Scenes
8 1/2



scenes is a new column here at Stylus, applying the idea behind the long-running Seconds: Perfect Moments in Pop series to the world of cinema. In each piece, a writer will tackle a particular scene—or even a shot—much in the same way Seconds attempts to dissect a significant moment within a song. The approach is up to the writer. They may analyze the scene from a technical standpoint, discuss the dramatic elements in play, talk about what it may mean to them personally, or take the concept in another direction entirely. Enjoy.

Watching Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, you may well miss the film’s most emblematic scene. Watch it again, closely, and it could still glide by like a ship on the horizon. It’s a subtle action, a second or two long, buried in a transitional moment: 8 ½’s protagonist, film director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), is walking from his hotel room to the lobby to meet with people associated with his current project—producers, actors, lawyers, the like. Just walking, room to lobby. The camera moves backward, looking down the boxy corridor directly at him. The shot simply proves that Anselmi didn’t dissolve into tiny molecules and reassemble himself in a fit of magic somewhere in the lobby’s corner. But since not dissolving is probably a given, and most any audience would just assume he walked, the moment is nearly unnecessary.

Except that in the hands of Fellini and Mastroianni, it is entirely necessary.

Anselmi is walking down the hall, whistling, dreading the meetings he is about to face. He is at the end of his rope, at least creatively speaking. Though the actors and reporters and technicians in the lobby expect him to produce another visionary work of consummate genius—and will all be dutifully appreciative in the process—he has nothing coming. He is blocked. His career, he realizes, may well be over. And yet he cannot stop himself. He must go through the motions. He must walk down the hall to inevitable humiliation. He must whistle to appear chipper and under control. He must step unerringly forward…

…at which point, Anselmi dances. A little sashay. A shimmy. One side step to the left as he walks down the hall toward the camera, a little shuffle with his back foot, and back again, a hop, and on, to walking again toward oblivion. The movement is so off-course, literally, that it stands out—over time. You see it in its place in the movie, and you think nothing of it: just an odd step as he heads down the hall. You watch the rest of the film, with its impassioned theme on the demands of forced creativity and the catharsis of lucid imagination—great moments, like the voluptuous Saraghina dancing for young Guido on the beach or Guido’s dream of a fantastical home life where all his women have been tamed. After finishing the film, you exhale a deserved, appreciative sigh, and you go away for a week. Two weeks. You might think a bit about the film, about its place in Fellini’s unparalleled creative career, the result of the auteur’s staggering frustrations with the medium. You might think of its particular use of lighting to vent Anselmi’s inadequacies, or the message inherent in the film’s parting image, a boy leading a band off the screen: film as child’s play.

But at some point, when you’re going along your usual way—let’s say you’re brushing your teeth one innocuous night—you’ll pull your hand away from your face, toothpaste outlining your mouth, and you’ll stare into your reflection in the mirror. It hits you. You wonder, “Why the fuck was that shimmy put in there?”

The side step is an engaging, if implausible, moment. Anselmi is walking. He does a little dance. How clever. How soulful. You feel like he’s got a lot on his mind, but maybe, if he can keep dancing, he’ll be all right. Of course, it may only have been a way to fill a gap: Fellini—a notorious perfectionist on set—says to Mastroianni, “We’ve got this boring scene of you walking down a hallway…Could you do something to spice it up a bit?”—and Mastroianni came up with a sashay. A step to the left. A little shuffle with his back foot. The movement certainly invigorates the scene, elevating it from the mundane to something young film scholars could write articles about because that sashay, two seconds on celluloid, typifies Mastroianni’s character, as well as Fellini’s.

In short, the device attracts the viewer to a director light on his feet but alone in the world and broken. The nature of that loneliness may ultimately be unknowable. Is it the weight of creative genius? The sheer terror of not being able to go on with what you know? Or perhaps, something else, something even more indefinable? Whatever the emotion, it nearly crushes Anselmi; apart from the dance step, he is recuperating in a southern health spa after having a near-panic attack in the north of Italy. Still, nothing in 8 ½ goes so far to describe Anselmi’s physical and physiological state—at least, before the climax of the film—as that sublime shimmy. It is an odd two seconds. It grabs you. Eventually.


By: Arthur Ryel-Lindsey
Published on: 2006-05-08
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