Increasingly, as I find myself without the time (or patience) to watch whole films on DVD, I take 15-20 minutes out to re-discover key scenes from some of my favourite movies. (Further note to the DVD vs VCD debate: this isn’t half as convenient when you don’t have scene access.) It’s surprising how rewarding some scenes can be when viewed in isolation.
One of my recent DVD acquisitions is Federico Fellini’s beautiful 1963 film 8 1/2, a partly autobiographical story about a film director, Guido (played by Marcello Mastroianni) beleaguered by all sorts of distractions (hangers on, commercial dictates, the demanding women in his life) as he tries to maintain his artistic integrity and complete his new film. 8 1/2 has a gallery of great images and scenes, notably the nightmare sequence that opens the movie - Guido frees himself from his car during a claustrophobic traffic jam, flies off into the sky a free bird, and is then pulled down to earth by a press agent and a producer: a lofty-minded artist literally being tethered by mundane considerations.
There’s much else through the lengthof the film, where Guido’s present repeatedly merges with his childhood memories - the use of bold, deliberately exaggerated images convey the effect of his Catholic upbringing on his life, for instance. But my single favourite scene, the one that made the most lasting impression on me when I first saw the film years ago, involves the strange incantation “Asa Nisi Masa”. Around 40 minutes into the story, at a vulgar filmi party, a magician presents a lady with clairvoyant powers and demonstrates her ability to read the thoughts of people. Guido is sceptical but agrees good-naturedly to be put to this mind test. The lady studies him and then writes the words “ASA NISI MASA” on a slate. The magician asks Guido if she’s got it right and Guido, a contemplative half-smile on his face, says a quick “Si” (Yes) and turns away. “But what does it mean?” asks the magician, and Fellini cuts to a brief flashback of Guido’s childhood. “Asa Nisi Masa” is revealed to be a chant the children would utter after being tucked into their beds, a chant with the supposed power to make the eyes of a wall-portrait “come to life”.
The audio commentary (by Fellini’s friend and collaborator Gideon Bachmann) on the DVD helped elucidate the “Asa Nisi Masa” scene for me. On one obvious level, the scene points to a talent the adult Guido believes is rapidly getting away from him: this acclaimed director fears he is losing the art of “making pictures move”. (Fellini himself was in a similar crisis of confidence when making this film.) But there was also a nice bit of trivia about the origin of the strange phrase. The commentary tells us that as a child Fellini and his friends would often create code languages by adding a syllable or two to a sequence of actual words (this game is familiar to many of us as well). “Asa Nisi Masa” was probably formed by adding “sa”, “si” and “sa” to the sounds “aa”, “ni” and “ma” respectively. The word “anima” means soul or life-force and it also carries associations with repressed female characteristics in men, something that’s very relevant to 8 1/2, where the many women in Guido’s life, past and present, continually dominate his thoughts and actions.
Explanations do sometimes take the charm out of these things. Long before I found these analyses, I thought of the “Asa Nisi Masa” scene as a poignant childhood revisitation, a symbol of innocence lost. It made me think of two things: one, Proust’s use of a biscuit (the Madeleine) to evoke memories of an irretrievably lost childhood (somehow, Bourbon biscuits have the same effect on me, making me think of rainy afternoons spent in Bombay in my childhood, peeling away the cream while surreptitiously trying to stick the rest of the biscuit back into the packet); and two, the use of the word “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane as the possible key to Charles Foster Kane’s life.
When he’s working at full steam, Fellini is one of the very few directors with the ability to highlight the areas where cinema has an advantage over literature: the way it provides us a direct, unobstructed view of the connections between images and motifs. 8 1/2, with its many depictions of the links between a man’s past and present, has some of the most powerful images of any film I’ve seen. One of the reasons I wanted to write about it was that a friend looking for DVD suggestions recently asked me if he should include it on his list. Well, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
P.S. Roger Ebert’s review of 8 1/2 is here.