Anouk Aimée, as Lola in Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969), sunglasses against the strong Los Angeles light, was the signature image of this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna’s 27th festival of “retrieved cinema”. Model Shop itself was one of the films presented in a restored version, as last year’s festival had presented Lola (Jacques Demy, 1961), the first appearance of this character. This sense of an ongoing cinematic tradition is an important feature of this festival, at a time when discussions seem to focus only on the digital future of the medium.
Although these discussions frequently ask whether digital is an equal replacement for film, there are many more important issues to be addressed.
Especially when resources are finite, which works from the past should be retrieved, restored, re-presented to today’s audiences? How do we assess the success of restorations? Is a digital restoration the same as a restoration (or projection) on film? Do we need another director’s cut restoration of Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) or Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)?
In 1960, the first edition of the Mostra Internazionale del Cinema Libero took place at Poretta Terme, conceived as a festival for the best of innovative and independent cinema, an alternative to the commercial glamour of the Venice Film Festival. This later grew into Il Cinema Ritrovato, and its birth was marked at this year’s Festival by a programming strand that highlighted several works that matched this “cinema libero” ideal, “films that have attempted to excavate new ground, often never seeing the light of day or soon forgotten films that remain true to their spirit of innovation of discovery.” (1)
Two films in this section make different points about the importance of cinema’s heritage. And because it has been the most neglected I want to give pride of place to Lettre à la prison (Letter to Prison, Marc Scialom, 1969-70). Scialom is Jewish Italian of Tuscan origin, born in Tunis (1934) and a naturalised French citizen. His film is defiantly outside the mainstream, and made no commercial impact on its release. In introducing his film, Scialom said Chris Marker gave no support to the work because it was not political enough.
Taher’s brother has been arrested in Paris for murder, an arrest that would appear to be based simply on his race. Taher has reached Marseilles from Tunisia, en route to give support to his brother. The film has the flow of a letter being composed in the mind, with images that might be flashbacks to real or imagined ideas of events, or what he’s actually seeing and experiencing in Marseilles at the moment. Themes of colonialism and post-colonialism, race and racial identity, and family concern meld and flow in stark black and white images. (Near the end colour breaks enigmatically into several moments.) Since its desultory original release, the film had languished with the filmmaker, almost being junked when he needed to clean house, but saved by the curiosity of his daughter who was interested in seeing what her father had once made. This was a film that wormed its way into my mind, throwing up thoughts, ideas, emotions that came across as a deeply personal expression of one person’s consciousness. It alone makes a strong argument for continually reviewing the legacy of cinema’s past.
Agnès Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1955) was presented in a magnificent restoration also carried out by Bologna’s L’Immagine Ritrovato film laboratory. This was another film vastly overlooked and underrated at the time of its first release, though it didn’t need rescuing in quite the same way as Scialom’s film. (It is for example available on DVD in several markets). Varda’s debut was the start of a prolific and rich career, and La Pointe Courte can be seen as a possible influence on other important filmmakers.
The film intermingles two separate threads. The first is a study of a relationship that has reached a critical point in its survival. Formally composed images capture the tension between the two when they visit his childhood village of La Pointe Courte. In these scenes Varda’s response to the technical limitations at the time with direct sound record result in a mood that seems to anticipate Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959, which was also screened in Bologna in a lustrous restoration) as well as many of the subsequent French New Wave films. Resnais, in fact, was the editor for La Pointe Courte. The other thread of the film has the neo-realist feel of a documentary, with locals playing roles developed from their lives and experiences. It is an observation of the small fishing village, also at a critical stage in its survival. This section is imbued with Varda’s rapport with people of all backgrounds, a quality that would become evident in the many documentaries she has made since this debut. (ii)
Several other films in the Cinema Libero strand were reminders that the history of Cinema is not just American or European, and that films from only a couple of generations back need preservation. Lino Brocka’s Maynila Se Mga Kuko Ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Light, 1975) is an important film in Brocka’s prolific career, and one that reputedly had a big social impact in the Philippines, articulating for many their worries about the regime of Ferdinand Marcos. If I found it more interesting as a social document than a great piece of cinema, there is no denying the impact of many sequences such as the opening scenes of the boy finding work on a construction site when he comes to the big city looking for his girlfriend who has been trafficked into prostitution.
Ragbar (Downpour, Bahram Bayzaie, 1971) was another film rescued from a desperate condition with the original negative having been either impounded or destroyed by the Iranian government but now viewable in a beautiful restoration. It is a strong social critique of Iranian society at the time, but far less satisfying as a film. A story manipulated to make points, and performances that do not come to life blunt its impact, and belie the sophistication that we would come to see in Iranian films within a few years.
Also from the political turbulence of the seventies was Avoir vingt ans dans les Aurès (To Be Twenty in the Aures, René Vautier, 1971). A restrained recreation of life for a group of reluctant or resistant conscripts sent to fight in Algeria, it captures the slow destruction of ideals, integrity and humanity for the twenty year olds of the title. The film radiates with the intense light of Algeria in a beautifully restored print from the Cinémathèque Française.
In 2012 one of the highlights of Bologna was the strand, Japan Speaks Out, exploring films from the period of Japan’s transition from silent cinema to talkies. This year’s instalment, sub-titled Singers and Swordsmen looked at films from several of Japan’s main studios of the thirties, reflecting the regular commercial production of the period. Horoyoi Jinse: Horoyoi Jinsei (Tipsy Life, Sotoji Kimura, 1933) is generally regarded as Japan’s first true musical, and like many musicals is a somewhat contrived confection, with its excuses for the musical numbers, or turns for the comedy team. Ongaku Eiga: Hyakumannin No Gassho (Chorus of a Million Voices, Atsuo Tomioka, 1935) is more imaginative in its filming, if not its story of a composer and his poet friend who have a falling out, characters who provide more than enough cues for the lively musical numbers. Both musicals were interesting for the way they reveal the strong influence of the Hollywood musical of the era, including several songs we can recall from the American songbook of the period.
Of the directors represented in this program, only Mikio Naruse is well known outside Japan, and for many films made later in his career. When he made Futurizuma: Tsuma You Bara No Yo Ni (Wife Be Like a Rose) and Sakasu Gonigumi (Five Men From the Circus), both in 1935, Naruse already had over twenty credits in his filmography. Five Men From the Circus is rather exuberant in its story of a group of itinerant musicians who join a circus in a small country village. Naruse’s camerawork and editing is highly mobile, but it feels like a contractual job, without the emotional warmth, insight or intensity that we have come to expect from later works.
Or indeed that we see in Wife Be Like a Rose. Two families revolve around a man who is a bit of a dreamer. It might be tempting to call him a loser, but then, if he is not an achiever, Naruse shows us that he really has a quite satisfying life, having left his high achieving wife and daughter quite some years ago and started a second family. Yet, though he has this pivotal role in the story, our focus is on the daughter who wants her father “back where he belongs”. During the film, she has to grow into a deeper, more beautiful understanding and acceptance of human nature, beyond the restrictive mores of society.
A documentary entry in this strand provided an intriguing insight into political attitudes in Japan before the Pacific War. Sekido Koete (Across the Equator, Eiji Tsuburay, 1936) is a feature-length documentary following two naval training vessels on a voyage around Indochina, Malaya, Australia, Hawaii and the South Pacific. There are many scenes exploiting “local colour” for the Japanese audience, but the commentary reinforces economic and political issues. In Australia, for example, the naval cadets may go to horse races and visit Captain Cook’s Cottage, but the commentary informs us of the White Australia Policy that keeps Japanese out of Australia, as well as the very unequal balance of trade.
Across the Equator is an interesting case of a film which was not lost, but which certainly needed retrieving. An English subtitled print has apparently been in the holdings of the Japan Film Center for quite a few years, but it has not been not widely available (or made available) to cinémathèques, festivals and film scholars. It is an important document of its era, historically and politically, and a clear example of the significant material that exists on film and must be preserved and available.
Another film in the Japanese strand highlighted an essential issue in the presentation of “retrieved” films. With much of the current debate limited only to “digital vs film”, the actual “quality” of either the digital copy or the film copy can be overlooked. Film is not inherently superior to digital. There are films that either only exist or are only preserved on copies that are themselves copies of copies, perhaps generations down. Sadao Yamanaka’s Kochimaya Soshun (1936) was screened in a film print that was so compromised by repeated duplication that characters were unrecognisable, and the narrative almost impossible to follow. Fortunately, a better version is available on DVD in a recent release from UK label, Masters of Cinema, The Complete (Existing) Films of Sadao Yamanaka.
A related presentational issue was raised by another programming strand, Emulsion Matters: Orwo and Nová Vina (1963-1968).”Film” has never been an unchanging quality, but a manufactured photochemical product, whose variations can result in a whole range of aesthetic and expressive qualities. With colour, western audiences have known some of the major laboratories – such as Technicolor, or Eastmancolor – and the look of some of the cheaper “in house” processes, such as Trucolor, used in Republic’s Johnny Guitar, (Nicholas Ray, 1954). In the Cold War era, Eastern Europe did not have access to some of the major Western colour stocks, and instead used local stock such as Sovcolor and Orwo Color, both variations of Agfacolor, produced in East Germany. This was highlighted in a selection of East European films that used these different stocks. Film restorers must be sensitive to the original qualities of the different film stocks, and processes, and not to “over-restore” so that all restored films come out looking like bland characterless images.
Dáma na Kolejích (Lady on the Tracks, Ladislav Rychman, 1966) was a Czechoslovak film made in Orwo Color. Clearly influenced by the mood and colour palette of Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964) this was a social realist musical whose lead is a tram driver who asserts her independence after (imagining) seeing her husband with another woman. But it does not have the richness or depth of Demy’s film, either in the quality of the music and story, or in the film stock and camera equipment available to the filmmakers. It is moderately diverting, but also depressing to think that Eastern European audiences of that period were served up clearly didactic material for their entertainment.
In recent years Bologna has highlighted the career of a Hollywood veteran who generally has straddled the silent and sound era. In the last two years, Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh were in the spotlight, with some of their better-known, more accessible films being enriched by other, little known works generally from the silent part of their careers. This year, Allan Dwan (1885-1981) was the focus, a director credited with over 400 films as director. This includes well over 250 shorts in the first four years of a career that started in 1911.
His professionalism clearly grew with the new film industry. In the 1920s, he was occasionally the director of choice for major stars such as Douglas Fairbanks (including the famous, spectacular Robin Hood, 1922) and Gloria Swanson. His final film was Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961) made 50 years after his first films.
At his best, Dwan is certainly an effective filmmaker, but from the selection of his films that I saw, I don’t think the case is made that Dwan is a major auteur. Two films illustrate this. In Manhandled (1924), Gloria Swanson is a poor little shop girl who samples the high life, until she finds it empty and returns to the true love and honesty of the working boy from her own social group. In East Side, West Side (1927) George O’Brien is a poor working class man of obscure parentage, who gets the chance to sample the high life, but finds it empty and returns to the true love of the girl from his working class background.
Both films have strong individual scenes. In Manhandled there are two comedic set pieces, deftly directed and edited. In one, Swanson rides the subway, buffeted and squeezed by the crowds of commuters. When she reaches work, she has to cope with the rampaging hordes of shoppers in the bargain basement where she works. In East Side West Side, George O’Brien’s childhood home, a barge, is rammed and sinks in a very effective opening scene, and O’Brien (fresh from Murnau’s Sunrise) is a cohesive lead figure.
But neither film has the quality of a satisfyingly unified drama, of events arising naturally out of the characters and their situations. Rather, each is a series of set pieces and events, plot incidents devised to work well at particular moments in each film’s ongoing momentum. In both, the lead character finds happiness by returning to their first love after a flirtation with the social elite.
However, though this first love is, like our protagonist, a genuine down-to-earth person, the relationship is now made possible because one of the characters has “climbed the social ladder”, and in both films, the couples will have privileged lifestyles, Swanson’s beau is now rich because he’s sold a patent, O’Brien accepts the inheritance that allows him to support his original sweetheart. There is no sense that Dwan has any awareness of the irony of these endings that owe more to fantasy than to real life.
From much later in his career, The Inside Story (1948) is a curious film. Told as a flashback to the Depression years, its moral (and it is a film clearly intended to provide us with a moral) overtly points out the advantages of keeping money circulating, rather than having it sit in a bank deposit box. Its creation of a mythical middle American Small Town is entertaining, with a representative collection of easily recognisable stock characters. But a quick glance back only two years to Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) illustrates the limitations to Dwan’s talent. The Inside Story is entertaining, but there is no sense of any real insight into characters or social situations, or of a strong, creative personality shaping the material from a personal relationship with that material.
I did not see all the Dwan films screened at Bologna, and what was on offer was clearly only a selection from such a prolific career. But at this stage, to me the case is still open on whether he really is an important director.
Sometimes the danger to the preservation of a work can lie not with the ravages of time and technology but with the original creator. All areas of creativity – music, literature, art – have stories of instructions being left for certain works to be destroyed after their maker’s death, and of an estate’s executor ignoring those commands. In introducing one screening of several early works by Chris Marker, Florence Dauman, daughter of Marker’s frequent producer Anatole Dauman, said that the filmmaker had not wanted many of his early films preserved. Fortunately his wishes were ignored.
However, he may have still wished some control over how they were presented. For English-speaking viewers Dimanche á Pekin (Sunday in Peking, 1956) and Lettre de Sibérie (Letter from Siberia, 1958) both suffered from an ear-phone commentary that was often several beats behind the film, and destroyed the important soundtrack ambience and atmosphere so important in a Marker film. These problems were less damaging in a real Marker oddity. Olympia 52¸(1952), a film covering the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki is the earliest film in Marker’s filmography. Much of it is hardly typical of the Chris Marker known for so many original film essays and politically angled documentaries. The opening sequence takes us around a pre-Olympics Helsinki and does have the “Marker” feel, as we see a somewhat somnolent city before the sports circus arrives.
But then the Games begin, and most of what happens is just dull. We miss the viewpoints common in today’s sports coverage, and most of the outcomes have faded in any importance. It concentrates almost exclusively on the Track and Field events and undue time is given to French competitors. However, it is a filmmaker’s first work, where he surely gained important experience in filming in the field, capturing real people as they go about their lives, here whether as competitors or spectators.
Cinema’s past is a very rich tradition, and Bologna mines this each year. I have not mentioned all the films I saw, and then there were so many more that I was not able to include in my schedule. If not all films are masterpieces, if not all screenings do full justice to the films, if sometimes restorations have lost or distorted important technical qualities of a film, at the very least Bologna reminds us that there are still enormous treasures in this tradition, and we can be grateful to those researchers, archivists, restorers and programmers who are responsible for Il Cinema Ritrovato.
Il Cinema Ritrovato
29 June – 6 July 2013
Festival website: http://www.cinetecadibologna.it/