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Through the looking glass

8 ½
Directed by Federico Fellini
Babae sa Bubungang Lata
(Woman on a Tin Roof)
Directed by Mario O’Hara

(Plotlines of both 8 1/2 and Woman on a Tin Roof discussed in  detail.)

Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963) is one of the most gorgeous black-and-white films ever made, not to mention one of the most influential: it’s inspired at least one terribly expensive (and terrible, period) musical (Rob Marshall’s Nine), one great dance musical (Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz), a royal flush of filmmakers (Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, David Lynch, among many many others). If I admire it I admire it for the way the camera —  like its protagonist filmmaker Guido — dances nimbly past all the men and women in his (its) life attempting to lay claim to his (its) attention. It’s a heady swirl of delicate Prosecco and robust Chianti —  of the elusively enigmatic and appealingly intimate, of the immediately personal and yearningly metaphysical.

Easy to point out what I think is the film’s central flaw, or vice, or sin: a monumental misogynistic sense of self. Famed film director Guido (Marcelo Mastroianni at his slyest, as Fellini’s alter ego), suffers from a mental block —  he’s in charge of a major motion picture production, and doesn’t know what to do, prevaricating while people surround him, expecting guidance. His mistress Carla (Sandra Milo, Fellini’s real-life paramour) teases him, his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee as a more glamorous Giulietta Masina) torments him. Invectives are hurled from all sides: he’s naive, arrogant, pretentious, confused —  a liar, a hypocrite, a man incapable of love.

Guido’s all that, yet gets away scot free because he’s so charmingly upfront about his faults and so successful —  so far (like Fellini he’s done six features and three shorts, is struggling with his eighth). The arguably most emblematic scene in the picture is the fantasy sequence involving the women in Guido’s life, from Carla and Luisa to Guido’s own mother to a handful of actresses and showgirls, including the formidable La Saraghina, a beachside prostitute who looms large in his childhood. They baby him and bathe him and —  at one point —  rebel against him; he cracks his whip and commands them to behave.

It’s a hilarious scene because it both realizes and parodies man’s ultimate fantasy: to possess a harem of exotic creatures one can barely control. Also revelatory because you can’t help but suspect Fellini favors realization over parody, that the film is more self-defense than autocritique —  when in the finale the director delivers an impassioned speech it’s a privileged moment: everyone must pause to listen. Luisa, all understanding now where before she has nothing but resentment, steps forward to grant her blessing.

Luisa’s tangled relationship with her husband and its hurried resolution gives the game away: their scenes together have an acrimony found nowhere else. Luisa also comes across as the film’s only adult —  she can’t be fooled or distracted, she knows her husband too well. Guido is not just angry, he’s intimidated —  he hasn’t an idea how to handle her. Would pulling out a gun and holding it to one’s own head have changed her mind so easily? Wouldn’t she just tell him, quietly: “Go ahead pull the trigger, you’re only doing me and everyone else a favor”? Or would Guido —  sorry, Fellini —  pull out his pencil instead, scratch out a few lines of dialogue, scribble in a new ending?

Guido’s real fault, Fellini seems to want to tell us, isn’t that he’s flawed —  everyone’s flawed, it’s a given of human nature —  but that he’s become tiresome about it. Luisa apparently isn’t angry because Guido is unfaithful; she’s angry because he can’t be bothered to put up a spirited defense. Guido sulks not because Luisa is such a nag, but because his alibis sound so lame —  he lacks the ingenuity and wit to come up with anything amusing, much less credible. Now that he’s literally touched bottom, curled into a fetal position beneath a long table, he can crawl out and start anew —  be inventive when lying to Luisa again, dance nimbly past everyone’s grasp again, produce films that delight and inspire again. He —  thanks to this film —  can be Fellini again, only twice as tall and larger than life, the width depth breadth of his magic depicted with some of the most divine filmmaking this side of God, the benediction of cinephiles and critics and fellow filmmakers (and wife) lubricating his way forward now and forever amen.

Mario O’Hara’s Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof, 1998) couldn’t be more different: a threadbare little film partly based on a one-act play by Agapito Joaquin, shot in 10 days for $62,500, the film follows the lives not of big names —  stars or filmmaker —  but the little people: the stuntmen who leap and tumble for your delight; the billboard artists who sketch famous faces across building-sized canvases; the aspiring writers dreaming of their words spoken from the big screen; the character actors whose faces you can’t forget, with names you can’t quite remember. Yes, it’s about “the magic of movies,” but this is magic done not with elaborate sets and fabulist imagery but with drawn faces and haunted memories, with real-life stories lightly fictionalized and simply presented. O’Hara uses the paucity of his production to suggest the look of a film made by the very people the film is about, as if the raggedy cast and crew stepped forward from behind the whirring camera to tell their raggedy story.

I’ve seen and enjoyed many films about films; few are as free of ego as O’Hara’s. His focus is entirely on characters that traditionally play supporting roles, here seizing center stage with an intensity only a chance of a lifetime can inspire. O’Hara pays special attention to Nitoy (Frank Rivera) and Amapola (Anita Linda) —  Nitoy has amassed a collection of celebrities’ pictures (the better to paint their likenesses), and is blessed —  or cursed if you like —  with a photographic memory of every face he’s idolized. Amapola does Nitoy one better: she is cinema, her memories not secondhand anecdotes or yellowing photographs but direct experiences, vividly remembered.

In fact the direction of the gaze is what I submit marks the two films. Fellini’s is pointed mostly inwards, at his memories, his neuroses, his yearnings to create great art (the latter concept being his sole concession to the importance of something other than himself); O’Hara’s looks outwards and backwards, at the cinema that once was (and has since vanished), at the industry that surrounds him now, mercenary and predatory and unforgivingly, unforgivably hardscrabble.

In 8 1/2 the protagonist-hero is the auteur-director, struggling to find his voice in the midst of the cacophony that is a film set; in this film he’s top predator, dropping in on the set long enough to demand loyalty from cast and crew, perhaps a little sex on the side. Producers are granted the opportunity to leer at a naked Maldo (Mike Magat) while plotting his future at the expense of another (prettyboi Eric, played by Renzo Cruz). Movie stars? Mentioned mostly in passing, their faces quietly worshipped —  divine beings whose actual presences are out of reach for this picture’s budget.

How does O’Hara’s film compare with the rest of the genre? Off the top of my head Sunset Boulevard is a noirish if more conventional take on filmmaking — a writer’s take I’d argue; not a big fan, though it’s fiendishly entertaining. Ditto Sullivan’s Travels (which I find more thoughtful and like much better). Bigger fan still of In a Lonely Place, which reveals itself to be an insider look at not just the industry but also the three leads (Grahame, Bogart, Ray). Day for Night anticipates O’Hara’s anecdotal, gossipy form; he admits to loving the picture. Contempt is very fine, is probably Godard’s greatest achievement in classical narrative filmmaking (arguably it’s his only work in classical narrative filmmaking). The Stunt Man is more metaphysically playful — is closer if not quite on the level of 8 1/2, with a raucous humor all its own. Kaagaz ke Phool shares Bubungang Lata’s melodramatic soul, though it (as do the others) focuses on the auteur filmmaker.

The film’s finale is simplicity itself —  Nitoy in his room, thumbing through what may be his most treasured photo album —  but as in Fellini’s work we feel as if we’ve traveled through years and miles and worlds (this one, the previous, the next) to arrive at this particular juncture, drive home this particular point: that little people have feelings too. Little people suffer, perhaps not as grandly and perhaps not with as much style, but their suffering can be comparably intense, and the simplicity of their suffering —  like the simplicity of this film —  can represent a kind of visual style.

Not saying 8 1/2 is necessarily the lesser film or overrated —  it’s an established classic. But Bubungang Lata does something Fellini’s masterpiece doesn’t: redirect one’s gaze towards the folks haunting the margins of the silver screen, and in such a graceful, understated, unassuming manner the very gesture feels quietly heroic. Yes, by all means see 8 ½   or if you already have, see it again, and bask (again) in its monochrome glory —  but if you ever get the chance, see this too, a gem that deserves wider attention.

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