Federico Fellini was flummoxed. After the international acclaim that followed La Dolce Vita, he was unsure what to do next. What emerged from his creative restlessness and confusion was 8½ (1963), a sprightly mix of Jungian dream, flashback, and nuts-and-bolts "let's make a movie" procedural shaped by his own raw autobiography (the title tallies the six features and three shorts – or "halves" – that came prior). What Fellini couldn't have known then was that 8½ would influence multiple generations of filmmakers, many of whom were similarly confounded by a starburst of early success and the crippling stress of high expectations that followed. 8½ may be an intensely personal work, but its truths are universal: It can be brutalizing, isolating work, making art – but what comfort in knowing others are just as embattled.
The latest Austin Film Society Essential Cinema series, guest-curated by yours truly, opens with 8½ and is followed by four films that further riff on creative block, frequently in direct homage to Fellini's film: Paul Mazursky's sweet, strange, hippie-in-Hollywood fantasia Alex in Wonderland (1970), a box office failure that (by the director's own estimation) put the final nail in ailing MGM's coffin; Woody Allen's black-and-white, bleak, kind-of comedy Stardust Memories (1980); Bob Fosse's surreal song-and-dancer, All That Jazz (1979), which I've alternately – affectionately! – come to think of as So Much Dexedrine; and writer Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York (2008), about a playwright who struggles for decades to produce a single, definitive work of art. They're all wonderfully weird movies, death-obsessed (all but one include the lead's death, either real or fantasized) and admirably upfront about what torture it is, trying to wrestle the wild imagination into neatly ordered words on a page, into pictures on a screen.
May 1: 8½ (D: Federico Fellini)
May 8: Alex in Wonderland (D: Paul Mazursky)
May 15: Stardust Memories (D: Woody Allen)
May 22: All That Jazz (D: Bob Fosse)
May 29: Synecdoche, New York (D: Charlie Kaufman)
Series runs Thursdays, 7:30pm, throughout May at the Marchesa Theatre (6226 Middle Fiskville). $8 general admission; $5 for students and AFS Make and Watch members; free admission for AFS Love and Premiere members.
A version of this story previously appeared on the Austin Film Society's website (www.austinfilm.org).
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