8½

★★★★★

"What monstrous presumption to think that others could benefit from the squalid catalog of your mistakes. What do you gain by stringing together the tattered pieces of your life, your vague memories, the faces of those you never could love?"

Autocritical inertia, self-doubt, insecurity; these are all things I know. Guido delays his film shoot two weeks in order to ask for notes on his script from Carini, a film critic and incompatible writing partner, someone who doesn't want to work with him and whose notes are all unconstructively negative.

Carini says his work is pretentious and yet adolescent, portentous and yet lacking in meaning, nothing but overabundant symbolism reaching for ideas that are all too commonplace. This criticism is ostensibly written by the writer character in the film about the director character in the film, but of course it's all really written by Fellini about himself, and, you know, I'm no Fellini, obviously, but I get it.

In the context of 8.5 as at least partially a text about self-knowledge and self-acceptance, there are two relevant observations here that feel almost painfully relatable. Fellini, through Guido and Carini, essentially accuses himself of being (1) overly critical of himself but (2) not in a way that's actually productive — not only critical to a fault, but critical beyond the original virtue of self-criticism — and I just feel that deep in my bones.

Like Guido, I love to read my criticism of myself to my myself, angrily crumple it up and toss it on the ground, and then pick it back up and uncrumple it and read it again. This is why there's so much lag time between when I watch a movie and when I post my reviews: I love to agonize, but if I'm honest with myself, that time agonizing is mostly wasted on unimportant questions and unproductive overthinking.

As human beings, we all feel like we have these great thoughts in our big smart brains, we just can't quite clarify them, we just can't quite get them out. So Guido tries to have his thoughts read by a telepath, but while the magic of the telepathy seems to be real, all the telepath can do is transcribe the nonsense words from Guido's brain: "ASA NISI MASA." There's no clarity here, no meaning or insight gained because the thought still hasn't been translated.

A flashback suggests that "asa nisi masa" is something from Guido's childhood, something a devil says perhaps, something a long-lost crush once told him maybe, and this is simultaneously enlightening and confounding. We do get the sense that Guido is chasing something from his past, some childhood innocence lost or some primordial happiness forgotten, but this gives us no real insight into his creative project, especially when the flashbacks share the artificial, constructed aesthetic of Guido's dreams. Are they really memories, or is this just more fantasy space?

Fantasmatic or not, this space is run through with guilt, which Guido attempts to deconstruct through the lens of Catholicism and Italian "Catholic consciousness." You set out to denounce, Carini says, but you end up an accomplice: Guido attempts to denounce guilt from the perspective of guilt, reinforcing superego in an effort to deconstruct superego, and boy howdy if that isn't something I ever identify with.

I wasn't brought up Catholic, but I also have an overactive superego guilt complex. I have a bad habit of placing moral judgment on my thoughts, and I have an even harder time stopping myself from placing moral judgment on my thoughts without placing moral judgment on my thoughts. In my effort to stop myself from judging myself, I end up judging my judgment; or, in Guido's language, in my effort to stop feeling so guilty, I start feeling guilty about my guilt. I navigate this impasse most successfully with meditation, but even then I often end up only with an awareness of my own moralism, which I also end up moralizing.

I wish I could form some coherent thesis from this jumble of disconnected thoughts, but the nature of self-portrait is itself fundamentally unresolved, because our lives are too complex to be distilled down to a single, clean take-home message, like stop beating yourself up, stop chasing your childhood innocence, just accept yourself for who you are even if you're not all that great, even if it means continuing to beat yourself up, continuing to chase that primordial bliss.

The point is not resolving these impossible conflicts; the point is the conflicts themselves. Our contradictions define us, and I realize that by writing this I am defying my own thesis, I am attempting to resolve the unresolvable self-portrait into a single, clean take-home message, to make order out of chaos, but you, dear reader, simply must accept that contradiction as constitutive of my own character.

"l wish l could explain, but l don't know how. Now everything's all confused once again, like it was before, but this confusion is me, as l am, not as l'd like to be."

1960s | Metacinema | Italy
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