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By Christopher Small
Pondering some of the most memorable events of my fourth visit to Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, I find myself embarrassingly drawn to some of the most slavish metaphors of film criticism: film as a magician’s art, the cinema as a séance, and “the magic of movies.” Self-induced nausea aside, this lingering metaphor feels inescapable when you find yourself ensnared in the primal thrill of many of the festival’s greatest audio-visual spectacles. Maybe most memorable are the nights at the Piazzetta Pasolini under the spell of an ancient carbon-arc projector. These screenings are basically designed to celebrate this unique instrument, a gargantuan antique with film reels the size of manhole covers that, by vividly projecting hundred-year old nudies and slapstick comedies against a square screen parked between two trees in the small Cineteca courtyard, seems to be summoning for the crowd a scattered signal from a lost dimension.
The first program I caught there—a handful of raucous, cheeky, utterly disposable shorts from the 1910s (all masterpieces, of course) coupled with Robert Land’s beguiling Die kleine Veronika (1930)—was indeed a kind of movie séance. In the year of the Twin Peaks reboot, David Lynch comparisons felt inevitable: the uber-Lynchian live accompaniment by Florian Kmet, the smoky plume of blue light that curled out of a spout at the top of the projector and twirled into the night (something like Dale Cooper’s misty Black Lodge visitations), as well as Die kleine Veronika itself, an object totally out of time, suggested a visitation from an extra-dimensional apparition. Though it could hardly be expected to top the all-time great that preceded it, Das eitle Stubenmädchen (The Vain Chambermaid, 1907), Land’s film is also pretty special. As the introduction noted, it is an unintentional material document of swathes of a Vienna lost to war but also, seen under these exceptional circumstances, simply a staggering portrait of the players’ bodies. The piercingly beautiful close-ups, beaming out in luminous monochrome from the bowels of this great beast, bore the physical traces of wet lips and sweaty foreheads from almost nine decades ago.
Each year, the festival’s programming is divided into sections called “The Time Machine,” “The Space Machine,” and “The Cinephiles’ Heaven.” This is, of course, mainly just a feature of the catalogue; even if the distinctions between these categories were possible to parse, the fact would then be that, in the act of spending a week watching all these movies crammed together, there is surely very little time anybody spends mulling over the boundaries between sections. Even so, the promise of a movie time machine is an alluring one, and indeed some of my best experiences yet again were with 35mm prints of movies of less than 15 seconds long.
While this year’s slate of 1897 films featured nothing on the level of last festival’s masterpiece Ten Inch Disappearing Carriage Gun Loading and Firing, Sandy Hook (1897), there were many films that fulfilled the promise of time travel, of teleporting the audience from the Cineteca’s (well air-conditioned, it has the be said) Sala Mastroianni 120 years into the past. The Lumières were a dynamic pair of filmmakers, as evidenced by a short about the launch of the battleship “Emmanuel-Philibert” in Naples, which begins with the explosive entry of the boat into the water from the left of the frame, and boasts layer upon layer of screen space as we see cheering crowds occupying virtually every corner of the image. Likewise an 1897 film about rowers in Milan displayed the same genius for dynamizing space, with a similar left-right movement occurring with the rowers in the foreground while in the near background a group of men and women mug for the camera and roll around the grass.
A necessary if painful part of any trip to Il Cinema Ritrovato is the Zen-like acceptance that you are going to miss things—how did I manage to miss an unseeable silent Borzage for the second year running?—that you would otherwise fight tooth and nail to see on the big screen. As easy as producing a post-festival list of favourite discoveries is, erecting an alternate pantheon for masterpieces that you missed because of the most trivial of complications would be just as simple. While, for example, I saw almost all of the films from an interesting but low-key section dedicated to Japanese period cinema from 1938-41, I also belatedly caught only one film from a program on Mexican cinema’s golden age, saw nothing from the recurring series of “Documents and Documentaries,” very little from a retrospective of Augusto Genina, skipped the restored Jean Vigo premieres, and ignored a promising series of Iranian noir films by a total unknown quantity, Samuel Khachikian. The ever-reliable retrospective of an American auteur, which in the past has showcased films by Wellman, Dwan, and McCarey, was splintered for the second time this year, partially continuing a thread kicked off in 2016 of films produced at Universal under the supervision of the great Carl Laemmle Jr., and the otherwise celebrating “master stylist” William K. Howard.
While I only saw one film by Howard—a witty, spare, ingenious adaptation of Sherlock Holmes (1932)—I remained interested as ever in the Universal films, seeing a few typically eccentric rarities. Last year’s series was remarkable for the way it suggested that the early ’30s in Hollywood were even stranger than even those who believed themselves familiar with the period would care to admit. Notable among this year’s treasure trove was the insane allegorical shipwreck film Destination Unknown (1933), a grab bag of different tones, threads, and tropes featuring an angelic Ralph Bellamy as no less than Jesus Christ himself (“I was a carpenter once…”), as well as the prosaic but sensitive (and ultimately crazy) circus film called Young Desire (1930), which ends with a surprise suicide from an air balloon. James Whale, one of the major rediscoveries of last year’s program, continued to upend all forms of conventional morality in By Candlelight (1933) and the restored version of The Road Back (1937), an anti-war film that argues that if war is permissible, then so ought to be murder on the home front, which Whale ostentatiously suggests is a way for soldiers to reassert themselves as citizens. One argues to a judge that so what if his friend killed his sweetheart’s lover, “I’ve killed lots of men…you mean to say a man should be able to kill somebody he doesn’t know in battle but he can’t kill a man who has ruined his life?” A perennial outsider himself, Whale willfully identified with extreme forms of antisocial amorality—matched only by the craziness of all his machine-gun formal innovations—as a way to underline a parallel insanity propagated by those enforcing the moral codes. It’s probably why he made the best monster movies.
Undoubtedly the most satisfying of the main retrospectives was Olaf Möller’s eight-film Helmut Käutner retrospective. I previously saw three of his films as part of Möller’s mammoth program of features, shorts, and documentaries produced in and about the Federal Republic of Germany in Locarno last summer. But each of the films in Bologna were fresh revelations: Unter den Brücken (1944-46), a beautiful German “rubble film,” made just before the German fascist state collapsed; the crazy entertaining and just plain crazy Epilog—Das Geheimnis der Orplid (1950), about a group of probable ex-Nazis trapped—where else?—on a sinking yacht (“There is no society anymore. We’re alone; everyman for himself”); the tender and mystifying Bildnis einer Unbekannten (1954); the delirious, Fassbinder-like musical drama Große Freiheit Nr. 7 (1944-45); the exquisite East-West political melodrama Himmel ohne Sterne (1955); and even the baffling epic-theatre musical Das glas Wasser (1960) which, coming at the very end of the series, scrambled all my preconceptions about this already elusive filmmaker.
This year I uneasily strayed outside my own predetermined boundaries into unknown territories and offhandedly caught what in retrospect were some of the real highlights of the festival. Mae West’s performance in She Done Him Wrong (1933) was, even in an iteration of the festival dominated by the supremely great Robert Mitchum, the best performance I saw in Bologna. With a slow-motion strut, West moves through space in a lizard-like fashion, the whole of the world seeming to revolve around her like a theatre set on wheels. Zingers fly in a constant barrage from the start, oozing out of her mouth in an edgeless Southern drawl. A man says to West’s Lady Lou that he would die to make her happy. To which she responds, “Mmmmmm, but you wouldn’t be much use to me dead.”
Meanwhile, as far as movies I had never heard of, West Indies (1979) was a major discovery. A scintillating widescreen musical fantasia by the Algerian director Med Hondo, the film is a startling blend of theatre, music, and oratory, all presented with exuberance by Hondo’s ever-roving camera. The politics of oppression is not an abstraction for Hondo but a series of forms that endure through the ages, as evidenced by the flourish of having the (white) authority figures in all eras played by the same actors, a Brechtian assertion that the transfer and maintenance of (capitalist) power is never less than a matter of appearances.
Set aboard a slave ship that Hondo built inside a huge, deserted warehouse, West Indies makes a spectacle out of the forms of decolonisation. This truly remarkable movie is a spectacle both didactic and opulent: didactic in the way it draws shrewd, ever more complex parallels between the Afro-Caribbean slave trade and the contemporary migration of workers from the ex-colonies to work for low wages in hubs like Paris, and opulent on the level of the visual. (The restored 35mm print by the World Cinema Film Foundation is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.) Hondo moves casually through different periods as easily as the dancers aboard the ship dash between the decks. Nobody is spared his piercing, ironic style—not the black governor of the island, nor the anti-black unionist, nor the “inclusive” democratic socialist, nor the little white lady calling for solidarity with “Whites, Blacks, Asians, and Martians.”
Of the three films by Frank Borzage that played at Il Cinema Ritrovato this year (in no less than three sections of the festival), I saw two. His vehemently anti-capitalist, stridently pro-nudist Little Man, What Now? (1934), I’d seen before. I expected good things from Secrets (1924), a forgotten silent gem that has been newly restored by the Cineteca di Bologna and the Cohen Film Collection, but not quite the emotional wallop I got. A triptych about “the secrets between a husband and wife,” the film is a typically distressing, touching Borzagian romance about love against the edge of a precipice. His sobriety in depicting the nastier elements of his world is matched only by an unrelenting faith in the restorative power of personal relationships. In 90 minutes, and set over a period of 59 years in both England and the Wild West, Secrets covers everything from the death of an infant, the suffocating strictures of life in upper-class Victorian England, a fatal shoot-out in a mountain cabin, a particularly painful extra-marital affair, and the near-death of a life-partner.
The emotional richness the 30-year-old Borzage mines from this range of experience is extraordinary. As her ailing husband is whimpering and crying out for her from the other room, Mary’s (Norma Talmadge) children complain that she too easily acquiesces to to the constant calls for help from their aging father. “Come here Mary, I need you,” he calls out. “Yes John,” she replies, before quietly reminding her children that she has spent a lifetime with her husband, and that despite what they might think, even they do not know him as intimately as she does. Then Borzage takes us back to a very funny episode early in the couple’s life, as Mary’s parents find out that she has fallen in love with John, who works for her father. Locked in her bedroom by a spiteful father, Mary turns and looks out at the wide balcony on the far side of the room. A ladder clatters up against the stone perimeter of the balcony and a fresh-faced John emerges from below. He takes a couple of steps in her direction and calls out, with devastating tenderness, “Come here Mary, I need you.” Smiling in that indescribably Borzagian mix of serenity, knowing, and surrender to the world’s continuity, she responds, “Yes John.”
As Il Cinema Ritrovato drew to a close, and as the professors, curators, programmers, and critics emptied out of the cinemas and jetted back home, this special gathering of cinephiles faded seamlessly into a sister festival called “Under the Stars of Cinema.” Extending through July and August and continuing the thread of outdoor screenings at the Piazza Maggiore that are one of the hallmarks of Il Cinema Ritrovato, the second festival is less specialized and far more localized but still draws big nightly audiences just as awestruck and reverent. This year, being in the city as this metamorphosis occurred struck me as an uncommonly moving experience, as the loving spirit of the outdoor screenings—the spirit exemplified by a cabal of cinephiles who garrulously hurrahed every time Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar (1954) towered over the crowds in the Il Cinema Ritrovato trailer—endures even as the ungainly beast that is this festival retreated into hibernation for another year.