl Jung), the film tells the story of Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), a creatively stunted film director pulled from all directions by the myriad women in his life. Among them are his wife (Anouk Aimee), his mistress (Sandra Milo), his star/muse (Claudia Cardinale), and the whore from his youth (Eddra Gale). Increasingly frustrated by his inability to finalize his ideas for his film as a shoot date approaches, he begins to retreat into dreams, fantasies, and memories, all while his life grows more chaotic.

I have something of a soft spot for movies about the creative process, but nothing really prepared me for what I was going to get when I first watched 8 1/2. From its phenomenal photography, surreal images, delightful score, and wonderful energy, I love it every time I see it, and I see something new each time. Picking a favorite scene is (almost) impossible for me. There's the eerie opening, in which Guido finds himself stuck in traffic where everyone is as still as a mannequin. Or there's Guido's visit with the cardinal, where he descends into the lower level of a spa with people being sorted as if they're entering a level of Dante's Inferno. And the way Fellini takes us through these scenes, real or fantastical (or both) is nothing short of a joy (even if the story has some bleak under tones) to watch each time. Fellini had a connection to the circus in his youth, and that colorful playfulness is on full display here as he jumps between fantasy and reality. The film's ending, which I'll touch on later, encompasses this sublimely, acting as a sort of grand curtain call for all of Fellini's players.

Yet as much as it's a marvel of direction and production, it also benefits from the remarkable work from its cast. Mastroianni, Fellini's favorite self-substitute, does fine work at a director coming apart at the seams. However, the standouts from the cast come from the ladies. As Guido's long-suffering wife Luisa, Anouk Aimee nails the complex emotions of a woman torn between the parts of her husband she loves and hates. Her reactions during the screen-test scene are the best bits of acting in the entire film, beautifully executed without ever feeling the need to be melodramatic. The other distinction among the cast goes to Eddra Gale as La Saraghina. Gale, an American opera singer, hardly speaks two words in the film, but her impact is hard to forget. As the local whore who lives on the beach, her "seduction" of young Guido and his friends is beguiling, sinister, and hilarious all at once, and it's still my favorite scene, viewing after viewing. Here's the scene (although it's bound to be lacking without the rest of the film around it):

In summary, I basically adore 8 1/2. It's my favorite of Fellini's work (although I'm still making my way through his filmography), because of how the elements of Fellini's Neorealist past and the art films of his future come together. And yet it's so much more than a creative turning point. It's one of the clearest examples of a film as the expression of an individual's vision, in addition to being technically flawless. It's the sort of film where every department is strong, from writing, to acting, to cinematography, to score. That it ends with a giant curtain call (as previously said) for the film's cast seems entirely appropriate. For 8 1/2, Fellini became a ring master, and while the contributions of his cast and crew were immense, they were all working in service of a master at the height of his artistic prowess. And as far as movies about making movies go, I have yet to find anything that entertains, delights, and enthralls me more.

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