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8 1/2 and Me:
The Thirty-Two Year Difference
Norman N. Holland
- Norman N. Holland, "8 1/2 and Me: The Thirty-Two Year Difference." Journal of Aging and Identity, 1.2(1996): 125-41
- Norman N.Holland,"8 1/2 and Me", Literature and Psychoanalysis: Procedings of the 12th International Conference on Literature and Psychoanalysis, Freiburg (Germany) 22-26 June 21-24, 1995, Ed. Frederico Pereira. Lisbon:ISPA, 1996, 173--84
© 1996: Norman N.Holland
Keywords: Fellini, Federico; Identity; film; reader-response; aging
Pubblicato anche su PSYART alla pagina; insieme a molti altri lavori di Norman Holland
One morning, late in April 1995, my phone rang. It was an old friend,
Gerry O'Grady, my former colleague at SUNY/Buffalo in media study. As it
developed, Gerry's call would take me (at sixty-seven) back thirty-two
years. It would allow me to compare the way I saw a film then and the way
I see the same film now. It would allow me, ultimately, to ask, and perhaps
to answer, this question: How much have thirty-two years of living really,
deep down, changed me?
Gerry had called to urge me to talk at a conference on 8 1/2
he was running at Harvard. It was to celebrate the retirement of another
old friend, Vlada Petric. Not only would several other friends be participating,
but I would also be able to address Alan Hobson, whose experimental work
on dreams I know and admire and whose relentless Freud-bashing I regret
and would like to mollify.
The conference sounded like fun and opportunity, but it also presented
problems. Whenever I approach a new project these days, I face the question,
How shall I write? How does one write a reader-response paper about, say,
8 1/2? I don't want to repeat the theoretical things I wrote in
the '70s and '80s. I also feel that the usual critical essay has become
wearisome. Always, the reader-response criticism that I favor demands a
fresh approach. It really requires a different kind of essay for every
new topic. As a result, I've been experimenting with novel ways of writing
criticism, for example, as fiction.
Gerry's telephone call thus left me with a problem. How would I write
this reader-response paper? Particularly since 8 1/2 has
been written about and written about: at least three whole books, two collections
of essays, and more articles than I could shake a footnote at.
Reader-response starts with free associations, and the first thing that
comes to me about 8 1/2 is that I reviewed the film back in 1963,
when I was doing film criticism for the Hudson Review. Like most
critics of the day, I was disconcerted by an autobiographical film, and
I was pretty nasty about it (Holland 1963). The review had two parts. The
first half was, as one of the standard bibliographies says, "a supercilious
retelling of the film's plot" (Price & Price 1978, s.v. Holland).
The second half, however, was one of my earliest excursions into psychoanalytic
aesthetics. As Dwight Macdonald complained, "Mr. Holland groans under
a massive load of primitive Freudianism" (Macdonald 1978 , 215).
Actually, Dwight, wherever you are, I wasn't groaning. I was happy.
I had been studying psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic criticism for just
a few years, and I was quite crazy about it. I was beginning to develop
theories that would become in 1968 a book called The Dynamics of Literary
Response (Holland 1968).
My argument in that book was that a story or a poem or a film, any work
of art really, consists at its core of fantasies that would ordinarily
create anxiety. But these fantasies are managed by form and meaning toward
a feeling of satisfaction. In a work of art, form and meaning act the way
defense mechanisms do in a person: they transform unconscious fantasies
to ideas acceptable to the conscious ego.
The readiest model for all this is a joke: the "point" of
a joke and the way it moves aesthetically towards that "point"
authorize the nasty sexual and aggressive content of the joke. Form and
meaning legitimate fantasy. In effect, my 1968 theory of literary response
extended Freud's model of the joke to all art.
This transformation from anxiety-evoking fantasy to satisfying meaning
and aesthetic unity, in 1963, all this happened inside the work of art
itself. In effect, a work of art embodies a psychological process. Then,
when you or I take in the work of art, we incorporate this process into
our own psychic processes. We tack onto this transformational process whatever
personal analogies seem appropriate to us. In a nutshell, a film like 8
1/2 is a dream dreamed for us.
The trouble with 8 1/2 as I saw it in 1963 was that it was so
purely personal. [Fellini] "uses his fantasies raw to express his
own problems as a director." It didn't contain a meaning that could
serve as a transforming defense for Fellini's fantasies. And the adjectives
I tacked onto meaning were: "universal," "moral," and
"intellectual." I spoke of the "gamut of the mind"
running from "higher, abstractable meaning" to deep unconscious
fantasies. A work of art that runs the whole gamut is quote-unqote better
than one like 8 1/2 that confines itself to one level, the autobiographical
All this transforming was, in the manner of 1963, in the film
itself. I could argue that the film had to have "moral and intellectual
content." And, as in that word, "content," all this moral
and intellectual stuff was supposed to be contained in the film.
As I wrote,
Fellini's last three films seem to me to rank in merit according to
the amount of "meaning" in each. La Dolce Vita fairly
reeked of "meaning," with its Christ-symbols, parallels to Dante,
moral indictment of a contemporary life-style, and what not. The Boccaccio
70 episode had its little fabulated moral. But 8 1/2 has little
or no intellectual content.
Note again the in or "content." Meaning is contained
in the film. That seemed obvious in 1963.
Today we recognize that that in is metaphorical. We are using
a container metaphor for the film, and containers are simply one of our
commonest metaphorical structures for describing works of art or language
and not a very accurate description of the psychological processes
involved. Container metaphors are crude, and we can be much more sophisticated
And what were Fellini's fantasies in 8 1/2? As I saw them in
1963, he was interested in turning people into mere images and sounds.
His fantasies about women were that they were either all-powerful good
or all-powerful bad, either a virgin-mother-goddess who would bring utter
happiness and fulfillment or a Saraghina, dangerously, sinfully sexual.
Men were impotent creatures of words and thoughts, empty by comparison.
I summed up the pattern by pointing to the two cardinali in this
film. There is the male cardinale, an aging, incoherent clergyman
nattering on about guilt and salvation and the church, clearly missing
the point so far as Fellini is concerned. The other is Claudia Cardinale,
a Muse, a virgin goddess who will bring cleanliness and order and sex and
free up Fellini's imagination. But, as it turns out, he is too weak for
her help. He is just another helpless male.
What has happened to all this since 1963? Would I say the same in 1995?
Well, one thing I've noticed is that the mind rambles more freely in these
latter decades of life. Perhaps it is the climate of the times, perhaps
it's the climate of Florida, perhaps it's just me, but I am easier with
just random thoughts. So let me offer you three random thoughts about 8
1/2 in 1995. Just to be properly scholarly and analytical, I will give
them three titles:
Federico's Answer to Ingmar
Why Did Fellini Build the Launching Pad?
Why Was Harvey Greenberg So Disappointed in This Movie?
One random thought I had as I was watching this film in 1995 was that
Federico's Answer to Ingmar
I began to notice similarities among the differences between these two
giants of mid-century cinema. Let me start by pointing out just one similarity.
The dance of life at the end of 8 1/2 exactly parallels and contrasts
with the dance of death, the Totentanz, at the end of Bergman's
Seventh Seal. This is something that both John Simon and I picked
up in our early reviews of 8 1/2--and his, by the way, was as unfavorable
as mine (Simon 1967, pp. 74-78). That particular image, Bergman's allegorical
characters silhouetted against a brooding sky as death leads them off,
became the image for anyone interested in avant-garde cinema in
Contrast that with the statement of Daumier in this film, at his first
interview with the filmmaker about the script for 8 1/2 which he
has just read. "Your main problem is, the film lacks ideas, it has
it has no philosophical base. It's merely a series of senseless episodesú.ú.ú.
It has none of the merits of the avant-garde film and all the drawbacks."
I think it's hard not to say that Fellini was feeling competitive with
this other avant-garde or intellectual filmmaker so completely different
In fact, Fellini said in 1965, not that long after 8 1/2: "The
author of today's films that I admire the most and find most congenial
and that I feel as a brother is Bergman. I have seen only two films, Wild
Strawberries and The Silence, but they were enough to make me
love him as a brother, a milk brother" (Levine 1965). Without sibling
Let's consider the films Bergman and Fellini had achieved in 1960 when
Fellini first outlined his plan for 8 1/2. Bergman had recently
released The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957),
The Magician (1958), and The Virgin Spring (1959). Bergman
was becoming, as I read him, more realistic.
Somewhat after 1959, Fellini began changing from his early neo-realism
to the later more fantastic or "Fellini-esque" style. The relevant
picures would be: I Vitelloni (1953), still strongly realistic;
La Strada (1954) still realistic but with elements of fable and
fantasy; Il Bidone (1955) strongly realistic again; Le Notte
di Cabiria (1957), the same year as Seventh Seal and Wild
Strawberries, quite realistic. Then came La Dolce Vita (1960),
realistic including realistic treatment of magical and fabulous elements.
In the 1960s, nobody paid much attention to Fellini's episode for Boccaccio
70 (1962), The Temptation of Dr. Antonio, but this little scherzo
seems to me quite crucial to his development. The film has a 40-foot Anita
Ekberg stepping down from a sexy billboard advertising milk to torment
a would-be censor, the puritanical Dr. Antonio, waving his puny umbrella
against those mighty breasts. Clearly here is one of Fellini's major themes,
the all-powerful woman or image of woman, contrasted to the impotence of
the moralistic male, but presented in a largely fantastic way. Later critics
have recognized its importance. Peter Bondanella, for example, in his massive
1992 study of Fellini, shows how Fellini's decisive encounter with Jungian
psychology led to his interest in dreams and his keeping of dream notebooks
(starting in 1960). His interest in dreams led in turn to the dreams, surrealism,
and metacinema of this 60-minute film and ultimately to 8 1/2 (Bondanella
1992, pp. 150-163).
It is in 8 1/2, it seems to me as to most critics, that Fellini
finally decisively breaks with realism, turning instead to fantasy. Indeed,
that is what this film is about. He shows us how difficult it was for him
to go off into this new kind of film. He shows us how everybody around
him doubted what he was doing, his producer, his assistants, the press,
the critics, the intellectuals. He shows us his helplessness as he tries
to make a totally new kind of film for him, for anybody really. All this
really happened in real life: Fellini deliberately manipulated the press
to make it happen. As Fellini so often pointed out, however, Guido never
succeeds in making his film, but he, Fellini, did.
If you state some of these films in the manner of TV Guide, you
can see the similarities between Bergman's works and 8 1/2. A woman
is victimized and shows magical powers (Virgin Spring or the wife
cum prophetess in 8 1/2). An aging man tries to understand
himself, aided by a magical young woman (Wild Strawberries or Guido
in 8 1/2). The girl is magical because she plays several different
roles: Claudia Cardinale in 8 1/2; Bibi Andersson in Wild Strawberries.
A man troubled by his age and health has a dream with a coffin in it, Wild
Strawberries again. 8 1/2 mixes realism, memory, dream, and
daydream as Bergman does in his 1957-59 films.
There are some specific similarities between 8 1/2 and The
Seventh Seal. I've mentioned the big one: Fellini's dance of life as
contrasted to Bergman's dance of death. I'd note too that the life-figures
in The Seventh Seal, the juggler and his wife and child, are dancers,
although Bergman doesn't give us a dance of life. Fellini does the opening
dream on high-contrast black-and-white film stock, a technique Bergman
used, not so much in The Seventh Seal, although it does appear there,
but very much in Wild Strawberries. And I'd note also that it is
a Scandinavian airlines hostess who announces Guido's visit to the Cardinal
who epitomizes male futility and religion. Both Seventh Seal and
8 1/2 have a numerical title. Both are very characteristic of their
directors. But, where Bergman's sends us to the murky world of the Book
of Revelation, Fellini's sends us to his own career as a filmmaker.
In general, Bergman's theme of tormented intellectualizing as against
the simple appeal of life, runs all through his films from Smiles of
a Summer Night until the time of 8 1/2. In relation to Bergman
the figure of Daumier in 8 1/2 becomes important. Notice how he
even looks like Bergman.
When Guido wakes up from his opening dream, Daumier is the first person
he sees from the film world, and he is the last person Guido sees before
the dance of life at the end begins. In that last appearance, sitting in
a car with Guido, he is spouting all kinds of intellectual stuff about
the importance of keeping silent instead of producing art that has no intellectual
point--rather like my 1963 review, come to think of it. And now I remember
the opening dream, when Guido is locked in a car and this noxious vapor
starts to asphyxiate him. That noxious vapor comes from the passenger side,
just like our friend Daumier.
Notice his name, that of an artist who brilliantly combined pictures
and words to create cartoons of acid social criticism. In 8 1/2,
Daumier is the spokesman for the WORD. He is the intellectual,
committed to verbal meaning and social criticism. He beckons, indeed commands,
exactly the opposite direction from the one Fellini-Guido is finding for
himself. His name is French, and France was certainly the center for making
intellectual comments on film in those days and perhaps now.
His Frenchness reminds me of the French actor Alain Cuny, who played
the saintly intellectual Steiner in La Dolce Vita. Steiner says:
"We should come to love one another outside of time, beyond time,
detached, to live detached." This is exactly the opposite of what
Guido-Fellini becomes. Daumier in this film seems to me to echo Steiner.
"You're are .ú.ú. primitive as a gothic steeple,"
one of Steiner's friends tells him. "You're so high that our voices
grow faint in trying to reach up to you." Unexpectedly, Steiner commits
suicide, and in 8 1/2 Guido imagines Daumier hanged. Indeed, in
the first ending, Guido himself commits suicide under the demands of critics
that he be intellectual. Steiner was something of a bourgeois puritan.
So is Daumier, who seems so inept with women here. And of course the puritan
par excellence is Dr. Antonio in the short film that Fellini made just
before 8 1/2, a film that the curious « of 8 1/2 is
supposed to remind us of.
In other words, I see as a crucial thematic figure in 8 1/2,
a male who has connections to France or Scandinavia, who is associated
with death, who is a bit of a puritan, who is an intellectual, who is committed
to the Word, who doesn't create anything, just talk, who is a little removed
from life, who is "Northern" in Thomas Mann's sense. This Daumier-Steiner-Dr.
Antonio figure makes a total contrast to Fellini's utter Southernness,
his fondness for noise and mess and sex and looking instead of thinking.
Now Fellini did not meet Bergman until 1968 when they took a famous
night prowl around Rome competing as to who knew the most about death (Baxter,
1993, pp. 4-5, 256). They did agree to try to collaborate on a film about
love, but it never materialized. Fellini claimed in one of his interviews
that, until he met Bergman in 1968, he had seen only one Bergman film.
Frankly I find that hard to believe, given that in another interview he
said he had seen two, given the stir that Bergman's movies had created
since the mid-50s, and given the similarities I see between 8 1/2
and Bergman's work of the period 1955-1960.
Of course, there are major differences, for example, the launching pad
in 8 1/2, and that brings me to my second random thought:
Why Did Fellini Build the Launching Pad?
One particularly fine study of Fellini up through Juliet of the Spirits
is Peter Harcourt's "The Secret Life of Federico Fellini." He
comments on a rather peculiar image that recurs in Fellini's work.
The first image we see in the first film directed by Fellini himself
is an image of a structure sticking up out of the sand with a piece of
cloth blowing in the wind. In front of this structureú.ú.ú.
sits the White Sheik on his horse in all his phony splendor. But it is
really in Cabiria that this purely visual absurdity acquires its
most consistently surrealist force.
He gives several examples from Cabiria of random structures in
But most absurd of all and most characteristically Fellinian is the
strangely functionless structure that exists outside Cabiria's house. How
did it come to be there and what purpose does it serve? Questions like
that can have no answer on any rational plane, but the presence of this
structure dominates a number of scenes in the film; and of course it is
related both to the beach structures that we've seen more naturalistically
in The White Sheik and I Vitelloni and that structure to
end all structures that looms over 8 1/2.
The launching pad is the quintessential useless structure.
Harcourt suggests that the people walking up and down the structure
in 8 1/2 are like the little boys who are constantly clambering
around the poles outside Cabiria's bungalow. He concludes that both sets
of climbers continue a theme in Fellini of purposeless activity, "a
kind of physical meaning to the absurdity of life," "movement
without direction, life essentially without a goal" (Harcourt 1966,
I think that makes good sense, but I see another possibility. These
useless constructions go up. They point to the sky. They connect to another
theme in Fellini, the theme of altitude. We first see the White Sheik high
up on a swing. We can hardly forget the airborne statue of Christ that
opens La Dolce Vita. In the opening dream in 8 1/2 Guido
flies high, and is pulled down in an Icarus fantasy of flying and falling.
In other words, besides Peter Harcourt's idea that these constructions
symbolize an absurd life without a goal, I think we are also looking at
a good old-fashioned phallic symbol. I think these constructions are gendered,
and they are gendered male. They seem to me distinctly linked to phallic
striving, to male aspirations, pretensions, and ideas. Remember how Steiner
was like a gothic steeple.
As many people have pointed out, there is a theme of verticality in
Fellini. Fellini himself spoke before 1963 of "the fear of falling,
of being buried. . . . Each day, each minute, there is a possibility
of losing ground . . . of falling toward the beast" (Herman
1969, p. 258 quoting Salachas 1963, 1969).
When I put that quotation from Fellini alongside these images of men
up high or flying, I hear Fellini complaining: I have to try to do these
futile, even ridiculous male things. I have to try to do abstraction, philosophy,
ideas, religion, this "high" stuff. If I fail, I fall. I will
be engulfed, overwhelmed. I will fall into a monster.
That is, of course, the fantasy of the opening dream of 8 1/2.
Guido is trapped in his car in a huge traffic jam in an underpass. He clambers
out of his car and flies up, apparently escaping out the mouth of the tunnel.
Over his head we see wires like those for a trolley car or an electric
train. He continues to soar, and we hear the sound of the steaming, noxious
vapor in the car giving way to a high, free wind outside. We see sun, clouds,
but suddenly, as if it were attached to those trolley wires, we glimpse
a huge scaffolding. Lo and behold, although we may not recognize it unless
we have seen 8 1/2 before, this is the partially constructed space
launching station that is such a crucial part of Guido's film project.
Fellini cuts quickly away to a man in a cloak riding a horse along the
seashore, silhouetted against the sunlight (perhaps another echo of The
Seventh Seal). A second man is lying on the beach--we will see both
of them later, as part of Claudia Cardinale's entourage. The second man
pulls on a rope attached to Guido's ankle. As he does so, he calls out
to the cloaked rider, "Avvocato, lo preso," literally, "Lawyer,
I've got him."
Why a lawyer? Well, in this country we always need a lawyer, but in
Italy, the only answer I can think of is that this refers to some contract
that ties him to making the mysterious film that uses this space
launching station we've just seen. In fact, later in the film, this actor
will appear as Claudia Cardinale's manager. It is he whose contractual
obligations tie Guido's fantasies of Cardinale as a Muse to the
low practicalities of actually making a movie.
"Down, come down," calls the lawyer. The grip yanks repeatedly
on the rope attached to Guido's ankles, which Guido is frantically trying
to untie. Finally he falls into the sea. The lawyer, who not only wears
a cloak but has a peculiar insignia on his forehead pronounces, "Gi÷,
definitivamente." "Down, definitively down." And Guido wakes
as he falls into the sea, wakes to the doctors and "la cura,"
the cure, the therapy, if I can use that word.
In short, the opening dream deals with flying and verticality, phallic
symbols if you will, and specifically associates them with Guido's film
project. He tries to rise, to soar, and the space launching station is
the phallic symbol of that wish. But he is pulled down by his contract
to make a film, and his phallic failure ends in therapy.
Therapy. Following out my associations, I notice that 8 1/2 involves
various agings: Guido's aging, Guido's father's death, the assistant that
Guido-Fellini dismisses as "old man.", and Fellini's own aging.
The conference, too, involved aging: Vlada Petric's retirement, Gerry Grady
as an "old" friend, "old" colleague--Gerry decided
to retire a few months after the conference. And "old" me--the
me of 1963, the me of now. Surely there is a lot in the situation about
male assertion and, as always with aging, the threat of lost sexuality.
(Alan Hobson turned up at the conference with his much younger Italian
bride, their marriage having taken place the day before.)
Again, following out my associations, I should point out that "construction"
has a meaning in psychoanalytic talk. A construction is the analyst's positing
an event in childhood to explain something in the patient's adult patterns.
One might, for example, posit sexualized baths given by a seductive mother
to explain Guido-Fellini's mixed fear and adoration of women.
Like Guido's constructions, these psychoanalytic constructions are expensive--boy,
does it cost a lot to have an analyst make one of these constructions!
Some people, including Fellini, I think, would say such a psychoanalytic
construction is useless. It goes nowhere. It wastes time and money. It
is like the huge launch pad in this movie, pointless. It is like the male
intellectual stuff put forward by Daumier or Ingmar Bergman. Some people
would say, the best thing you can do is climb down off it, off this male,
psychoanalytic construction. Therapy, however, brings me to the third random
thought I had, looking at this film in 1995--
Why Was Harvey Greenberg So Disappointed in This Movie?
Harvey Greenberg is an analyst in New York who writes regularly--and
excellently--about films from a psychiatric, psychoanalytic point of view.
He has a particularly long and disappointed analysis of 8 1/2 in
his 1975 book, The Movies on Your Mind. Dr. Greenberg concludes
that Fellini, as early as La Dolce Vita, was using "cinematic
creation in itself as a crucial ingredient in the working through, the
mastery of conflict, internal and external" (Greenberg 1975, pp. 138-68,
159). But 8 1/2 did not achieve resolution.
He considers and praises 8 1/2 as a film, then goes on to look
at the films that followed 8 1/2. All, he concludes, are failures,
"empty displays of exceptional technique that ring increasingly inferior
and hollow at base." Perversity and sadism are the panacea for Juliet's
ills. Toby Dammit is like a bad dream. Satyricon ends in
self-seeeking callousness, the acceptance of ultimate blasphemy. Clowns
(1970), Roma (1972), and Amarcord (1974) are all "genial
trivialities," "entertaining, but hardly memorable," "as
unsatisfying as the meagre leftovers from a banquet."(Greenberg 1975,
pp. 167, 163, 163, and 164).
From Dr. Greenberg's point of view, these later films are not just bad
films, they are pathological. They show, he writes,
a heightened sense of unreality or `surreality,' a facile disregard
for the exigencies of time and space, elements the analyst customarily
interprets as signatory of more archaic mental activity, experienced nightly
in dreams, but often daily by the emotionally disturbed. The intrusion
of such perceptions into the conscious thinking processes of a patient,
if sufficiently persistent and global, would raise the spectre of an impending
psychosis--or at least would warrant one's sharpened concern (Greenberg
1975, p. 165).
The psychiatric problem is embodied in 8 1/2 with its "terrible
relinquishments and false insights." "In psychoanalytic terms,
Guido has sustained an overwhelming rupture of his tie to the nurturing
maternal image and inevitably to the entire world." "The brave
reconciliation of the ending, from this perspective, bears the mark of
an abortive attempt at restitution" (Greenberg 1975, pp. 167, 154,
Moreover, this problem with women, which is Fellini's as well as Guido's,
is never resolved. "It is impossible to look unmoved upon the dance
of life that ends 8 1/2, yet from all we have intuited about Guido,
it is obvious that the rapturous harmony of this felicitious conclusion
obscures--must obscure--his still desperate frame of mind."
"If the conflicts of 8 1/2 never reached favorable resolution
for the film's creator, what then follows [these films that are failures]
may well be the bitter fruits of Fellini's crisis in middle life; the disillusion
and dissoluteness of the later pictures may betoken his mounting hopelessness
and disintegration." As for Fellini's later career: "After the
spurious joy that concludes 8 1/2, the great director has given
us only the barren declensions of that fearful stillness of the heart"
(Greenberg 1975, pp. 154, 165, and 168).
I might mention another psychoanalytic reading, by David Herman, far
more jargon-ridden, which sees Guido-Fellini, indeed all of Fellini's works,
as sick. "Exposed and vulnerable, he is humiliated by the caprices
of a female figure" (Herman 1969, pp. 251-68, 257). In defense, he
creates a universe whose inhabitants merge to form a single environment.
Boundaries between internal and external fade away. Guido-Fellini's fantasies
about women are polarized between a devouring, huge woman and the angel,
who is, however, innocent and ignorant, and whom Guido-Fellini wishes to
eat cannibalistically. He is obsessed with scoptophilic fantasies in which
eye equals breast equals penis. Underneath all the outer romp and playfulness
of Fellini's movies, there is despair. Defensively, Fellini turns to circus
and vaudeville people as magical, divine manipulators. He himself turns
toward spiritualism. He uses these idealized objects and his visions of
purity and innocence to project outward and receive back narcissistic supplies.
He imagines himself omnipotent, playing all the parts in his movies (Herman
is referring to his directorial style). And so on. Not exactly the picture
of mental health.
We can contrast these two readings, which see 8 1/2 as pathological,
with a recent reading by Harry Trosman, an analyst in Chicago, so recent
that it is unpublished. Dr. Trosman would agree that Guido's supposed cure
isn't a cure at all. As he says, "There is little to suggest the type
of working through we generally attribute to someone who has undergone
a successful conflict resolution as a result of insight" (Trosman
unpub., p. 18). But he nevertheless regards 8 1/2 as a masterpiece.
Dr. Trosman notes, as I do, the way Fellini got past the limits of neo-realism
by including fantasy in his earlier films. Dr. Trosman sees this as Fellini's
establishing subjective reality and "endopsychic perception"
as the basis of his creations. He has recaptured the imaginative capacities
of childhood. "To the extent that artistic creation is heavily dependent
on the conflation of reality, memory, dream and fantasy, 8 1/2 is
a brilliant depiction of this interweaving." "The creative potential
has been generated." Trosman's summary: "The achievement of 8
1/2 lies in Fellini's having conceived the task of creativity in terms
of giving prominence to intrapsychic experience" (Trosman unpub.,
pp. 12, 21, 25-26).
Now you would expect three people looking at the same film in essentially
the same very specific way, that is, psychoanalytically, to agree. There
is, to be sure, some agreement among these three psychoanalytic critics,
but also considerable disagreement. The disagreements come about because
the three readings are based on value judgments. Greenberg and Herman don't
like the films after 8 1/2, and, although Greenberg admires it,
they both disapprove of 8 1/2 itself. Trosman, however, admires
8 1/2 and likes what follows from it.
Why? Greenberg and Herman concentrate on pathology. Fellini in 8
1/2 demonstrates all kinds of pathology: depression, a crippling work
blockage, narcissistic object relations, "as if" character, Don
Juanism, bad attitudes toward women--you name it. But at the end, they
hear Fellini saying, Who needs therapy? I can just go on with my neuroses,
feeling happy, enjoying numerous women, and making beautiful movies. Isn't
that what old Sigmund wanted us to be able to do? To love and to work.
Well, I'm doing just fine, thank you. And he was. I'm OK, you're OK, and
that's OK. Now how can any board-certified, card-carrying psychoanalyst
accept that? One needs anxiety, one needs therapy, one needs insight,
one needs "a successful conflict resolution as a result of insight."
8 1/2 is not the answer a self-respecting psychiatrist wants to
Dr. Trosman also feels the supposed therapy hasn't worked. In fact,
he suggested to me that he should entitle his article, "How to Make
a Great Movie Without Getting Well." But he greatly admires 8 1/2.
Why? Dr. Trosman has written extensively on creativity. He values what
Fellini has done with creativity in this film. Fellini is riding Dr. Trosman's
favorite hobby horse.
In other words, our three psychoanalytic critics are responding to 8
1/2 not in a vacuum, but in the context of their own personal concerns.
Greenberg and Herman see 8 1/2 as unsuccessful, Trosman as successful.
They are each responding to needs. Countertransference. Surprise, surprise.
What is true of them is true of me, looking at this film first in 1963,
now in 1995. 8 1/2 isn't just something "out there" to
be talked about in the abstract, to be "thematized" in current
jargon. I read the film in terms of my life, just as Fellini or Greenberg
or Trosman do. And Fellini knew we would. Listen to him in 1965:
Every person has his own fund of experiences and emotions which he brings
to bear on every new experience--whether it is to his view of a film or
to a love affair, and it is simply the combination of the film with the
reality already existing in each person which creates the final impression
of unity. As I was saying, this is the way the spectator participates in
the process of creation. This diversity of reaction doesn't mean that the
objective reality of the film has been misunderstood. Anyway, there is
no objective reality in my films, any more than there is in life (Bachmann
1965, p. 85; 1964, p. 75)
Now what Fellini has stated here is, in my world of literary criticism,
the purest kind of reader-response position. The idea is that readers make
the experience of a film out of their own psyches, using the materials
of the film. You read the film the way you do because you are the kind
of person you are and because you come from the culture you come from.
That brings me back to 8 1/2 and me. I am a devout reader-response
critic. Now I would not go so far as to say there is "no objective
reality," but I would say, For all practical purposes, there
is no objective reality. That is, there is no way to know this film or
talk about it, except through the frame of some human perception of the
film. There is no god's eye view, as I thought in 1963, with me as the
god. There is only a limitless variety of human constructions of the film.
For all practical purposes, the film doesn't exist out there, but only
in here, or more precisely, between out there and in here.
Recognizing this truism puts the critic in a very different position
from the ÿ"[objective,ÿ"] analytical stance that I
took in 1963. In 1963, I found things "in" the film. I could
claim themes, meanings, patterns were there. I simply discovered them.
In 1995, I need to bracket my claims about the film with phrases like "I
believe," "As I see it," "In my construction,"
and so on. Such phrases will, I hope, state the psychological process we
all use when reading. That is, we construe the film, using various shared
or personal techniques. We project our construction into the film, seeing
it or finding it "there" or "in" the film, in the familiar
container metaphors. I try to convey this process by phrases like, "I
hear in this film . . . " "I see as a crucial
thematic figure . . . " "I think we are looking
at . . ." One is not speaking so much about the film
as such as about one's perception projected into the film.
In general, I think spectators construct the film, using the materials
of the film. Hence, we should ask each other, What do you feel toward
this film? And how do you over there feel? What is your fantasy?
And your fantasy? And yours? What is your defense? What is your interpretation?
That way, we open the film up to a conversation. Each of us constructs
the film, partly as everybody else does, partly as some other people do,
and partly as nobody else does. Hence, any given statement about the film
is simply one speech in a conversation that in principle need never end.
How do I feel? Shouldn't I take my own counsel and tell you?
I feel this film is about wanting and being frustrated. Fellini
is stifled in his dream, but wakes to doctors who don't give him what he
needs. His mistress, his wife, Claudia Cardinale, none of them give him
what he needs. At the same time, he is not giving other people what they
need. His producer who wants him to cast the film, his staff, the actress
who wants to know about her part, the writer who wants to know about the
script, the journalists who want to know his ideas--to none of them does
he give what he or she needs.
In 1995, the world of 8 1/2 seems to me a world in which people
don't get what they need. And what is Fellini's answer? The images of satisfaction
in 8 1/2 are Guido in an idealized childhood, Guido in the harem
scene, Guido at the end in the dance of life. All unreal. All fantasy.
The answer Fellini makes to his and Guido's and everyone's needs is to
imagine, to fantasize total gratification, in effect, to make movies.
Why, in my response, am I so preoccupied with need? Where am I coming
from? As I said, one morning in late April of 1995 the telephone rang.
It was my old friend and colleague, Gerry O'Grady. Come up to Harvard,
he says. See old friends. Meet all these interesting people. Celebrate
Vlada Petric's retirement. All you have to do is write a paper on 8
1/2. 8 1/2!, I said. I haven't thought about that movie in years.
What new can I say about it? Particularly since 8 1/2 has been written
about and written about. So of course, I said, Yes, I'll write the paper.
But oh, I didn't need this. This came at just the wrong time of year
for me. I was busy trying to organize the program for the Twelfth International
Conference in Literature and Psychology in Freiburg in June. I was trying
to shepherd through the proofreading and indexing process our huge annual
IPSA Abstracts and Bibliography in Literature-and-Psychology. I
was trying to get some lectures ready for psychoanalytic institutes in
Russia. I was busy!
I was needing. I wanted somebody to take care of me. I didn't want to
have to give to all these projects and people. I didn't want to have to
do this paper. I felt the same kind of suffocating pressure that Guido
feels in his opening dream. Those are my feelings and associations, just
as if I were in analysis.
I was in analysis in 1963, at the time I wrote that old review, and
doing papers like this one was in fact a big issue for me. I was an active,
energetic critc, imposing my own powerful New Critical analyses on all
kinds of texts, including movies, including this movie. What analysis suggested
was that it might be good if I were able to relax, to be passive, to lie
back, to simply enjoy the work. But that felt very dangerous to me. To
be passive would be to be feminized with all the fantasies and stereotypes
that that implied to someone who grew up in the 1930s and '40s. To be active,
in control of literary works, that was the male thing.
In effect, I needed to do just what I hear Fellini preaching in this
movie, and boy, was I resisting! By contrast, Guido-Fellini in his final
fantasy accepts himself as he is, accepts the world, life, imperfection--he
stops trying to be Bergman or Daumier, he puts aside male strivings, he
gives up his directorial position, and he joins the dance.
Isn't that what I needed to do in 1963 and still need to do in 1995,
for that matter? To recognize that what you have is what you need. If you
need less you worry less about giving papers at fancy conferences, about
male rising, male achievement. You can be less preoccupied with ideas,
more with people. You can take time to smell the roses or, in Florida,
the jasmine and gardenias.
I know all that consciously, but it was and still is hard for me to
do. I did end up writing this paper, just as Fellini did end up making
his movie. To be sure, I wrote a reader-response paper rather than the
old-fashioned analysis of 1963. I found a way.
What would a reader-response treatment of 8 1/2 be like? What
is this paper like? You don't look for themes, but accept your reading
as it is. You listen to your thoughts and feelings as you see the film,
and you accept them. Ah, but wait a minute! That's what the film itself
is about, isn't it? Accepting yourself. And that perhaps is the ultimate
story of 8 1/2 and me.
It seems to me that Fellini's move at the end of 8 1/2 exactly
parallels my own move as a critic. I've changed from the psychoanalytic
critic of 1963 discussing themes and fantasies ÿ"[inÿ"]
the text to the reader-response critic of 1995 discussing themes and fantasies
in me. I wasn't able to do this until a half dozen years after my analysis
ended. But I did finally accept the arts as as something less to be analyzed
than to be experienced.
Again, to quote from Fellini, this time in 1965:
In my films, what is constantly repeated is the attempt to suggest to
. . . . modern man a road of inner liberation, of trying
to accept and love life the way it is without idealizing it, without creating
concepts about it, without projecting oneself into idealized images on
a moral or ethical plane. To try to give back to man a virginal availability,
his innocence as he had it in childhood (Levine 1965).
In other words, just enjoy the movie, enjoy the story, enjoy the poem.
How that would liberate my profession from its tired and jargon-ridden
Profession aside, what about me? It seems to me now, in 1995, thirty-two
years after my review criticizing this film for its lack of intellectual
meaning that I am finally catching on. I hear Fellini saying to me, C'mon
Norm, that's the whole point. We don't want intellectual meaning.
This is a film about how great it is just to have images and sounds and
experiences, particularly of sexy women. Why do you want themes? Abstractable
meanings? Why are you writing these critical articles anyway, going to
conferences, all that stuff? Are you trying to be another Dr. Antonio?
A Daumier? A Bergman?
Oh, my, I was such a Bergmaniac in those days . . . There
was no way I could prize 8 1/2 in 1963 as I do in 1995. Now, I am
as enthusiastic about the film as I was negative in 1963. As for that old
review, I have a cartoon tacked up on my office wall that shows a professor
addressing a class, one student in particular: "There are no wrong
answers, but if there were, that would be one."
Yet, when you come right down to it, how differently do I see 8 1/2?
How much have I changed, really? I still see the same themes I saw in 1963.
I still see it as a film polarized between male abstraction and female
earthiness, between ideas and images, between intellect and emotion. Did
the film change me? Did either Fellini or I do what I think the film advocates?
I don't notice that Fellini slowed down after making 8 1/2 any more
than I slowed down after seeing it.
So why am I doing all this stuff? Why am I pressuring myself this way
or letting myself be pressured by others? Am I still carrying on that male
striving for achievement that was such an issue for me in 1963, that was
my central concern in looking at 8 1/2? I guess so.
I see the film the same way, and I behave the same way, but my values
have changed. The polarity is reversed. What was positive is now negative.
What I thought was bad I now think is good. What I thought was good ("universal"
meanings or striving for academic fame) I now doubt. But I still see the
film as rejecting meaning, as identifying the male tendency toward abstract
ideas and discursive themes with death, as opting for a feminine defined
as full of life and love and sex, passive, nurturing, subservient--and
Isn't that what I needed to do in 1963 and still need to do in 1995,
for that matter? Come to terms with that passivity or femininity? Don't
I need to worry less about lecturing, impressing people, about male rising,
masculine achievement? Am I skipping this paper, then? No. I know consciously
what I should do, but it's hard.
In that sense, I think my 8 1/2 thoughts lead me to something
about human nature. A theme, if you will. I won't say it's a theme for
8 1/2, though, as I did in 1963. It only focuses my experience of
We don't change very much, as we age. We change about as much as Guido
changes in this film. Because we aren't going to change very much, we need
to accept ourselves as we are. That's the ambiguity of the double ending.
To reject yourself is to kill yourself. Accept yourself and others,
then, but that's unreal. At the beginning Guido knows he needs therapy,
but he rejects therapy, and it's not clear at the end whether he still
needs therapy or not. And there I go again, still asking for things to
be "clear." Am I still on that search for triumphant and controlling
knowledge? Am I still being Daumier?
You see, there are no cures. We really don't change very much. We can
go to the spa or the psychoanalyst, and we may unblock our writer's block,
we may feel better, we may live happier, but we really don't change deep
down, at the core, at the center of our identity where we perceive.
As I've argued in many books over these thirty-two years, identity means
we have a core theme or themes on which play we out endless variations
as we live our lives. One way of putting it would be to say, that like
a creative writer, we write in the same style over and over, but change
the content. In the case of 8 1/2, I see it the same way, as male
vs. female, intellect vs. sensation, but I have changed my values.
Now I feel I need not to look for themes in film, not
to judge it as film or as therapy, but simply to accept it as it is. I
need to accept my experience of the film rather than seek some quote-unquote
right reading. We need to accept our experiences, we need to accept
ourselves--including the fact that we are not going to change very much.
We need to accept that we are what we are, and we are going to stay that
way. But I'm still not quite able to do that.
That's how I experience the film in 1995: it's about accepting the
very fact that we can't quite accept ourselves. I've come to a paradox
that fits the paradoxes of fiction and reality Fellini plays with in 8
1/2. We can't quite accept that we can't quite accept ourselves as
we are. And (as Andrew Gordon has suggested to me) by coming to that conclusion,
I have been able to finish this paper, just as Guido was able to finish
8 1/2, as I see it now, is neither healthy nor unhealthy in the
psychoanalysts' terms. It's just the way we are. We are who we are. Get
used to it. At least that's the way I see 8 1/2 now, in 1995. Who
knows about 1996?
Bachmann, G. (1964, Spring). Interview with Federico Fellini. Sight
and Sound, 33, 82-87.
Bachmann, G. (1965, Sept.-Oct.). Interview with Federico Fellini. Cinéma
[Paris], 99, 71-89.
Bondanella, P. (1992). The cinema of Federico Fellini. Princeton
NJ: Princeton University Press.
Greenberg, H. (1975). 8«--The declensions of silence. In The
movies on your mind: Film classics on the couch from Fellini to Frankenstein
(pp. 138-168). New York: Dutton.
Harcourt, P. (1966, Spring). The Secret Life of Federico Fellini. Film
Quarterly, 19(3), 4-19.
Herman, D. (1969, Fall). Federico Fellini. American Imago, 26(3),
Holland, N. N. (1963, Autumn). Fellini's `8«'; Holland's `11'.
Hudson Review, 16(3), 429-436.
Holland, N. N. (1968). The dynamics of literary response (1st
ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Levine, I. R. (1965, October 31). Fellini reveals--and conceals--Fellini
[Excerpts from Interview for NBC, "Open Mind," 7 November 1965].
New York Times, p. X13.
Macdonald, D. (1978 ). Afterword. In The Two Hundred Days of
8 1/2 (C. L. Markmann, Trans.) (pp. 209-218). The Garland Classics
of Film Literature. New York: Garland.
Price, B. A., & Price, T. (1978). Federico Fellini: An annotated
international bibliography. Metuchen NJ: Scarecrow Press.
Salachas, G. (1963). Federico Fellini. Paris: Éditions
Salachas, G. (1969). Federico Fellini (Rosalie Siegel, Trans.).
New York: Crown Publishers.
Simon, J. (1967). Fellini's 8 1/2 ¢ fancy. In Private screenings
(pp. 74-78). New York: Macmillan.
Trosman, H. (unpub. ms.). 8 1/2 and the disinhibition of creativity.
Chicago: Dept. of Psychiatry, University of Chicago.
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