1-9 July, 2006
Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato stands alone among the world’s film festivals for the quality and breadth of classic and little-known titles it presents. A third of its offerings are drawn from the silent era, all shown with live musical accompaniment. Another strand of the Bologna program features wide-screen films projected in the Arlecchino Theater, a venue designed in the 1950s specifically to showcase movies produced in this then-novel aspect ratio. Other themes taken up in the 2006 festival included Cold War movies from both sides of the Iron Curtain, and the oeuvres of the Italian auteur Alberto Lattuada and the American star William S. Hart. A thoughtfully curated look at the cinema of 1906 was another highlight of the 20th edition of the festival, as were screenings of silent masterpieces like Ernst Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925) and Victor Sjöström’s Terje Vigen (1917). Lubitsch’s elegant silent comedy was screened in Bologna’s baroque Theatro Communale accompanied by a full orchestra performing a new score by conductor Timothy Brock. The experience of seeing Terje Vigen was equally memorable. Sjöström’s subtle portrait of human suffering envisioned against the background of an unforgiving natural world was projected on a giant outdoor screen in the Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s historic central square, with a live performance of Matti Bye’s haunting score.
A theme of particular interest in the 2006 Bologna program was that of women and the cinema. The research activity this topic has generated in recent years among scholars of early film has been centered on Jane Gaines’ “Women Film Pioneers” project, which seeks to document the contributions women have made to movie history (1) The Cinema Ritrovato festival, for its part, focused on three female artists of the silent era, each of whom exercised a decisive influence over the shape of cinema as we know it today: Loïe Fuller, originator of the various serpentine dances that found their way into many of the earliest films; Sarah Bernhardt, the stage diva whose Les Amours de la Reine Elisabeth (Queen Elizabeth, Louis Mercanton and Henri Desfontaines, 1912) brought a new middle-class audience to the cinema; and Germaine Dulac, whose radical theories and avant-garde film practice anticipated the direction taken by such later independent moviemakers as Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage. Bologna offered other examples of women’s ability to create screen entertainment as well, including a handful of films from the sound era in which female stars were placed front and centre.
The saga of women in film that unfolded before us in Bologna began even before the movies themselves existed. Loïe Fuller premiered her innovative serpentine dance in New York in 1892, just before the birth of cinema. Her performances celebrated, among other things, a new sense of physical freedom for women that reached its fruition in the relaxed middle-class dress styles of the flapper era (2). Fuller’s flowing white costumes, often manipulated by long poles, drew spectators’ attention to her unfettered movements. During her stage routines, many-coloured electric lights flashing against a black background enhanced the spectacle of her soaring gestures. By the turn of the century Fuller was growing too old to perform herself, so the numerous short films shown in Bologna, ably curated by Massimo Piovensana, featured an assortment of her acolytes and imitators. Nonetheless, the crucial elements of the famous dancer’s stage performances were preserved intact in the one-reelers we saw, including the effect of multicoloured lights, which was typically obtained by hand-colouring the frames (3).
Like Fuller, Sarah Bernhardt was aging as cinema was reaching its maturity, and the films in which she appeared reflect the physical limitations her advancing years placed on her. Though the first film on the Bologna program, Le Duel d’Hamlet (Clément Maurice, 1900), revealed the celebrated actress dressed in tights, still lithe and active at age 56, subsequent productions, like La Dame aux camélias (André Calmettes and Henri Pouctal, 1911) and Les Amours de la Reine Elisabeth show a different figure, static, overdressed and over-made-up, relying on exaggerated postures and arm movements better suited to stage tableau than to moving pictures. Bernhardt’s histrionic performance style is of a piece with the productions’ theatrical sets, their reliance on an immobile camera set in the middle distance, and their heavy use of intertitles to explain and anticipate the action. To make matters worse, by the time she made the contemporary melodrama Jeanne Doré (Louis Mercanton and René Hervil, 1916) Bernhardt had lost a leg. Playing the role of a long-suffering wife and mother in this, one of her last films, she performed her scenes swathed in figure-concealing clothing, scarcely moving the lower part of her body. The program notes prepared by series curator Victoria Duckett seek to ameliorate the impression of staginess Bernhardt’s films create by emphasising the gender play at work in Le Duel d’Hamlet and the Art Nouveau influence on La Dame aux camélias. Duckett is especially impressed by Bernhardt’s predilection for creating arabesque motifs with her costumes and movements, a device that links her not only to Art Nouveau but to Loïe Fuller’s serpentine dances (4). Duckett’s forthcoming book on Bernhardt and film promises to deliver an expanded version of these arguments, which may well inspire those of us in Bologna who remained unimpressed with Bernhardt’s cinematic achievements to revise our view of her.
In contrast to Bernhardt’s theatrical cinema, Germaine Dulac, whose work was also featured in the Bologna program, focused on film’s difference from the other arts. She advocated what she called a cinéma pur. In her writings and lectures, Dulac defined this purity in terms of the movies’ ability to capture reality through movement, rhythm and light. By reality, Dulac meant both the reality of the visible world and the reality of the inner life; this dualistic definition meant that she was comfortable making both non-narrative avant-garde productions and documentary-like newsreels. Long known primarily through her three avant-garde classics, La Fête Espanole (1920), La Souriante Madame Beudet (1923) and Le Coquille et le clergyman (1928), Dulac actually made scores of films of all types. Thanks to the efforts of curator Tami Williams, the Cinema Ritrovato program included more than a dozen of those that survive.
Dulac believed that cinema could invest nature with new immediacy and meaning, a conviction illustrated in her more abstract films through shots of moving water and time-lapse visions of flowers opening their petals. To offer viewers an arresting view of the natural world, she also experimented with specially made lenses, rhyming images, and innovative special effects. Several of the avant-garde productions in which Dulac’s theories were put to the test were part of the Bologna program including Disque 957, Étude cinématographique sur un arabesque and Thèmes et variations, all made in 1929 (5).
Many of us who viewed the selection of Dulac’s work made available at Bologna were most taken with her six-part serial Gossette, released in 1923. In Gossette the filmmaker applied her radical theories to a popular genre of the day, adapting some of her most daring new techniques to illuminate the interior states of stock characters rather than to provide a novel vision of the exterior world. The eponymous heroine of Gossette is a poor young orphan girl who is taken under the wing of the noble Phillipe. But, as is the way with such stories, Phillipe is soon put at risk himself, falsely accused of murder. As one would expect, many daring adventures follow, some set in a picturesque carnival, others in sumptuous mansions.
In Gossette, as in the work of Loïe Fuller and Sarah Bernhardt, the drama is centered on images of bodies. Extreme close-ups of faces devoid of artificial-looking make-up are frequently joined together by means of eyeline matches that convey either apprehensive recognition or moments of communion based on shared knowledge or feelings. Close-ups of hands clasped in fellowship or engaged in greedy grasping motions also heighten the story’s emotional pitch by signalling characters’ desires, goals, and fears. Sequences depicting dreams, mental pictures and drug-induced hallucinations feature distorted and phantasmagorical visions of bodies that abandon the principle of verisimilitude to reveal what is going on inside of people’s heads. At such moments Dulac employs innovative techniques such as soft focus, shadows and double exposures as a means of enabling her audience to participate in the imaginative lives of important characters.
To see the generous sampling of Dulac’s work that was shown in Bologna is inevitably to confront the question of how far her oeuvre can be said to emanate from a distinctively female sensibility. In her writings, Dulac frequently espoused avowedly feminist stances. And, like Fuller, she was gay. Scholars like Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, Richard Abel and Susan Hayward have confronted the question of Dulac’s femininity in terms of how she used eyeline matches in a manner that implicitly questioned the convention of men gazing at women’s bodies that has always dominated mainstream narrative filmmaking (6). But, taken as a whole, the films on display in Bologna (many of which have been virtually impossible to see in the past) did not suggest in any obvious way that Dulac was atypical in her manipulation of the male gaze. Moreover, the plots of the Dulac films we saw are tentative in highlighting female agency. For example, though Gossette is named for a female character, the true hero of the tale is Phillipe; Gossette herself functions mainly as an object of the hero’s beneficence and the villain’s lechery rather than someone who initiates action herself. And though another of Dulac’s fiction films, Âme d’ artiste (The Soul of the Artist, 1925), features an independent actress, the tragic figure of the artist who is the hero of the story is male.
Tom Gunning takes a somewhat different tack in approaching the feminine core of Dulac’s sensibility by pointing to her “sensuous abstraction, [and] fascination with nature, rhythm, [and] generative energy.” (7) Gunning is careful to qualify his conclusion by stressing the fact that Dulac, like other women filmmakers, worked from a position within society and history rather than from a sensibility that grew out of her genetic makeup as a female. However, to limit oneself to Dulac’s experimental films as Gunning does is to take an unnecessarily narrow view of her art. Having access to the broad cross section of her work on display in Bologna introduced those of us in the audience to the range of Dulac’s output. Her work is not easily pigeonholed.
The difficulty of assessing the distinctively feminine aspect of any woman’s films and the even more knotty task of defining what this quality might consist of remains a troubling question; it was not solved at the 2006 Cinema Ritrovato festival. However, the Bologna program did remind us that whatever contributions women made to movie culture of the past have largely been forgotten by subsequent film history. In part this historical erasure is a result of the fact that women, more than men, tended to work collaboratively. And they often neglected to take appropriate credit for work done with others. Accustomed to the practice of relinquishing their names when they married, women frequently discounted the importance of putting their names on the front roles of Hollywood productions. The screenwriter/editor/studio executive June Mathis, whose work was also represented in Bologna, is a good case in point. Hailed in contemporary accounts as one of the most powerful women in Hollywood during the late teens and early twenties, this prolific woman filmmaker is all-but-unknown today. In part this is due to the fact that Mathis received no official credit on many of the productions she had a hand in and was only credited as a collaborator on many others (8).
Mathis’ most enduring accomplishment is that she discovered and nurtured Rudolph Valentino. Valentino himself gave his female Svengali full credit for crafting his star image. She was on the set constantly during Valentino’s first productions The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Conquering Power (1921) and Blood and Sand (1922), supervising the star’s performances and much else – though posterity has minimised her role in relation to that of the titular directors of these films, Rex Ingram (Horsemen and Power) and Fred Niblo (Blood).
The Bologna festival screened a newly discovered Mathis-Ingram collaboration, Hearts Are Trumps, released in 1920 just before The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Starring the exquisite Alice Terry (Ingram’s wife), the production boasts lavish sets and costumes along with delicately etched images rendered by cinematographer John F. Seitz. As was often the case with Mathis, her role as screenwriter consisted of adapting the film’s story from a popular British play of the day. Full of melodramatic claptrap about European aristocrats, gambling addictions, clandestine marriages, vile seducers, and attempted abductions, the plot of Hearts Are Trumps is designed to appeal to female audiences. Mathis had previously proven herself adept at gratifying this public and would continue to develop the tastes of female moviegoers with her introduction of the Valentino Latin lover type immediately afterwards.
As the Bologna program demonstrated, women were major players in film culture during its infancy. But by the early 1930s, they had largely disappeared from the industry, particularly in the United States. A number of explanations have been advanced to explain this change. The costs of converting the movie business to sound coupled with the declining audiences of the Depression era drove Hollywood into the arms of Wall Street, and big business did not operate by promoting receptionists to creative and executive positions as had often happened in the earlier, more freewheeling days of moviedom. Moreover, the wave of unionisation that swept over Hollywood during this period favoured men. The sole woman member of the Directors Guild of America when it was formed in the mid-1930s was Dorothy Arzner; no other woman became a member until Ida Lupino joined in the late 1940s.
But if women’s participation behind the scenes was drastically cut back with the coming of sound, they continued to flourish in front of the camera. A number of the films screened at the Cinema Ritrovato festival featured some of Hollywood’s most intriguing female stars, including Carmen Miranda, Marilyn Monroe and Shirley MacLaine. Seeing their films in tandem brought out the way in which mainstream movies have traditionally used women’s bodies to make statements about ethnicity and class. Yet curiously enough, in the films on view at Bologna such statements are repeatedly put in quotation marks. In each case, a cloud of ambiguities muddies the message contained in the star’s persona, allowing audiences of the day to read the images these women projected as stereotypes and at the same time to deny that such stereotypes actually existed.
Carmen Miranda enacts just such a double role in The Gang’s All Here, a 1943 Busby Berkeley musical in support of the “Good Neighbor” policy that then governed relations between the US and Latin America. It was screened as part of Bologna’s Cold War series. Miranda’s part in Berkeley’s delicious confection alternates rococo musical interludes deliriously choreographed in super-saturated Technicolor with dialogue-heavy scenes in which the star’s hilarious Malapropisms are seen to conceal a benign shrewdness. (Miranda once asserted, “Best I know ten English words: men, men, men, men, and monee, monee, monee, monee, monee, monee.” (9)) Because the movie’s plot does not allow her a major romantic entanglement, Miranda is free to act as an autonomous agent. Her role is best described as a modern variant of the venerable clever servant character of classical drama; she takes control of the plot at key moments to insure a happy ending for all. Miranda is a walking (or wiggling) hyperbole, clad in over-the-top outfits that cast her as a parody of tropicalism. (One of her numbers includes the lyric “Why do people say that I look like a Christmas tree?”) Yet she comes across not so much as someone trapped in a stereotype as someone playing with the stereotype for the audience’s amusement.
The obverse of Miranda’s witty ethnic masquerade was on offer at Bologna as well in Marilyn Monroe’s impersonation of white upper-class desirability in There’s No Business Like Show Business (Walter Lang, 1954). As this production amply demonstrates, the sexuality Monroe so assiduously marketed throughout her career masked more disturbing racial and class-related connotations contained in her image. From her fake-looking platinum-blonde dye job to the all-white outfits in which she was frequently clad, Monroe invariably appeared to be “puttin’ on the Ritz” – aspiring to an upper-class WASP identity that she was not quite at home with (10). Even when her films did not feature the star as a character pretending to be upper class, Monroe’s arch, overly articulated, yet somehow childlike manner of speaking presented her as a naïve social climber, someone who tries too hard to be respectable.
In There’s No Business Like Show Business Monroe’s character, Vicky, is introduced as someone acting the part of a refined lady. In the course of the story, Vicky changes her demeanour as easily as she might change an outfit, and even changes her surname from the Jewish-sounding Hoffman to the more Anglo Parker. Fox cast Monroe opposite Ethel Merman, the “Battleship of Broadway” whose clarion tones and expansive grin were designed to play to the last row of the balcony. To be sure, Monroe’s breathy utterances and insinuating poses were used in part to show the sense of intimacy a real movie star could convey in contrast to Merman’s brassy theatricality. But in 2006 the sexual style of this quintessentially ’50s love goddess appears dated. At the Bologna screening of Show Business it was the way in which Monroe’s portrait of a not-quite-with-it social parvenu was set against Merman’s confident working-class persona that drew my attention. But here again, as in the case of Carmen Miranda, the star stereotype comes across as a bit of a put-on, a façade.
There is nothing put-on about Shirley MacLaine’s portrait of a lower-class floozy in Some Came Running (1958), which was also screened at the Cinema Ritrovato festival as part of a retrospective devoted to Vincente Minnelli’s wide-screen productions. In a shamelessly all-out performance that won her an Oscar nomination, MacLaine throws herself into the character of Ginnie, Frank Sinatra’s clinging girlfriend, with feckless abandon. Though it’s hard to swallow Sinatra in the role of an important literary talent or Martha Hyer as a tightly-wound University professor who can’t bring herself to marry him, MacLaine’s sluttish Ginnie feels like the real thing. The actress’ high-pitched whine and ill-kempt hair confirm Ginnie’s low place on the social totem pole, as do her caked-on makeup and flashy clothes. But what is most striking about MacLaine’s role is the way in which the director Vincente Minnelli ultimately manages to defuse the classist implications contained in the film’s story by shifting the focus away from Ginnie herself to propose a more abstract vision of social status. The movie’s final scene is set in a carnival, where Sinatra’s aspiring writer character, Dave Hirsh, has taken Ginnie after their quickie marriage. In this celebrated set-piece, with its flashing multicoloured lights and long, sweeping camera movements, Minnelli manages to dispense with Ginnie herself even as her giddy presence reasserts itself through in the garish hues and grating sounds of the carnival as a whole. It’s not people who are vulgar, the movie seems to say, it’s the world itself. And you have only to immerse yourself in this vulgarity to find a kind of rapturous beauty – not by marrying someone like Ginnie but by celebrating the aesthetic splendour of a travelling circus, perhaps by writing about it, perhaps by making a movie about it. Minnelli thus crafts a safe conclusion that finesses the dangerous theme of class struggle. But his pyrotechnics are not quite powerful enough to wipe away the pathos of MacLaine’s unlovely social victim.
Since the 1950s, women’s participation in the movie industry has continued to decline, especially in Hollywood. Until 1960 about half of moviedom’s most popular stars were female, but by 2006 there were no women at all among the top ten moneymakers (11). Behind the scenes as well, women are not thriving in the new millennium: Premiere magazine’s 2006 Hollywood Power List includes only two females in the top 50 (12). Why the change? We may never know. In the meantime, the Bologna program offered those of us who attended an opportunity not only to revisit some of the triumphs scored by women filmmakers of the past but also to hear a roundtable discussion, organised and moderated by Marianne Lewinsky, which addressed the issues these women brought to the fore. Next year the Cinema Ritrovato festival promises to feature more women filmmakers. One highlight will be a tribute to the great silent actress Asta Nielsen, who will be the subject of a planned retrospective curated by Heidi Schlüpmann. For some of us, this prospect in itself is reason enough to return.
- For more information on the Women Film Pioneers Projects, see http://www.duke.edu/literature/wfp/.
- For an extended discussion of the ways in which women’s new sense of physical freedom was manifest in popular film during the 1920s, see Lori Landay, “The Flapper Film: Comedy, Dance, and Jazz Age Kinaesthetics” in Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra (eds), A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2002, pp. 221-50.
- Tom Gunning’s recent article on Loïe Fuller and Germaine Dulac emphasises a different aspect of Fuller’s achievement than I do here, focusing on the similarities between her performances and the emerging phenomenon of cinema. Gunning points in particular to the dancer’s use of the then-new technology of electric lighting, her emphasis on movement, and her oneiric black backgrounds. See Tom Gunning, “Light, Motion, Cinema! The Heritage of Loïe Fuller and Germaine Dulac”, Framework, vol 46 no. 1, spring 2005, pp. 106-29.
- Victoria Duckett, “Performing Passions: Sarah Bernhardt and the Silent Screen”, Il Cinema Ritrovato Program Book, Cineteca Bologna, Bologna, 2006, pp. 55-60.
- Gunning’s essay contains extended readings of the first two of these avant-garde films.
- Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, To Desire Differently: Feminism and the French Cinema, Columbia University Press, New York, 1996, pp. 47-140; Richard Abel, French Cinema: The First Wave, 1915-1929, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1984, pp. 340-44 et passim; Susan Hayward, French National Cinema, Routledge, New York, 1993, pp. 109-11.
- Gunning, p. 125. Gunning’s argument recasts a similar case made by Pam Cook about the affinity between women and avant-garde filmmaking practices. See Cook’s essay, “The Point of Self-Expression in Avant-Garde Film” in John Caughie (ed.), Theories of Authorship, British Film Institute, London, 1981, pp. 271-81. The relationship of women to experimental filmmaking is also discussed at length in Jean Petrolle and Virginia Wright Wexman (eds), Women and Experimental Filmmaking, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2002.
- The best summary of Mathis’ career is in Thomas J. Slater, “June Mathis: A Woman Who Spoke Through Silents”, Griffithiana, vol. 18 no. 53, May 1995, pp. 133-55. Slater’s article includes an extensive filmography and bibliography.
- Quoted in Ana M. Lopez, “Are All Latins From Manhattan? Hollywood, Ethnography, and Cultural Colonialism” in Lester D. Friedman (ed.), Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1991, p. 423.
- For a discussion of the constructed nature of whiteness in all of Western art, see Richard Dyer, White, Routledge, New York, 1997.
- For a statistical ranking of the top Hollywood stars from 1965-2006, see “Looking for Some New Mega-Stars”, The New York Times, 27 August, 2006, Sec. 4, p. 3.
- Premiere, June, 2006.