8½, Fellini The Uncompromising

What is a compromise and how should one go about it? To compromise: a question of morality, practicality, of vanity and pride? Without a doubt, we have all been faced with the possibility – or pressure – to compromise.

Wikisource is generous in providing a 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica definition:

Credits: Wikisource.

Etymologically, the word indeed comes from Medieval Latin and Middle French, and indicates a mutual promise, from com- (“together”) + promittere (“to promise”); here the mutual promise is not intended to be that of a contract where both parties benefit, but rather where both parties must give something up. I suppose this is where an arbiter comes in.

In any case, despite the age of the 1911 Britannica definition, its wisdom is unquestionable when bringing to bear another contemporary use of the word, in computer security: the system has been “compromised”, understood as a “A breach of a computer or network’s rules such that an unauthorized disclosure or loss of sensitive information may have occurred, or the unauthorized disclosure or loss itself”. The meaning of prejudice, concession or surrender implied by the recourse to arbitration originally symbolized by the word has survived and has found use in the technology of this century.

Despite this, compromises have quite a good reputation: whether in legislation, trade or marital affairs, compromise is touted as a remedy against political gridlock, failed transactions or tense households. It seems to somehow lubricate the situation and ease any arising friction which might endanger the relation in question; no one gets exactly what they want, but the problematic situation is allowed to run its course without collapse or rupture. In precisely this sense, compromise is a facilitator par excellence of the status quo, of the inertia preceding the event under contention.

Worthy as this may be of further principled reflection, I was struck by a double impression of uncompromise when I recently discovered Fellini’s Otto e mezzo (8½). Short of analyzing the complex cinematography or the “meta” commentaries of the film on the medium of film (I’m not competent to do that), I want to share the two ways in which, today, the film presents a twice uncompromising position:
1) It does not seek the attention of the viewer by distraction/entertainment (although sometimes it’s very entertaining);
2) The story it develops represents a commentary on the failure/incapacity to compromise.

First: the film provides almost no context, often delves into psychoanalytical dream-sequences, and has no clear plot progression.

One of its most frustrating motifs is the recurrent figure of the movie critic (played by Jean Rougeul) mercilessly highlighting the deficiencies and artistic insufficiency of the movie being elaborated by the movie director. This being in a context depicting “high society” vacationing in some monastery-like institution offering a “drinking cure” to disease or depression, it confers upon the critic’s tirades an almost comical – and certainly satirical – character. Thus, as a movie about movie-making (and movie-commentary) being the object of thinly veiled derision, 8½ is unclear as to the status it confers upon itself: on what grounds does Fellini rely to make his commentaries and to assume this confusing meta-commentary?

The scene immediately preceding the critic’s first commentaries. Credits: Youtube.

The point here is not to answer the question by a heavy analysis of the film but to highlight its existence and the implications of its existence. Imagine any movie out in the last decade, “artsy” or not; imagine your favourite recent movie, that struck you as the most profound, complex or bizarre. Now go see 8½: unless you’re a cinema graduate, I promise you the movie will leave you either stupefied or completely lost. It makes no effort to make itself understood and seems to try its damnest to contradict itself from act to act. This is its first position of “no compromise”: it will seek neither your understanding nor your approval, by being especially incoherent about itself. As a movie with a beginning, middle and end, it’s certainly coherent in its succession of scenes, but the coherence of its subject matter is constantly destabilized by its refusal to clearly state a message, tell a story or give a moral.

This is quite unimaginable today, even by “artsy” standards. The medium of film seems counterpoised to the posture of Fellini’s 8½: it rather would seek compromise from the ambiguity or opacity of art. Whether in box office profitability, in the practice of focus grouping or early screenings (which 8½ actually satirizes!) or in the mobilization of very familiar notions (be they of political, fashionable or economical), film seeks to be seen, to be understood, to be prominent. In this precise sense, are we not driven back to the logic of compromise: to further cement the status quo? The eternal question of the film today seems to be: “how can I present something already known and clear in a new way?” This not only seems like a purely technical question, it highlights a strong antagonistic character: something already known but in a new way.

Second: the story that is presented, from what we as viewers can gather in a fragmented way, is similarly uncompromising in the aspiration it portrays. A famous movie director is having trouble writing his movie, deciding on what roles there are, who should play them and what decoration his scenes should have. The story itself is a gradual, scene-by-scene construction of the culmination of, essentially, a failure to make the film. Of note is the discourse of the director, who towards the end (1h23min mark, discussion with his sister at the spaceship site) states his aim and his failure:

“I thought my ideas were so clear. I wanted to make an honest film. No lies whatsoever. I thought I had something so simple to say. Something useful to everybody. A film to help bury forever all the dead things we carry around inside. Instead, it’s me who lacks the courage to bury anything at all. Now I’m utterly confused, with this tower on my hands. […] Where did I lose my way? I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it anyway.”

Observe the conviction in “No lies whatsoever”; the finality of “bury forever”; the universality of “useful for everybody”; the candour of “I’m utterly confused”; the simplicity of “I really have nothing to say”. Guido makes no compromise in the description of his state of mind and he makes no compromise in the realization of his movie, even if this realization means “failure”. This results in a beautiful contradiction: the definitive failure of Guido’s movie is the definitive success of its uncompromised making. In the final scene of the movie (2h09min, in the car with the critic), the critic sums up the essence of this position: “If we can’t have everything, nothingness is pure perfection”.

The articulation of 1) and 2) also serve as a conclusion on the significance of what has here been argued is Fellini’s twice uncompromising posture. In one sense, we can observe the coherence of the movie IN itself: the form of the movie (confused and hard to follow, sometimes meaningless and decontextualized) fits its content (a confused movie director failing to realize a film of uncompromising ambitions).

In another sense, however, we can look for in 1) what we have found in 2): the contradiction of success in failure. In 1), we had already raised the antagonistic character of compromise in the form of a movie: “trying to present something already known, but in a new, unknown way”; we had spoken here of inertia, of the maintaining of the status quo. By applying 2) to 1), we come to the coherence of the movie FOR itself, by realizing the opposite contradiction: failure as, ultimately, success. A new, unknown way as the result of the failure of presenting something already known. How? Because the failure of presenting something already known is the impossibility of reproducing the status quo: for some reason, the status quo can no longer foster the compromise it needs; maybe it has fostered one too many contradictions. This also clarifies why the movie critic, a figure itself satirized, is the one to express most clearly the lack of compromise: if Fellini puts it into his mouth, maybe it is to underline that the lack of compromise is not a thing good in itself, but for something else.

In the case of Guido, it is the coming to terms with his uncompromising behaviour which makes him assume his life as his own, as himself. To live not simply in himself, but for himself, as he is with his fears and his confusions; as he his, most importantly, uncompromising in his fears and his confusions.

It seems to me that Fellini might be offering, in 8½, his view on the transformation from object, as object in itself, to subject, as object for itself: it’s something to do with compromise.

Feel free to leave your reactions or reflections below, I’m always delighted to receive them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s