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Fascinating and highly-influential masterpiece • Muenzinger Auditorium

8½

Slightly less mysterious yet no less evocative was Fellini’s working title for the film, “La Bella Confusione,” or “The Beautiful Confusion.” Fellini is a virtuoso of controlled chaos, and 8½ is an exhilarating meditation on artistic inspiration, uncertainty, and creative paralysis.

The film sets in motion a dizzying spiral of vignettes that both thwart and allude to the commercial cinema’s tradition of straightforward, invisible storytelling. Plot elements proceed not logically but metaphorically, suspense is suspended in favor of digression, and the resolution that caps the film is emotional rather than explanatory. Narrative becomes an act of autobiographic examination in which cohesiveness is tossed to the wind like a handful of confetti: vivid snippets of visions, dreams, fantasies, memories, and even actuality collide in a kaleidoscopic interplay of elements which dazzle and illuminate. 8½ is narcissism in a fun-house mirror.

Ostensibly, 8½ is about a filmmaker’s attempt to develop and shoot, and the eventual abandonment of the very movie that is unfolding before our eyes. Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroainni) has checked into a fashionable health spa in an effort to restore his physical well being, sanity, and artistic powers. The curative mineral waters and therapeutic mud baths do little to cure Guido of his ailments, however, as he is suffocated by an escalating series of personal entanglements, professional obligations, looming deadlines, and the expectation that he “create something significant on demand.” Producers tell him his film is hopeless and without meaning, actors decry the absence of full-bodied roles or a completed script, a restless production team awaits firm direction, while wife (Anouk Aimee) and mistress (Sandra Milo) compete for his ever-fractured affections and attention. Money has been spent, sets stand dormant, actors fret and pace, and no film is in sight.

How can an artist juggle fidelity to his own vision and the necessary dependence on external factors? The collaborative process has bogged down into a confrontational one in which Guido must gingerly tread a minefield of financial pressure, fragile egos, wounded feelings, and a frenzied onslaught of agents, journalists, and hangers-on. How can an artist be true to himself when self-examination is perceived as a betrayal of everyone else around him, and creativity is denounced as an excuse for lies, deception, and self-delusion? Lucidity is snuffed out by confusion, and the screen goes dark.

The miracle of 8½ is that its depiction of personal and artistic exhaustion is in itself one of the most exhilarating and effervescent films in the history of cinema. Every scene has the visceral power of a hallucination: the traffic jam that opens the film in which every windshield is a stalled projection of erotic frustration and fulfillment, entrapment and escape; a procession of nebulous, shrouded figures descending into a cavernous sauna that resembles the misty rings of Dante’s Hell; “La Saraghina’s” lurid dance on the beach, offering a first glimpse of sex to eager schoolboys with her flabby undulations; the harem revolt in which Guido’s collection of women, both imaginary and real, rises up in protest against the man who both imagined and distorted them; and the final scene of affirmation, purification and atonement, where all of the characters in the film, reunited under Guido’s baton and dressed in white, join hands in a circular dance around a circus ring.

Contrary to the negative assessment of one of the film’s characters, the film is not a pastiche of “gratuitous episodes” without meaning. While perhaps an attempt by Fellini to pre-empt criticism of his own film, this comment fails to see that each segment, while seemingly disconnected, is linked to the next in a fluid overlapping of transitions which take the form of disrupted visions, triggered memories, or misperceptions. Themes and images develop, converge, and dissolve in a torrential stream of self-consciousness.

No less disconcerting than narrative discontinuity are the ever-shifting modalities of perception and consciousness. Reality and fantasy are not mutually exclusive states in which one negates the other; life itself is played like a script, twists of fate follow the whim of the script writer, chance and spontaneity might not be anything more than premeditated contrivance. Dreams, memory, and fantasy infuse reality and contribute substantially to artistic inspiration. Repetition creates its own déjà vu. Characters portrayed in the film later reappear as different actors auditioning for the roles we’ve already seen; settings are revealed to be sets; Guido’s unfinished film ends up to be 8½ itself: albeit beautifully fashioned, meticulous, and complete.

— B. Patty, MovieHabit.com

Wed October 13, 2010, 7:00 only, Muenzinger Auditorium

Italy, 1963, Italian, BW, 138 min, NR, 35mm, 1.85:1 • official site

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