Film legend has it that Federico Fellini’s 1963 film 8½ grew out of a triumphant trumping of creative block. The great Italian director, stumped as to how to follow the massive success of his epoch-defining paparazzi drama, La dolce vita (1960), simply decided to make a film about a feted director’s own creative paralysis, with Marcello Mastroianni as his alter ego, director Guido Anselmi.
Half a century later, it’s clear how this eureka moment of inspiration has proved to be the gift that keeps on giving. Many a director’s favourite film (witness its number four placing in the directors’ votes for the Sight & Sound Greatest Film poll), it has also provided a model for numerous films about filmmaking, films about creative block, films in which a beleaguered man is beset by dreams and fantasies about the women in his life…
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One of the benchmark arthouse films of the 1960s, 8½ oozes with a combination of continental sophistication, philosophical questioning and cinematic panache that was all but irresistible to the hip young directors who revitalised Hollywood in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Directors such as Woody Allen, Arthur Penn and Martin Scorsese – and many more since from the younger generations – took the film to their hearts, citing it, referencing it, and in some cases all but remaking it.
These eight (and a cheeky half) films are some of the best to emerge from 8½’s mighty shadow.
Stardust Memories (1980)
Director: Woody Allen
Woody Allen bows to no-one in his love for Fellini, counting both 8½ and Amarcord (1972) among his 10 favourite films. 1980’s Stardust Memories is a direct 8½ parody and homage, following famous director Sandy Bates (Allen himself) as he’s plagued by fans and critics. Meanwhile, like Fellini’s hero, he’s distracted by memories and fantasies about women past and present.
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Director: Charlie Kaufman
Among the most memorable of more recent films to tackle creative block is the Charlie Kaufman-scripted Adaptation (2002), with Nicolas Cage playing a tormented stand-in for Kaufman himself. But Kaufman’s subsequent debut as director is even more indebted to Fellini’s classic. This time Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the creative genius, a theatre director overwhelmed by his latest production, which involves building a massive replica of New York in a vast warehouse.
I’m Not There (2007)
Director: Todd Haynes
Rather than using 8½ as a model for a film of personal examination, indie director Todd Haynes borrows aspects of Fellini’s masterpiece for his fractured, experimental portrait of Bob Dylan, starring a number of different actors as different stages of the Dylan persona. The influence is most obvious in the speed-freak 60s sequences, in which Cate Blanchett plays the Wayfarer-clad rock singer in a pop-art world populated by party girls, press people, sycophants and hangers on. From the high contrast black-and-white photography to the shot of the singer floating into the air but tethered to the ground, there’s only film that Haynes is going for here.
Alex in Wonderland (1970)
Director: Paul Mazursky
A largely forgotten film from that illustrious moment in the early 70s when young directors were given a freer rein in Hollywood, Paul Mazursky’s follow-up to his hippie-era hit Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) is about a director struggling with the problem of how to follow up his hit first film. Donald Sutherland is Mazursky’s alter ego, and in case anyone missed who the Brooklyn-born director was ripping off, Fellini appears in a cameo as himself.
All That Jazz (1979)
Director: Bob Fosse
This Palme d’Or-winning musical fantasia is choreographer-director Bob Fosse’s attempt to grapple with his own life and creativity. His surrogate figure is Broadway director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), who is balancing time mounting his latest stage production with work preparing a multimillion-dollar movie – all the while hopping from one beautiful woman’s bed to another’s. This extravagant piece of self-criticism was shot by Fellini’s regular cameraman, Giuseppe Rotunno.
The Great Beauty (2013)
Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning epic reclaimed the flamboyant life-of-the-artist movie for the Italians, with a dazzling ode to Rome and ‘la dolce vita’ 21st century style. This time its centre is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a once-successful novelist who’s been dining out on his novel’s social capital ever since. Existence has started to look empty as the 65-year-old writer looks back on a succession of glitzy parties, yet such anguish is swept away by the film’s bounteous display of energy and colour. Fellini-esque and entirely exhilarating.
Day for Night (1973)
Director: François Truffaut
Many world-class film directors have since followed in Fellini’s footsteps by turning their own creative travails into the subject of a film, from Rainer Werner Fassbinder with Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) via Wim Wenders with The State of Things (1982) to David Lynch with Mulholland Dr. (2001). Few have done so more joyously than François Truffaut with this 1973 movie about moviemaking, which is set during a chaotic film shoot in the south of France. Truffaut crams in more actual production time than 8½ does, providing a breathless simulation of the minute-by-minute dramas which a director deals with on set and off.
Director: Terry Gilliam
Not all films that wear their 8½ heart on their sleeve are about embattled creatives. In Terry Gilliam’s dystopian future vision Brazil, it’s a bureaucrat – Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) – who’s getting it from all sides, though with far more nightmarish results. Like Fellini’s hero, Lowry repeatedly retreats into his dreams, envisioning a beautiful woman in white who offers respite from the chaos of his daily existence. Gilliam has often expressed his love for 8½ and his working title for Brazil was 1984½, suggesting how Fellini and George Orwell were its twin inspirations.
‘Everybody Hurts’ video – R.E.M.
Director: Jake Scott
For our ‘half’ we’ve chosen this famous music video for R.E.M.’s wrenching ballad ‘Everybody Hurts’, directed by Jake Scott, son of director Ridley. In a direct homage to the dreamy opening sequence of 8½, in which Guido escapes a traffic jam by floating free of his car and high over the gridlocked vehicles, the video finds Michael Stipe and his bandmates stuck in a similar jam on the I-10 near San Antonio, Texas. As in Fellini’s film, sinuous tracking shots float past by the surrounding cars, creating an image of a world in frustrated stasis. Then Stipe follows Guido’s lead in leaving his car, initiating a mass walking exodus from the gradually abandoned vehicles.