Glen Falkenstein explores the similarities between a couple of Oscar winners
“All art is autobiographical… Even if I set out to make a film about a fillet of sole, it would be about me.”
Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini, of 8 ½ fame, liked to make films that said something, about himself, and about film. His post-neorealist, dream-filled, highly-symbolic self-indulgent classic stands as a benchmark for the growing clique of filmmakers who like to watch, and create, films about film.
For Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, fresh of winning Best Director and Best Picture for Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, 8 ½ was clearly more than an inspiration. The films, sharing more than just motifs and similar themes, are cathartic experiments for filmmakers and moviegoers who want more from cinema than a box of popcorn with a beginning, middle and end.
Both open with a man flying, be it Riggan (Michael Keaton) levitating in his dressing room, or Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) drifting though the sky, only to crash into the ocean. Reality interrupts their fantasies when Riggan is required to fulfil the directing duties for his play, while Guido is woken up, still reaching to the sky, by a group asking the popular director about his next movie.
Riggan is stricken by spent popularity from his time as Birdman, a superhero franchise blatantly analogous to Keaton’s Batman notoriety and subsequent obscurity after his two outings as the iconic crusader. 8 ½ chronicles the production of Guido’s latest film and his crisis of conscience about making a movie with profound meaning, while voices around him push him towards a more crowd-pleasing sci-fi, or a love story.
Riggan faces the same dilemma as Guido, with the voice of Birdman pressuring him to embrace his big-budget, commercially successful past, conversely telling his daughter that his Broadway debut is “my chance to finally do some work that actually means something.”
Directing the play is Riggan’s path to critical acclaim, autobiographical in that Birdman itself sought to alter the popular perception of Keaton who through the film achieved modern recognition as a serious, prolific actor.
8 ½, literally the number of films Fellini had completed at that point, was its own autobiographical depiction of Fellini’s struggle to reconcile entertaining the legions of filmgoers, and deliver a meaningful, moralistic project, under pressure to fulfil the instinctual desire to mercilessly expound his own philosophies and seek critical approval. Like its thematic successor, 8 ½ made us question the relationship between morality-driven and aesthetically pleasing film.
A critical voice tells Guido he must “place himself on a far higher cultural level,” and that his “gentle ignorance is utterly negative.” Guido is pressured to make a certain type of film, asking “why do you like stories where nothing ever happens?” Confused and driven to do something meaningful, he later confesses; “I have absolutely nothing to say! But I want to say it anyway.”
In both films critics play a central role, along with the question of their place in the creative industry, challenging both Guido’s and Riggan’s creative visions. Shadowing Guido throughout the film, a highly critical companion tells the director “Our true mission is to sweep away the countless abortions that try obscenely to come into this world… What monstrous presumption to think that others would benefit by your squalid catalogue of mistakes.” A Broadway columnist tells Riggan “You don’t get to come in here and pretend you can write, direct and act in your own propaganda piece,” criticising his attempt to go “legit” and warning she would destroy his play.
Their situations are compounded by industry-types pressuring them to finish their productions; Zach Galifianakis’ character tells Riggan that he has no choice but to continue, while a man tells Guido “You’ll make this film or I’ll ruin you.” Each director, faced with creative suffocation (there are spoilers ahead), bring about the most violent similarity between the two films, two self-inflicted bullets to the head.
Guido can’t handle the critics haranguing him, so he crawls under the table and raises the gun to his head. Riggan replaces his fake gun with a real one for his play’s final scene, pulling the trigger as the audience stands and applauds.
Much has been made of Birdman’s ending – after Riggan shoots himself he wakes up in a hospital, his daughter shows her first true affection for him, everyone’s talking about his play and the papers love him. He climbs out the window and flies away, his daughter looking up at him in admiration. Many believe this is Riggan dreaming and I have to agree – reality ended when Riggan pulled the trigger, the last 10 minutes are pure fantasy and wish fulfilment.
8 ½ doesn’t end with Guido shooting himself either; there’s roughly another 10 minutes where all the film’s characters come together to treat him affectionately and sing and dance with Guido in a big circle. There’s a brief moment on the beach, an old lady looking upwards, calling out to him as the camera drifts slowly up towards the sky. 8 ½ ends with a band marching away, where our final glimpse of the stage where Riggan shot himself is of a marching band facing our hero.
Both endings are pure fantasy – Riggan and Guido have let go of their creative impediments and now exist in a world where their struggles are vindicated and are completely free to literally fly away and pursue their own imaginative course. They are not alone – in Fight Club, Edward Norton’s alter-ego Tyler Durden is dispatched through a self-inflicted shot to the head. The last few moments, watching unaffected as skyscrapers come crashing down, are widely believed to be delusion.
The jellyfish are also there in the final moments of Riggan’s life, having washed up on shore. Like the sea creature that floated on shore in Fellini’s other classic La Dolce Vita, they cannot survive long outside the water and we witness the final moments of their lives. In what for Inarritu was a hyper-symbolic moment in an otherwise largely character-driven satire, the sea creature represents the director’s counterpart having escaped the mass of an ocean of creative suffocation and achieving their long-held desire to express themselves without constraints and have their work lauded. Guido was reaching for the sky as he fell back to the ocean in his dream at the film’s beginning. By its conclusion, he, along with Riggan and his aquatic creation, were able to fly above the sea and achieve even a few brief moments of unbridled creative clarity and success prior to their deaths.
The man who told Guido that ignorance was negative, or that the lack of pursuit of higher intellectual or moralistic reasoning through film would be unwise, was wrong in the eyes of Guido and Riggan. He was also wrong by the standards of Fellini and Inarritu, the latter of whom subtitled his film ‘the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.’ Despite making intellectually-complex films, each ultimately reinforced the widely-held perceptions amongst the film community, for whom these films are deeply cathartic, that creative realisation, absent profiteering, moralising and often baseless criticism, remains the most noble of pursuits.
With both Birdman and 8 ½ lauded with Academy Awards and critical acclaim, Inarritu and Fellini succeeded with powerful creative visions. Tragically, unlike their real-life directors, Guido and Riggan could not manage their success, and had to fly away.