Federico Fellini composes 8½ according to the limits of his own subconscious, giving his spectators an interesting take on the inside of a director’s mind. The film weaves between dream and reality, sometimes confusing the two, but other times introduces a surreal fantasy that projects an unconscious vulnerable to Freudian speculation.
The spectator is stuck in a place not exactly known, but felt and experienced. This, among others, calls for an examination of Todorov’s idea of the fantastic with respect to literary theory, which is the hesitation created when “there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world” (Todorov 26). Many sequences of the film begin in this fantastic state of confusion as to whether they are reality or pseudo-movie-reality (unconscious included). Though prevalent in defining the fantasy genre, the employment of the fantastic is important in examining a text’s relation to reality, specifically that hesitation in the spectator. Rather than focusing just on the form and content of 8½, it is important to include the spectator’s contribution in constructing those scenes according to the reality of the film. It is vital for the audience to share a position next to Fellini as he builds a world in the film that challenges the spectator’s relationship with unconscious reality and defines the limits of a man in his pursuits to direct the film in which he is also the subject—ultimately playing with the uncanny resemblance between dream and film.
The story of 8½ includes a director’s attempt at being creative; through his attempt, he hopes to find inspiration to continue with the project that many people are depending. John C. Stubbs argues that “Fellini presents the creative process as occurring more or less in Henri Poincaré’s four stages: preparation, incubation, Eureka! moment, and verification, with an emphasis on stages 2 and 3” (116). Stubbs continues to examine 8½ and Guido (the protagonist-director) from a psychoanalytic references to explain the four stages in relation to the story, consequently “sharing in his creative efforts” (130). In the same vein, Isabella Conti and William A. McCormack examine the creative process an artist must go through to according to the Jungian theory; they write, “Jung emphasized a cognitive unconscious and interpreted psychic disturbances as the individual’s attempt to achieve a wholesome integration of the various parts of the personality” (294). Conti and McCormack find the theme of 8½ to include “the creative energy released by successfully coming to terms with archetypes and understanding how they are expressed in the various components of the personality of an artist” (295). These various writers are attempting to examine Fellini in relation to defining himself as Guido, an artist, with these examinations central to all artists and aspiring artists.
These papers fail to define the spectator’s relation to 8½, which I will argue is central in producing meaning and inspiration for both oneself and Fellini’s Guido. Conti and McCormack’s paper ends with an important note that will guide this discussion further: “Inspiration still must come from within” (307).
I would like to call attention to the harem sequence, which features a myriad of women from Guido’s life gathered in the small house. According to Stubbs, this sequence represents the “incubation phase” of the creative process, characterized by Guido “[playing] with his materials and [trying] out new combinations” (123). This scene plays out as a fantasy for Guido as he visually constructs a scene using unconscious archetypes; the audience hesitates as the women of his life parade around the set, interacting with each other—one clue which may lead us to believe we are in the fantastic. The spectator sits in suspension and confusion as Guido literally whips the women into a circular formation and asserts his power (as a man but more importantly an artist). This scene guides the audience through the internalized storytelling Guido goes through, which is important in visually guiding the audience through the second step of the creative process. Stubbs finishes his analysis of the sequence by arguing that “this image will eventually give Guido the guiding principle for his movie, and it will give Fellini the image for the ending of 8½” (124).
If we are to assume the harem sequence is a psychological progression within Guido, then it must preclude the possibility of further inequality. Women become slaves of labor and objectify their bodies at Guido’s command, which leads to the assumption that Guido must first ‘get over’ a major hurdle in his life: the incubation phase. Stubbs articulates that “before Guido can get to this moment of insight, he has to modify and even destroy some misleading or false premises and images” (124). These false premises and images involves his unconscious rendering of women from his life trapped in slave labor; in destroying these images, Guido and the audience can successfully move to the third phase: the Eureka! moment.
In guiding the audience through this unconscious rendering of events, the spectator metaphorically becomes Guido. Through the spectator’s point of view of Guido, we complete three of the four steps of the creative process and give meaning to both Guido and the spectator’s lives. Going back to Stubbs, he states that the ending of the film constitutes the Eureka! moment (third step). By extension, the harem sequence is a partial representation of the ending. Where Guido tries to control the women earlier, by the end he let’s go of his control and becomes part of the circle. This ending represents the death of one phase (incubation) while simultaneously becoming the beginning of the movie.
Where does the spectator fit in?
In our masked interpretation of the final events at the unfinished launch pad, the spectator is left to assume Guido has found resolution in his life and therefore can complete this project. This is false. Guido’s subjectivity traps the audience and the only way out involves a completion of the creative process trajectory. According to Stubbs, “what the movie celebrates…is the moment of breakthrough—the ‘Eureka! moment” (129). Where does the spectator go from here to complete the fourth moment: verification? The answer lies in the completion of 8½. By Fellini displaying Guido’s trajectory of the first three phases and disguising it as the story of Guido creating the film, Fellini then verifies the process itself by the completion of 8½. In other words, Guido completes his process of creativity once Fellini finishes the film and releases it to an audience.
At this moment the audience becomes as important in Guido’s life as all other characters in his filmic world. Without the spectator, Guido will forever be stuck at the Eureka! moment, always searching for a verification; thus the spectator verifies Guido.
Conti, Isabella, and William A. McCormack. “Federico Fellini: Artist in Search of Self.” Biography 7, no. 4, (fall 1984), 292-308.
Stubbs, John C. “Fellini’s Portrait of the Artist as Creative Problem Solver.” Cinema Journal 41, no. 4, (summer 2002), 116-130.
Todorov, Tzvetan, and Richard Howard. The Fantastic. Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1973.