8 1/2 (Fellini, 1963) and 12 Years a Slave (McQueen, 2013)

I watched 8 1/2 for the first time in probably about 8 years today.  It’s amazing to me that some people still write this film off as a bunch of images surrounding an empty idea.  Call it what you will, but this thing is beautiful and one of those films that deserves its reputation.

One thing that I really like about the film is the contrast.  So many images rely very heavily on pure white and pure black, and not in any ‘good vs. evil’ way, but more so to lend a simultaneous air of elegance and surrealism.  Here’s a random one that I happened to jump to:

Picture 1

I also quite like the shot because of the unorthodox framing and Mastroianni’s overwhelming coolness.

One of Fellini’s main strategies in here is to start in a wide-shot and then abruptly bring someone or something into the foreground.  We see it throughout the film.  Here’s an example:

Picture 2 Picture 3 Picture 4

It’s pretty jarring when you first see it – like someone’s intruded on what seemed to be a settled image.  Here’s another one:

Picture 5 Picture 6 Picture 7 Picture 8 Picture 9

I like this one for another reason.  Fellini starts in POV.  Those first two shots begin a dolly in to the table.  The third shot confirms the POV when the hand comes into frame (i.e. the owner of the hand is the camera/eyes).  But then the camera lingers, as though maintaining the POV and the character walks off to the left (shot #4, above), and behind (shot #5).  It endows the camera with a life that’s different from, say, Antonioni’s use of the false POV in Blowup.  8 1/2 is really “about” the camera and images, and here Fellini stresses that.

I love the ending to this scene, one of many fantastical sequences.  Here, Fellini uses the atmosphere of the steam to great, otherwordly effect.  As the scene comes to a close the camera dollies away and out of an open window, which closes behind it:

Picture 10 Picture 11 Picture 12 Picture 13

I get two images in my head when watching the above sequence.  The first, is the pretty obvious equation of the window to a curtain.  It’s all pretty theatrical.  But I also get the obsequious image of someone deferentially backing away from a person of import.  Both work in here, as Fellini, the camera, and the audience, slowly back away from the Cardinal talking reverently about religious ideas that are at once irrelevant to Mastroianni’s Guido’s work, and perhaps only in Fellini’s memory of his upbringing and not his current (1963) mindset.

Here’s another great, somewhat random image.  Those lens flares, like mushroom shrouds atop the lights, stress the eeriness of the large spaceship-like structure in the background.  Any cinematographer’s out there know what lens/light/etc combination would produce those type of flares?

Picture 14

12 Years a Slave

I fully recognize that Steve McQueen may be a great director.  12 Years a Slave is harrowing, features pretty great performances, and has some beautifully orchestrated jumps in time.

Still, my favorite McQueen work is Hunger.  I found it to be his most visually and temporally bold.  Oddly, I actually agree with James Franco about Shame in this pretty ridiculous, and otherwise annoyingly written VICE PIECE.

While it’s difficult to argue against 12 Years as an effective, affecting piece of cinema (it’s not an argument I claim), I’m not too impressed with the Hollywood treatment.  Hans Zimmer’s score is brutally bad, blaring in unnecessarily and dictating emotion that’s already on-screen.  If there’s a large-scale film that screams to have no non-diegetic music, it’s this one.  Scenes that rely on sourced sound are easily the most successful in here (see and listen to that disturbing wide-shot where Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) struggles to stand in the mud with nothing holding him up but a noose around his neck).

Similarly, though Ejiofor’s performance is very good and will surely garner some awards, he doesn’t have all that much to do that’s active.  His best moment comes when he tries to convince a white man, Armsby (Garrett Dillahunt) to mail a letter for him so that he can garner his freedom.  It’s a great moment, full of desperation and reluctant hope.  It’s also one of the few times in the film that Ejiofor really has anything to work with besides relatively static anger and despair.

I love some of the time cuts in here.  The ending, though uplifting in its way, saves itself some potential clumsiness by avoiding a suspenseful build to Solomon’s eventual fate; instead, it’s presented rather abruptly.  The strategy really works (it’s not the only sudden time cut in the film) to bypass cheap emotion and thrills, and also to present time in a unique way: it’s not that the temporal ellipsis indicates that time has passed rapidly, as would often be the case, but very nearly the opposite: that time has passed redundantly and the event that interrupts its cyclical march is what unexpectedly comes into the narrative.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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