Some friends asked me about Federico Fellini‘s 1963 film 8 1/2. Fellini often used Marcello Mastroianni as his alter ego, and this film is about Fellini/Marcello having a crisis of creativity – as I remember it – and so Fellini/Marcello goes to a spa, and while at the spa, his fantasy and imagination take flight – and often concentrates on women, dream women, glamorous women, dominatrix type women, phallic women (endowed with power), and caricatures of women from his past, even from his childhood, and dreamed women – as when he has a sort of harem – so in a sort of circus-like atmosphere Fellini/Marcello’s fancy or mind or obsessions take flight – the circus music and images are omnipresent – and the satiric edge also emerges, in the quick portraits of film people, and priests and prelates, and the images, often, are very playful vignettes, cartoons almost. Fellini began his career, if I remember correctly, as a cartoonist – and so you have a parade of flashes of memory and desire with Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Rossella Falk, Barbara Steele, Madeleine Lebeau, Caterina Boratto, and many others, some of the great female stars of the time. Fellini, like many creative creatures, never grew up. He was an eternal adolescent, still searching for the dream – the dream woman, the dream life. Rome at the time, in the early and mid-1960s, was Hollywood on the Tiber, churning out hundreds of features a year, and it was a wacky and wild place. I have not seen the film in a long time. I don’t think 8 1/2 (Otto e mezzo) has a coherent narrative – it’s more like a wacky, surreal poem, a mood, a dream trip.
I once sat next to Barbara Steele, then the Queen of Italian horror films, during an outdoor dinner at a big wooden table outside on a pebbled terrace in front of an empty but grandiose villa on a hilltop not far from Rome. I don’t know why I was there. I don’t think I knew at the time why I was there. It was sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. It was a sultry stormy night, warm gusts threatening rain. All the surfaces were damp and glittered. The umbrella pines stood like dark, whispering ghosts. The wind came in from the sea. I didn’t know anybody. So I talked to Barbara Steele. She said she didn’t know anybody and she didn’t know why she was there. This happened often in Rome in those days. You just found yourself somewhere, having no idea where you were or why, or how. She had the most remarkable eyes. We all drank too much. Later – the transition is nonexistent – I found myself inside the echoing empty spaces of the villa – all marble, huge windows, no furniture anywhere – with a film director I didn’t know and with Barbara Steele, and there was a naked young woman who seemed to be upset about something vague and who wandered from room to room. We offered her something to cover her, but she was not interested. She wanted to talk about philosophy, as I remember it – Nietzsche and people like that. The film director seemed to be in love with her but unable to express his love, or so he told me. He was hypnotized by the young woman as she moved around – she was very graceful, like a dancer, flitting from room to room, appearing, disappearing. Then, without me remembering how I got there, I was sitting outside at the table, now abandoned, with the film director, under the hot pouring rain, discussing something obscure about alienation in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Barbara Steele had disappeared. This was rather anticlimactic. The director, an overweight fellow with short curly hair, was a very tortured fellow and kept circling around the same questions again and again and then coming back to the subject of the girl and how she was difficult and brilliant and beautiful and cruel and sadistic and … and … And the naked young woman, who was French, I remember, had disappeared, which, I felt, was a shame.