Double Feature: Fractions of Art and Mind (8½ & 9½ Weeks)
"Yes, here it is. 9½ Weeks with Mickey Rourke. It’s in our Erotic Dramas section."
In Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World, a patron is looking for a copy of Federico Fellini’s celebrated film about making films, 8½. The clerk’s response is perfectly polite and also completely ignorant – 9½ Weeks is essentially the original Fifty Shades of Gray, a psychosexual drama about a man and a woman in an S&M relationship. The scene is a perfect example of how American kitsch culture appropriates both decades and art forms without reverence. The joke here being that 8½ is “obviously” art, where 9½ Weeks is a comparatively low cultural item. It also feels like a condemnation of American culture in general, both in not immediately recognizing the films of Federico Fellini and perhaps in our assumption to classify 8½ as high art strictly because of its reputation and/or subtitles.
Funny enough, in a twist that feels like a Felliniesque inversion, 9½ Weeks was extremely successful in Fellini's home country of Italy upon its 1986 release. Yet back home in America it was largely dismissed, considered a brethren to misogynistic Joe Eszterhas/Paul Verhoeven movies. Both Time and the Los Angeles Times cast 9½ Weeks as “silly” drivel, while The New York Times and The Boston Globe bemoaned its restraint considering its R rating. I decided I needed to compare these two for myself and so I decided to watch 8½ and 9½ Weeks back-to-back. I was surprised to find that both movies had more in common than their sequential titles; they’re both approaches to art-making about approaching art-making.
8½ and 9½ Weeks are united through a unique sensuality that pervades each film. Both films open on scenes of abundant amounts of smoke. 9½ Weeks introduces protagonist Elizabeth (Kim Basinger) as she walks through New York City, the first of many times the movie will use its industrial backdrop and ancillary actors (often people of color) to enrich its proceedings. Similarly, 8½ begins with smoke billowing from a car during a troubling anxiety dream that protagonist Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) is having. The smoke is a perfect metaphor, both films feature main characters who are trying to find their way through the mazes of their own minds.
8½ is about the process of making meaning through art, and was titled so for its place in Fellini's own filmography. Guido is a struggling director who's unsure of how to proceed with his latest work, a possible sci-fi movie. Although huge pieces of the rocket ship set have already been erected, Guido is impotent to act on the script. All the while, he is being edited by an omnipresent film critic, prodded by his producer, a cardinal, journalists, the public, some guy who asks him questions about Marxism, and a veritable “harem” of Guido’s various female dalliances. His inability to commit to one path is reflected in 8½’s meandering surrealistic structure. The intention is to delve beneath the surface of “art,” portrayed most literally in a scene where Guido tips head-first into a pile of headshots that are sitting on his bed.
Where 8½ is all about Guido falling through that thin façade of headshots, trying to distill the circus of his life into one artistic truth, the name 9½ Weeks speaks to the brevity of an affair. Elizabeth, who works at an art gallery, is seduced by a stock broker named John (Mickey Rourke) who brings her on a sadomasochistic journey of heightened sexual response. The film is all at once intensely sexual and restrained. The infamous “food scene” in which John feeds closed-eyed Elizabeth strawberries, tomatoes, Vick’s cough syrup, and quivering gelatin, among other foods, feels like a conscious celebration of the sensual and the visceral – exactly what 8 ½ seeks to dive beneath. While art is a prominent feature in 9 ½ Weeks, there is even a dinner party scene with a critic present, director Adrian Lyne seems much less interested in talking about it directly as he is in showing the importance of capturing a moment or feeling through art.
The one artist in 9½ Weeks is a painter named Farnsworth (Dwight Weist). After struggling to sell Farnworth’s art, Elizabeth later visits him as he’s wrangling a fish he’s caught. She compliments him on his ability to “capture a moment.” This fish appears later, cooked for Farnsworth’s gallery opening, now a symbol of the lurid affair that occurs after Elizabeth’s relationship with John has soured. 9½ Weeks speaks to the beauty of brevity; Elizabeth finds agency when she cuts off her increasingly coercive relationship with John but still preserves what she has found beneficial about it. The film’s use of S&M is inherent to its message about living in the moment, deriving pleasure from a moment of passing pain.
It’s also, unfortunately, an extremely toxic relationship that poorly depicts a lifestyle that could otherwise be both healthy and consensual. There are no scenes of negotiation and no discussion of safe words (or safe sex). At times, Lyne even uses horror movie style lighting and music. Though 8½ also indulges in some equally dangerous gender politics inherent in male fantasy, with its dream sequence of Guido keeping an actual harem of his female admirers and conquests.
In the writing of this article I found it extremely difficult to track down a copy of 9½ Weeks, and very easy to find 8½. Yet after my double feature, I realized these two films aren’t really as far apart as one might initially presume. 8½ is a treatise on the makings of art, while 9½ Weeks commits the crime of trying to be art itself. 8½’s outstanding camerawork and directing are undeniable, with its sweeping pans that were both innovative for 1963 and have been replicated dozens of times since. 9½ Weeks in comparison, also visually striking in its own way, ultimately looks and feels like a 1980’s music video. But 9½ Weeks is noteworthy in that it strives to become art through evocative and sensual shots of food, smoke, sex, and New York City culture. The resulting appropriation forms a continuum between the thoughtful self-flagellation of 8½ and the complete detachment of Ghost World.