It Just Doesn’t Add Up…
January 14, 2010
8½ (1963) minus thematic, political, tonal and aesthetic interest equals Nine (2009).
Fellini’s critically acclaimed 8½ has experienced a series of adaptations over the years whose final result (to date) can only be described as something akin to a game of Whispers; from silver screen to Italian stage (Mario Fratti) the enigma became a theatrical play, it then found itself rewritten as a novel (Arthur Kopit) which subsequently went on to win a Tony as a piece of musical theatre, and finally, Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella turned it into a screenplay for Rob Marshall to direct under its new guise as Nine.
Having returned to the silver screen, and perhaps for someone who has never had the pleasure of seeing 8½, Nine could pass as a pseudo-smart cinematic musical which centres upon the intriguing character of an aging, increasingly uninspired, maestro who happens also to have a penchant for beautiful women, both because and in spite of which, he suffers a form of filmmaker’s block.
Nine attempts to excuse itself in the very opening sequence of the film through Daniel Day Lewis’ (our Fellini substitute) grand statement, “You kill your film several times, mostly by talking about it.” Here, the filmmakers behind Nine express their fear and loathing for the media and for cinematic critique whereas Fellini’s fear and loathing in 8½ (and I suggest from where its perfect imperfection emanates) was always for himself and his inability to do something so simple (yet cinematically complex) as to tell the truth.
The claustrophobia experienced is at once present in 8½ as the protagonist clambers from his car, traffic jam, road, city, people, life. Desperation is constantly reiterated, his voice, his resolve, “I wanted to make an honest film with no lies. I thought I had something so simple to say. A film that could be useful to everyone.” Of course, 8½ is not without its auteurist gall. Fellini professes to his audience his intention, but it is also his self-reflexive achievement. Certainly at the time of its release it was thought by some to be a work of pure self-indulgence.
Nevertheless, it was, and still is, considered a great work about the inner experience of the tortured artist whose greatest fear of all is failing his social responsibilities. This is where Nine has, through the process of repeated adaptation, departed from its origins and thus its very inspiration. Instead of having the central character bear some semblance of concern for social, political, artistic responsibilities, it characterises him as shallow, concerned primarily with his romantic failings; his films are titled patronisingly (‘Death of Religion’ and ‘Sexual Revolution’ are but two referred to during the press junket) and the musical interludes serve as yet another condescension intended to explain parts of the plot which may be considered confusing to cine-illiterate audiences.
Though questioning the ability of any reproduction of an original artwork to accurately or authentically re-present its original is in many ways a moot point, and indeed the new work ought really to be assessed upon its own merits, however difficult that may be for a purist to swallow.