When Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 was released stateside in 1963, it was hailed as a great leap forward for modernism in film. Although Pauline Kael, for one, thought the film pompous and hollow, virtually everyone else was enthralled by Fellini's semi-autobiographical tale of a world-famous movie director and his creative crisis.
When we meet Guido (played, of course, by Marcello Mastroianni), he's trying to soothe his nerves at a posh, satirically rendered health spa while hiding out from his wife, mistress, agent and everyone else. We learn that there's a movie production in the works, but Guido hasn't figured out what's going to be in the film. Much of 8 1/2 is subsequently taken up with Guido's memories and fantasies, as he tries somehow to pull together his inchoate experiences into a coherent whole. He doesn't exactly succeed, but the film he wants to make ends up being the film we're watching: 8 1/2. (The film is so named because it was Fellini's ninth production, but one that wasn't quite a complete movie.)
This film is often quoted and imitated, albeit rarely successfully. It's not hard to see why, for there are so many phenomenal scenes: From the opening traffic jam scored to Nino Rota's pulsing rhythms, to the harem scene in which Guido wields a bullwhip over the women in his life, to the rich old ladies parading through the health spa to the strains of Ride of the Valkyries, to the final circus procession, 8 1/2 is a film of spectacular set pieces.
Although the film's culminating vision of the artist as a perpetual child has unfortunately taken an enduring life in our culture, as evidenced by the career of Steven Spielberg, 8 1/2 remains an indestructible landmark of popular art cinema.
8 1/2 will be shown this Saturday, Jan. 10 at the N C Museum of Art. www.ncartmuseum.org. $5.