For 30 years, Bologna has been the home of Retrieved Cinema – Il Cinema Ritrovato. That idea of “retrieving” cinema is what makes this annual gathering of critics, archivists, restorers and ordinary film lovers from around the world so special.
With a claimed almost 500 films in eight days, that’s a lot of retrieving. At the festival, there were cases of films that had almost vanished because of physical deterioration, and hours and hours – even years – had been involved in restoring them to life. Others had been forgotten over the years, or didn’t get the attention they deserved when new, mouldering in cupboards and under beds. Some of the oldest films were the shortest – such as strips of Lumière film, a strip of celluloid 17 meters long, and lasting 50 seconds. One of these was the now iconic La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory) which was part of the first séance of cinema on December 28, 1895.
For all of these films, Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato makes the simple claim: Films matter.
With the schedule organised into 19 different programming strands it was frustratingly impossible to explore (or even sample) all sections. One strand I did follow was An Alternate History of Argentine Film. The curator was Edgardo Cozarinsky, the 77 year-old writer and filmmaker. In his introductions he stressed that the selections were not necessarily works from the official canon of Argentine cinema. As he writes, in his selection,
This ‘alternate history’ of Argentine film does not present celebrated films, the quality of which is unquestionable…This selection brings to the foreground works unknown outside their country of origin and sometimes even unknown to idle commentators in the field… there are no politics or folklore. As is often the case, when Big Issues are not the focus they appear with unexpected eloquence that sheds light on a society like Argentina torn between ambitious cosmopolitism and certain pride about its isolation. 1
These films don’t appear in those histories of world cinema where American cinema often seems the only one that has a history. But it is clear that the influence of Hollywood is not far distant from these Argentine films.
Más allá del Olvido (Beyond Oblivion¸ Hugo del Carril, 1955) was a surging romantic melodrama, wallowing in its extravagant period setting, the Gothic house where a bereaved husband retreats when his wife dies. Then he returns from an overseas trip with a new wife who he then sets out to refashion into a replica of his first wife. There are hints of Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944), and Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), even Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944) with the portrait over the fireplace of the dead wife dominating so many scenes. But its connections go back further, to a novel written by Georges Rodenbach in 1892 which had been turned into an opera, Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who would become one of Hollywood’s great composers. Beyond Oblivion does well by this pedigree, delighting in the indulgence of romantic overstatement.
The provenance of Si muero antes de despertar (If I Die Before I Wake, Carlos Hugo Christensen, 1952) also links it with Hollywood. Its source is a story by William Irish, a nom-de-plume used by Cornell Woolrich, who scripted or was the source material for over 100 films and TV episodes including Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954) and The Bride Wore Black (François Truffaut, 1968). A prologue tells us that this will be a story about purity and innocence overcoming evil even if the power balance looks impossible. Here, innocence is a ten year-old boy who senses that a girl in his class is being groomed by a would-be molester. Because she swears him to secrecy he can’t tell any adults, even when she is found murdered. The prologue has made it clear that this is not going to be a psychological or sociological study, but a direct morality tale. And it is no weaker because of that. Perhaps the first half is not quite convincing in its picture of children at school, but the second half with the boy tracking the abductor through the night is effectively suspenseful, shadows and silence working on our nerves in the cinema. This makes you curious to see more of Christensen’s work, which includes one film from the same novel that Chabrol adapted for Que la bête meure (This Man Must Die, 1969).
But one film should have been American through and through. How it came to be Argentine is a curious tale. Richard Wright was an American writer, whose novel Native Son was published in 1940. It was one of the first novels written by a black writer to explore the extent and impact of racism in contemporary America. Its protagonist Bigger Thomas commits several appalling crimes, and is put on trial for these. The novel does not excuse the crimes, but makes clear the extent to which the real cause of his offending is the racism, and prejudice that he encounters at every turn in his life.
The book had a big impact on publication, and is still the subject of attempts to ban it from schools in the USA. It was a best seller, a Book of the Month selection, and a play version was directed on stage by Orson Welles. Its dramatic story, with violent action, family drama and love should have been a certainty for Hollywood. But no doubt Hollywood was scared because its characters were black, and its politics were too overtly of the left.
So it came to be filmed in Argentina, under French-born director Pierre Chenal, as Sangre Negra (1950). Some location shots were filmed in Chicago, but most of the film was made in Buenos Aires in English. The author, Richard Wright himself, played Bigger Thomas. His presence in the film no doubt ensured that the film remained true to his angry picture of racism. But sadly the film remains little more than a curiosity. The black and white photography is strong, dappled lights and shadows giving it a very film noir look. But the acting is uneven – Wright is effective as his lead character, except he was already 40 and Bigger Thomas was just 20. Other performances are less satisfactory. And the script puts polemic ahead of the drama. The climactic trial scene punches the messages home with over-written lines shouted with force-10 overacting, in a way that makes Stanley Kramer look subtle.
The most recent film in the program was Soñar, soñar (Dream, to Dream, Leonardo Favio, 1975), a sign that Argentina’s cinematic history has also had its share of mavericks and independents. An engagingly rambling film, it seemed content to spend time with its two eccentric characters, Curly Mario, a small time hustler trying to make a living touring bizarre variety acts to back country villages, and “Charlie Bronson”, a handsome but slow-witted young man whom he takes on when Mario sees he may be a viable meal ticket for him. But the pair only find an audience when they end up in gaol. The film doesn’t try to make either character come across as particularly smart or important, but it has real warmth for them which is quite disarming. Coming out, I overheard comments comparing it to Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969), which is a valid observation.
Direct connections between Il Cinema Ritrovato and American cinema are not hard to find. On one hand the week-long festival is now the premiere showcase for new restorations of important films from around the world, many of which have been made in the laboratories attached to the Cineteca Bologna. From Hollywood this year new restorations included Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown, with Greta Garbo, 1926), McCabe and Mrs Miller (Robert Altman, 1971) and The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993). But it also continues to highlight important personalities or periods or technical developments from America’s cinema history. This year, rather than focus on a director whose career straddled silent and sound movie-making,2 it looked at a studio during this transition period, and in particular a producer.
Carl Laemmle Jr. was appointed head of production at Universal Pictures in 1929 on his 21st birthday, no doubt with the influence and patronage of the founder and main owner of Universal, Carl Laemmle – his father. But if he owed his position to nepotism, there is no doubt that under his control Universal did produce some major films, and the output of his regime changed Universal from a low-budget minor studio into one with major prestige products. Films from his period include All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930), Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), and Imitation of Life (John Stahl, 1934). But he quickly overreached himself financially to make Show Boat (James Whale, 1936), his father lost control of the studio and Jr. never again worked in the movie business.
No doubt there are several PhDs in waiting for research on the role and impact of Laemmle Jr on the films he made, on Universal Pictures and on cinema in general. The program in Bologna made a case for this research to happen but provided only the barest of material. IMDB lists 149 films credited to Laemmle as Producer; Bologna screened 11, selected from 30 included in a season also curated at MoMA New York by Dave Kehr only several weeks earlier. 3From such a small sample it is hard to know whether Laemmle made any real difference in the quality and importance of the films. Some were good, others less so. But perhaps there would have been good films anyway – after all, the selection included films from directors who had already shown or who would subsequently show their talent – John Stahl, Paul Leni and William Wyler among them.
There were two films by William Wyler, A House Divided (1931) and The Good Fairy (1935). The first, at a compact 75 minutes, showed signs of being carved from a longer and more complex novel, so the plotting is often a bit abrupt. But Wyler’s direction is superb, from its atmospheric prelude, where a coffin is brought ashore on a lonely, craggy island. The filming, with almost breathtaking economy, reveals to us the key characters and the conflict that will drive the story. Interestingly, future director John Huston worked on the film as a key script adviser in this story of a father-son conflict, where the role of the domineering, almost brutal father with contempt for his Milquetoast son was played by Walter Huston, his own father.
The Good Fairy is a good example of the versatility of so many directors in this studio-dominated era, as we see Wyler switch from brooding melodrama to light romantic comedy in this story about a cinema usher (and orphan) who becomes the unwanted focus of an industrialist. She tries to deter his attentions by inventing a husband for herself. This leads to the screwball episodes which make up the film and of course the inevitable happy ending. Margaret Sullavan’s star personality is an important element in the light-hearted tone, but so is the script by Preston Sturges, still five years away from making his own directorial debut, and clearly showing his light comedic touch with its tongue-in-cheek absurdity not that far removed from reality.
John Stahl and James Whale were two other directors represented by two films. Stahl’s reputation for wonderful melodramas emerges intact. Both Back Street (1932) and Only Yesterday (1933) were “women’s” films, of the type that for so long were dismissed by “serious” critics as not culturally or aesthetically important. But now we can see the films as rich and rewarding. The story and approach may be “melodrama”, but that doesn’t deny the validity of the emotions involved, or the truth of aspects of the heroines’ experiences for many of the film’s audiences – then and now. In this pair, we have the woman who accepts a role in the shadows because the man she loves is already married, and the young girl who finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand with a young soldier about to ship out to war. Both films were made before the now-notorious Production Code. So, they are free to present their heroines sympathetically, with no hypocritical moral over-tone apart from the attitude, “They were human.” A few years later when Universal tried to re-release Back Street in 1938 the now powerful Production Code forbade it as a “symbol of the wrong kind of picture.”
Equally important were the two women playing the leads. Irene Dunn in Back Street gives one of her great performances as the woman who must live in the Back Street while her lover has a successful career as fabulously wealthy businessman. Over the course of the film Dunne ages beautifully, without a sense of the intervention of a make-up artist. Rather, it is in her eyes, in the way she carries herself. Her eyes are warm, limpid, unguarded and take us right inside her character. We never regard her as a scarlet woman, or as immoral.
Dunne, the first choice, was not available for Only Yesterday¸ and Laemmle hired a Broadway star, Margaret Sullavan, for her first film. She proved an astute choice, bringing a bright personality, with warmth and freshness. The film had an unexpected problem when shortly before its release its similarity to a novella published in German in 1922 by Stefan Zweig was noted and Universal had to do a late scramble to get the film rights, to Letter from an Unknown Woman. In 1948, they would produce a film version of this work in its own right, directed by Max Ophüls.
Perhaps the centrepiece of the Universal strand was the European premiere of a brand new, 4K restoration of the two-strip colour King of Jazz (John Murray Anderson) from 1930 in the early days of sound. The presentation shows what can be achieved today in film restoration, a seamless looking viewing experience achieved from a range of sources – a copy of the original soundtrack, a cut version of the original Technicolor camera negatives, and scenes sourced from some extant old prints.
King of Jazz aimed to exploit the new technology of sound with a full length musical revue, as well as using the evolving Technicolor process, still a two-strip process. It also used a newly developed, mobile camera platform or crane developed the year before for Paul Fejos’ Broadway (1929, also screened in Bologna.) King of Jazz has a playlist of 40 musical numbers. Most performers are today forgotten, apart from a young Bing Crosby at a very early stage of his career when he was part of a vocal trio, The Rhythm Boys.
Attempts are made to introduce variety into the non-stop parade of musical numbers. One is presented as a cartoon. Several have elaborate dance numbers, with overhead shots using that new crane, which foreshadow Busby Berkeley’s extravaganzas without ever overshadowing them. The centrepiece is a presentation of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. Accompanied by Paul Whiteman (the “King of Jazz”) and his orchestra, the grand piano is so large, it needs five pianists to stretch over its keyboard, and when the lid opens, the whole Paul Whiteman band rises from inside!
Two-strip Technicolor does not have the full spectrum of colour – ironically, blue is one of the main shades missing, so the Gershwin effectively becomes a rhapsody in green and red (and very particular shades of those colours.) A clip of this sequence can be watched online. For all this talent, and technical excellence, the one thing missing is that spark that brings it to life. It has a potpourri of special effects to enliven musical numbers – super-impositions, imaginative sets for the dancers, and more. But the camera, shackled by the as yet not fully understood demands of sound too often stares blandly from front on, never joining in the dance. The film was not a success on its release, and now is much more a curiosity, a brief time capsule of popular variety entertainment of the time.
Film restoration is time consuming and expensive. Restoration on King of Jazz started in 2012,4 and was unveiled only in mid-2016, with costs reported at US$500,000. Which raises the question: how do you decide what films to restore? The actual availability of adequate material to restore is obviously an issue. But are all films equally worth restoration? And does a restoration automatically make a film “good”? The answer to that last question should be obviously no, but sometimes it seems a film is greeted like a lost masterpiece simply because it is a restoration.
Several other films at Bologna provided examples of this dilemma. On one hand was the Singapore film Gado Gado (Roomai Noor, 1961). Wahid, a simple villager is encouraged to go to the city to look for a job. And there, he “gets caught in absurd job situations that always end in hilarity”. Though that comment is the program writer’s, not mine. No doubt there is some interest in this for Singaporeans, but it does not travel well and has not aged well. Its broad humour makes the Three Stooges look subtle. Perhaps it is relevant to studies of Singapore cinema exhibition patterns in the 1960s, or some exploration of representations of ethnic groups in Singapore at the time. But cinephiles are not going to find much reward in it, and one wonders if there were other films more worthy of the attention of the restorers.
On the other hand, a film like Brick and Mirror (Khesht o Ayeneh¸Ebrahim Golestan, 1963-64) seems eminently worth the time and money of restoring. It was made in a critical time in Iran’s recent history, when Ayatollah Khomeini was becoming known with his activity against the regime of the Shah. His arrest during the period of production had the production team worried about whether the film would be completed. The film is unflinching in its depiction of the social realities of the time, the treatment of women, the care of unwanted children, the lack of interest of authorities in addressing issues such as unemployment, abandoned children and so on.
As well as its insights into Iran at that time, it also has strong cinematic interest. Long sequences set in a taxi anticipate both Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, as much as the overall humanity of the film. The cinematography (Soleiman Minasian, Amir Karari) uses its black and white ‘scope frame powerfully, despite often having only one or two characters in constricted settings to frame. Several sequences have an observational documentary feel, especially one at the end when the woman wanders through an orphanage witnessing the life of the children condemned to live there.
However, it is the work of a director not yet completely in mastery of his material. The orphanage sequence, crucial to the social themes of the film, is not really integrated into the drama or psychology of the film. Golestan also seems unable to judge when a point or idea has been conveyed, so dialogue repeats what is already clear, or scenes continue longer than needed. The film is just over two hours long – it perhaps could have lost around 20 minutes and been a tighter, greater film.
But for me, one film stood out from the rest, and exemplified the riches to be unearthed from the cinema of the past. It gave the fullest justification for retrieving films from the vaults and archives. This was Peau de Pêche (Peach Skin, 1929), credited to Marie Epstein and Jean Benoît-Lévy. It was part of a programming strand focusing on Marie Epstein, screenwriter and director as an example of how film history often ignored or undervalued the part of creative women. Recently, the work of her brother Jean has been rediscovered and re-evaluated. 5The Bologna curators proposed that the contribution of Marie to her brother’s films as well as to all her work in cinema needs to be explored, as evidence that “a woman can create a complete work on her own.” 6
At the start, it seems Peau de Pêche will be a sentimental film about a cute boy neglected by his parents. (The film’s title is the nickname other boys give him because he blushes like a peach.) But it soon evolves into a film exploring so many of the dualities of our world. At the start, it is an idyll about growing up, first in the city, then in the country. When Peau de Pêche leaves Paris for his cousin’s farm, it becomes a film about the differences between city and country. Then World War I intrudes on this pastorale, and it is a film about peace and war as well.
Not only is it a film straining to contain all its ideas about the world and life and people, it is also straining to extend the medium of cinema itself. It is a film frustrated by its lack of sound. Not only is sound (the idea, not the real thing) introduced as part of the story line (villages gather to hear radio broadcasts linking all of Europe), sequences are constructed with sound so present even though there is no soundtrack. At the ball when the Queen of the Harvest is crowned, the dance music at first is a staid, old time waltz. But the young people want something newer and start to Charleston. And all this is conveyed simply in the photography and the editing. You almost forget it is a silent film.
It is a film not afraid to make visible the conventions driving it. As it moves on, it seems to be moving further and further from “the happy ending”. But then one of the characters bluntly states that we need a fairy godmother to take control to make things turn out for the best. Perhaps the events that lead to the happy ending are implausible, but the very brazenness of this moment sweeps any scepticism from our minds.
Over half the film is carried on the shoulders of its child star, Jimmy Gaillard. More than a performance, this is a presence of great insight, charm and naturalness.
Marie is credited as the screenwriter on some of the films of her brother Jean including Coeur fidèle (1923) in which she also acted. She made several films with Jean Benoît-Lévy, of whom she wrote,
Jean Benoît-Lévy always wanted both of our names on our films. So this is the answer for all the well-meaning people who put our collaborative work under the microscope and want to know ‘who did this’ and ‘who did that?’ There are two of us who have done this and that, the good and the less good. 7
Here clearly is a case for further study – not only to experience all the films she was involved in, but to learn how much she contributed and if, as a woman, she had to somewhat deny her own creativity.
Il Cinema Ritrovato
25 June – 2 July 2016
Festival website: https://festival.ilcinemaritrovato.it/en/
- Edgardo Cozarinksy, in in the catalogue for Il Cinema Ritrovato 2016 p. 109. ↩
- Previous festivals have focused on directors such as Howard Hawks, Allan Dwan, William Wellman and Raoul Walsh, screening films that represented their output both in silent and sound cinema. ↩
- View the MoMA program here. ↩
- See this post on the NitrateVille website. ↩
- example, see Stuart Liebman, “Jean Epstein: The Revenant” in Cineaste Vol XLI No 3. ↩
- Marie Epstein quoted in the catalogue for Il Cinema Ritrovato 2016, p. 87. ↩
- Ibid ↩