The Cineteca del Comune di Bologna is located in a residential portion of the city, down a side street and then within a lovely, small piazza. The facility incorporates the organisation’s administrative offices, restoration facilities, two theatres (named after Martin Scorsese and Marcello Mastroiaonni), library and an outdoor bar and eatery located just off the sun-dappled square. In order to reach the site, or the alternative neighbourhood theatre at which some of the festival screenings are held, one travels through a mixed residential-commercial neighbourhood. Most buildings are cast in softer coloured materials than one finds in the North of Europe (yellow, light blue and pale green), and every shop with any food for sale seems to have ample fresh produce available in bins before their entrance. Beginning one’s day as these venues opened their doors and returning down the street as the sky has darkened and the number of motorcycles, already ample earlier on, only increased as bars and restaurants welcomed their patrons made for a somewhat disconcerting experience. The city and its residents continued on their course of business as one disengaged from the contemporary arena for a full-scale engagement with the past. Somehow appropriately, there seemed to be few if any theatres in the neighbourhood other than those already mentioned, except for one showing Twlight: Eclipse.
I mention these domestic circumstances not only to give some sense of the environment in which the festival occurs but also to raise some issues that the event engages with only indirectly. Some of those concerns might seem elementary, but remain nonetheless important. What means exist for individuals who do not individually choose to attend such events as Ritrovato, and to what degree are they able to access and appreciate cinematic history? As much as we have already lost a significant portion of our cinematic past, are we not perhaps in a parallel state of depletion when it comes to the public’s relative disengagement from what remains of that cinematic heritage? Of late, those cable stations devoted to historic fare (TCM comes to mind, but not it alone) have to some degree cut back on the airing of earlier material, and, similarly, the numbers of repertory theatres in many regions seem to diminish more and more. Three years ago, I moved to England, and was somewhat disconcerted to discover that even though I live only minutes from an arthouse site in Manchester, very little of its schedule is devoted to historic film. Furthermore, sales of historic DVDs have notably begun to slide, and many companies’ dedication to mining the assets in their vaults have correspondingly elapsed. At the least, specialised box sets seem now to be fewer in number, and those which are available often incorporate only the most bare-bones of extra features. Some companies (Warner’s in particular) have more or less removed themselves from the mass marketing of historic DVDs and turned to a one-off model, where single copies are burned per purchase rather than a mass of copies made that might not eventually be sold out. Festivals like Ritrovato clearly offer an alternative to interested parties to immerse themselves in historic materials, though one wonders what kind of dialogue might emerge if sessions were addressed to what we preserve; why we preserve it; what forces impede these artifacts’ prolonged life; and whether or not the public appreciates the losses we have already suffered and continue to suffer with film. To what degree is the public invested in images produced in the past or will their appreciation of and desire for their protection remain the ambition of a limited, and therefore potentially limiting, audience?
Perhaps the absence of such a discussion at Ritrovato is, in part, a result of the composition of at least some portion of the audience. By estimation, the event draws somewhere in the realm of 200-300 people. While all of us wore badges which included, when appropriate, our institutional affiliations, it felt intrusive to stare at people and clarify their identities and occupations. Therefore, it was not until I went online when I returned home and looked at David Bordwell’s site (he and Kristin Thompson annually attend) that I realised who some of the faces were that I observed from day to day. Bordwell typically includes photos from this and other events he attends, and the identifications revealed the notable backgrounds of many academics, journalists, critics, archivists and managers in attendance at Ritrovato. Many of these people determine what films get preserved and which of them will circulate on screens or in commercially marketed formats. On occasion, it was possible to overhear comments about the current status of the situation, but it would have been beneficial to have that dialogue more overtly incorporated into the program.
Being a first time attendee of Ritrovato, it was easy to feel overwhelmed by the options the event presents. This year, 313 works were presented over the course of 8 days. Obviously, one could not possibly go to every offering and, furthermore, circumstances kept me from attending the first three days. By my estimation, the optimum one could ingest each day would be something in the realm of five offerings, whether complete features or individual programs. That would not include the outdoor evening screenings. My experience was that attending the final screening of the day and then enjoying a typically leisurely Italian dinner did not necessarily allow enough time to add these events to one’s itinerary. Nonetheless, that means something in the realm of 40-45 opportunities for screenings over the course of the festival, at an extremely reasonable cost of 60 Euros. I chose to focus upon the sequence of Early John Ford: it included 29 selections, all of the available works up the release of Pilgrimage (1933), except the recently recovered Upstream (1927) found in New Zealand. Of them, I was able to catch a dozen.
Typically, this period of Ford’s career tends to be thought of as exploratory, something along the lines of a set of exercises in preparation for the more successful and sophisticated work to come. That set of attributes most often get attached to the silent portion of his output. Lindsay Anderson’s observations typify this position:
John Ford’s formation in silent cinema gave him expertise and a narrative mastery that became second nature to him. And it gave him more. It gave him the understanding that a film director is a man who creates worlds, or rather a world, and that world is in part poetic. It was to be his great achievement that after being, like everyone else, sidetracked by the introduction of sound, and the need to make ‘realistic’ dialogue films, he found his way back again to myth, to poetry. (1)
One might question the degree to which Anderson in effect essentialises silent film as inherently “poetic” and that those characteristics were crippled, perhaps perennially, by the advent of sound. Nonetheless, the silent features I was able to view did demonstrate how Ford designed his visual strategies without being hamstrung by a lack of speech. It also illuminated some of the observations, notably made by Andrew Sarris, of how his work at this time oscillated between the influence of D.W. Griffith and that of the Germans, particularly F.W. Murnau his fellow employee under William Fox. This purported “visual dialectic” leads one to think of an affinity for the open air coexisting in Ford with an equal affection for the concealment of shadows. (2) Something more integrated might be thought to be the case, less a continuum than a coordinated vision that endowed Ford with competence in both forms of presentation.
This dynamic certainly comes across in the set of works that Ford made by Fox after the release of Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), two of which are set partially in Germany: Four Sons and Riley the Cop (1928). The familial “weepie” illustrated by the former and the knockabout farce of the latter both partake of the fate-driven moving camera that Murnau employed. However, it even more successfully occurs in the Irish environment of Hangman’s House (1928), where the phenomenon is not so much a matter of emotive lighting or a mobile point of view. The whole of the narrative is infused by the kind of deterministic perspective familiar in much of Murnau as well as later on Ford’s part, most notably in The Searchers (1956), wherein the protagonist comes across as bound by the necessity of a destiny they cannot escape. Here, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is paralleled by Victor McLaglen’s fugitive IRA figure, who returns home in order to exterminate the blackguard (Earle Foxe) who brought about his sister’s death. The mood of entrapment and the failure of heroic figures to integrate into the society they benefit pervades both works, and that atmosphere emerges in the case of the earlier release not singularly through lighting or camera angles so much as a oppressive but not weighty mood that infuses the whole work. This sense of doom may be felt to come across as heavy-handed, yet the absence of what some believe to be the compensating comedic interludes of the western are, for this viewer, a welcome omission.
At the same time, the comic effects of these early works strike one as less slap-happy and hard to digest as those to follow. That might well be partly due to the well delivered performances of J. Farrell MacDonald (1875-1952). A fascinating and underexamined figure, MacDonald racked up 325 acting credits between 1911 and 1951. In addition, he took on 44 directorial assignments between 1912 and 1917, during which period he acted as the principal helmer for L. Frank Baum’s Oz Motion Picture Company. He figured as well in twenty-five of Ford’s features from 1919 to 1950 with leading roles in The Iron Horse (1924), 3 Bad Men (1926), The Shamrock Handicap (1926), and as the eponymous figure in Riley the Cop. In the sound period, he often took on a number of uncredited parts, interestingly in several of Preston Sturges’ films: The Palm Beach Story (1942), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), The Great Moment (1944) and The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947). MacDonald conveys a likeable, unaggressive figure, less the over-the-top bumbling, dipsomaniacal clown that McLaglen often conveyed, especially in Ford’s cavalry trilogy: Fort Apache (1948), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950). You can also get a sense of MacDonald’s range aside from Ford in Raoul Walsh’s masterful character study Me and My Gal (1932), wherein he gives to his father of the female protagonist played by Joan Bennett much of the warmth and high spirits he achieves in his performance as Riley without ever overplaying its hand. One of the most simultaneously loose and yet coherent of Ford’s films, this slapstick farce feels like it was made up from moment to moment without ever falling apart at the seams
Another interesting dynamic in Ford’s silent works can be observed in the occasional anthropomorphic strain in those pictures that involve horses. Racetracks and climactic contests feature in Kentucky Pride (1925) and The Shamrock Handicap (1926) and the former employs the titular colt, Confederacy, as not only its central character but also its narrator. The sequences that focus on the animals alone separate from the people convey a sense of personality that never descend to clichés and, as Tag Gallagher observes, Ford even uses these creatures to illustrate one of the earliest appearances of his “tradition & duty” theme. (3) Both also lay the groundwork for the contest on horseback in The Quiet Man (1952), which, though lushly filmed on location in Ireland, may equal but far from exceeds its silent predecessors.
Most impressive of all, however, was the last film in the chronology, Pilgrimage (1933). Ostensibly, a potentially overwrought narrative of excessive mother love gone astray, it demonstrates Ford’s sensitivity to character and features one of his most notable and noteworthy female protagonists. Hanna Jessop (Henrietta Crosman), a widowed and often inflexible farmer, binds her son (Norman Foster) in a restrictive emotional covenant that will not admit either to his love for their neighbor’s daughter nor the worthiness of their union. When the boy struggles against her bondage, Hanna volunteers him to the First World War, only to lose the boy in battle. Peacetime does little to assuage her adamant position or her unacknowledged guilt. When Hanna decides to join a group of other women in similar bereavement to visit the graves of their sons in France, she experiences a transformation of character when she meets another young man facing a similarly constricting maternal figure. Ford allows Hanna to be both harridan and heroine and never soft-pedals either the fury of her anger or the obsession of her love. He makes it as much of an effort for the audience to sympathise with this wilful woman as he does for her to recognise the inappropriateness of her position. Crosman gives a masterful performance. She is matched by Lucille La Verne in a supportive role as a hillbilly matriarch; La Verne may be now best known as the cackling anti-royalist the Vengeance in MGM’s A Tale of Two Cities (1935) and also voiced the wicked witch in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) before which she had been for decades a notable stage actress as well as director-manager. Corncob pipe firmly planted in her mouth, she comes across as an even more convincing embodiment of the salt of the earth than does the better-known Jane Darwell’s Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940).
Other than the Ford features, the most interesting event I attended was a dossier on Robert Florey affiliated to Ritrovato’s annual Project Chaplin, held in cooperation with the Chaplin Archive. A panel presentation was given on the director’s collaboration with the comedian on Monsieur Verdoux (1947), an occasion disturbingly absent of any genuine collegiality so far as Florey was concerned. Florey was dismayed by Chaplin’s lack of apparent interest in the full deployment of available technology as well as his incorrigibly self-centered direction of the production. Chaplin Archivist Cecilia Cenciarelli communicated Florey’s anxieties through extensive use of the scrapbook he coordinated to document his unhappiness. In addition, scholar and restoration expert Kevin Brownlow spoke of his relationship with Florey during his research in Hollywood in the 1960s. In conjunction with this revelatory panel, three works of Florey’s were shown: the short that laid the path for his entry into the industry, The Life and Death of 9413, A Hollywood Extra (1928); his free-form adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe starring Bela Lugosi, Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932); and the Peter Lorre vehicle The Beast With Five Fingers (1946). In my view, while well-known and, by some, celebrated, these films represent only a small portion of Florey’s genuine strengths. More illustrative of his talents would have been his pathos-drenched other collaboration with Lorre The Face Behind the Mask (1940) or any one of the fascinating B-features Florey produced for Paramount in the late 1930s, most especially Hollywood Boulevard (1936), a melodrama critical of the way the industry casts off its participants and featuring the under-rated and forgotten John Holliday as a lapsed star, or one of his Akim Tamiroff vehicles: King of Gamblers (1937) or Dangerous To Know (1938). These works illustrate Florey’s flourishes of style and visual savvy that sometimes managed to cut loose from the constrictions of restricted budgets, hackneyed scripts and low expectations.
There was much I regret missing, most particularly a sequence of Jean Luc Godard trailers; a dossier presentation on the critic Michel Ciment; a sequence of Italian films from 1945-49; newly struck prints of Visonti’s Senso (1954) and The Leopard (1963) and restored works by the French comedian Pierre Etaix. However, on the basis of my experience this time and the programs presented at Ritrovato in the past, there is nothing less than a guarantee that I, and others, will encounter equal and potentially superior experiences of recovered and restored films in Bologna in the future.
Il Cinema Ritrovato
June 36th-July 3rd, 2010
Festival website: http://www.cinetecadibologna.it/en/ritrovato.htm