Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8 ½ celebrates its 50th anniversary this week, which means that on some level, a particularly meta- kind of cinema also celebrates its 50th anniversary this week. In case you don’t know, the movie is about a Fellini-like director (played by Marcello Mastroianni) struggling with a creative block and a host of romantic and existential neuroses. (Cute story: The title refers to the fact that it would be Fellini’s eight-and-a-half-th film; he’d made six features, and three collaborative films which he counted as halves.) And it landed like an earthquake on the international film scene in 1963; unlike many other now classics (Vertigo, Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, etc.), 8 ½ was acclaimed by audiences and critics alike right out of the gate. In fact, its influence has never let up. To give you an idea of how pervasive that influence is, here’s our list of eight things that (probably) wouldn’t exist without 8 ½.
1. These Great Movies: All That Jazz, Stardust Memories, The Big Picture, Day for Night, I’m Not There
8 ½ wasn’t the first film about filmmaking: Preston Sturges had gone there with Sullivan’s Travels, Vincente Minnelli with The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town, Dziga Vertov with Man With a Movie Camera, and Joseph von Sternberg with The Last Command, just to name a few. (And in the same year that Fellini released 8 ½, Jean-Luc Godard released the seminal Contempt.) But Fellini’s film was the first to combine the kind of playful self-reflectiveness and directly confessional quality that many later films about filmmaking and creative neuroses also captured. Sometimes, the influence is more pervasive: Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories are practically overt remakes, while Christopher Guest’s The Big Picture and Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night are more just lovingly influenced. And I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’s meta-meta Bob Dylan biopic, is only partially about filmmaking, but it’s replete with direct references to 8 ½. (Honorable mention: Martin Scorsese’s early student film It’s Not Just You, Murray, which basically ends the same way as Fellini’s film.)
2. These Not-So-Great Movies: Nine, Falling Down, My Life’s in Turnaround, CQ
Just because your movie shares some conceptual DNA with Fellini’s masterpiece doesn’t mean it’s going to be good. Take Nine — Rob Marshall’s disastrous, star-studded attempt to film what by all accounts was an excellent stage musical. But onscreen, it came off like a film that had taken all the wrong lessons from Fellini’s work: fetishizing locale and setting instead of finding a way to express the creator’s existential and romantic angst through form. Other much-lesser films have riffed on 8 ½ in one way or another. Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down quotes Fellini’s celebrated opening traffic jam sequence. Roman Coppola’s CQ is a cornucopia of references to sixties movies, chief among them 8 ½ and Jim McBride’s David Holtzman’s Diary (which is itself a kind of riff on 8 ½, come to think of it), but the references just serve to remind viewers of all the better movies that CQ is not.
3. R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” Video
Is it the best R.E.M. song? Who knows? But it’s one of their best videos, and it’s basically an entire riff on 8 ½’s opening dream sequence:
4. Charlie Kaufman
A film within a film about the making of a film, which is the very film we’re watching, and which reveals its creator’s own neuroses through the very act of its making, which is in fact the very act of its not being made. Sound familiar? Indeed, the elaborate, hall-of-mirrors quality of 8 ½’s has fed pretty much all of Charlie Kaufman’s work — from Being John Malkovich to Adaptation to, ultimately, Synecdoche, New York (which at times feels like Kaufman’s own remake of 8 ½). Amazingly, the writer-director once claimed to have never even seen 8 ½. But that may be irrelevant, since 8 ½’s influence is so culturally pervasive that one need not have seen it to be influenced by it — or, in Kaufman’s case, to have been practically willed into existence by it.
5. The Dance Scene From Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino likes to talk about the importance of Jean-Luc Godard, and particularly Band of Outsiders, on his film. But take a look at this comparison of the twist scene from Fellini’s film and the twist scene between John Travolta and Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction:
6. Terry Gilliam and David Lynch, Filmmakers
Unlike Charlie Kauffman, Gilliam and Lynch have definitely seen 8 ½; the former even introduces the Criterion Collection edition of the film and has quoted it repeatedly in his work. But perhaps most important, Gilliam and Lynch, maybe more than any other filmmakers, owe a massive debt to Fellini, and in particular this film, with its constant meshing of dream and reality, its comic flights of surreal fancy, its unrepentantly massive scale and ambition, and (of course) its grotesquerie, which sometimes borders on the horrific. It’s also worth noting that Gilliam, like Fellini, started off as a cartoonist. Which brings us to …
7. The Serio-Comic Art Film
Before filming 8 ½, Fellini taped a piece of paper to his camera that reminded him to make sure his movie was funny. And while there had been plenty of great, important comedies with great, important themes on their minds before Fellini’s came along — everything from the work of Charlie Chaplin to that of Jean Renoir to Jacques Tati to Frank Tashlin — 8 ½ was something genuinely new to most moviegoers. It was a film that relied on dream sequences, heavy symbols, Jungian imagery — stuff that was usually the domain of the avant-garde and the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni — but it did so while also being very, very funny. That a film could do all this, and still be wildly successful with audiences and critics, was a downright revolutionary idea. As such, 8 ½ may well have done more to fuel filmmaking in the sixties and seventies, than perhaps any other movie, save maybe Godard’s Breathless.
8. The Final Scene of Tim Burton’s Big Fish
Even those of us who don’t like Big Fish (and we are legion) can’t hold back the tears at the end of this rather un–Tim Burton–like Tim Burton film, in which a dying, tall-tale-telling father is shown all the people he’s known (or pretended to have known) throughout his life by his son. I mean, I swear to God, I’m crying right now just thinking about the amazing final scene of this (terrible) movie. Watch it yourself: