What can a film festival dedicated to the screening of older cinema tell us about the present state of audience engagement with movie watching?
Like many people my age my cinephilia started online and has mostly stayed there. If in the cinema you can escape amongst strangers, in more atomised times you can only truly escape by yourself; community is now closer in interest but held at a comfortable distance on the other side of a screen. As such I’ve naturally shied away from film festivals, but Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna seemed the right place to challenge that. Its programme, crammed with rarities, new restorations and reclamations of journeymen would feel familiar to any online cinephile; they show the kind of films people share files of in Twitter DMs.
But I was confronted with the difference of other people from the very first film I saw (which was part of the Rouben Mamoullian strand), when, two seats away from me, a twenty-something gave Applause about ten minutes of attention before pulling out his phone. For the next seventy minutes I saw him send walls of messages to someone who never responded. If you can’t resist the distraction of your phone at home, you can at least frequently pause what you’re watching, but without that buffer it seems some can’t stomach the mild boredom of stiff dialogue and a somewhat unconvincing romance to ultimate;y see a movie bursting with tragedy and invention.
After two days of travel, two hours of sleep the night before, and a day in the brutal Italian heat, I was so exhausted during Chaplin’s effortful Woman of Paris that my brain started to project colour onto the images. I could tell there were some brilliant scenes, but now how they connected to one another. Walking back to my slightly distant flat I passed countless buildings that were covered in queer and leftist symbols and drawings of Lupin III. In the Piazza Maggiore, the huge outdoor square where films were shown in the cooling evenings, I saw one of the festival directors giving the opening night speech. Every time I saw him he wore a suit and an obvious sense of (self) importance. That night the applause seemed louder through the speaker than in person.
After I got some sleep I settled into the festival’s rhythm and the context around the films started to become a blessing. Whether it was seeing Renoir’s strange and complex story of unknown intentions, The Woman on the Beach, baffle an audience as much as it did in 1947, or watching some 1903 films on a long-obsolete carbon arc projector that let off a pillar of smoke into the still-blue night sky above the small square at the festival’s hub. The 1903 strand was generally rewarding because, as Bryony Dixon said in her intro, filmmakers were becoming conscious of their audiences. But they were also realising the possibilities of the medium, Méliès being the obvious example, but even The King of Coin, which like a film from previous years simply showed something ( a man doing coin tricks) created those tricks through editing.
Still there were learning curves beyond knowing how many films you could squeeze into a day before the images started to pass without meaning. The lack of raked seating means that a tall person a row or two in front of you could block your view, especially considering the subtitles are projected onto a separate screen below the film. Only once was this so bad I had to leave, but it was a consistent issue at all but one of the venues.
I only sat close to the front to see Wim Wenders introduce Dragnet Girl, which he admitted to only having seen on the flight over. When I accidentally made eye contact with his translator just as she started talking, she decided to focus on me. Out of politeness I nodded along, as if I understood a word of Italian or thought that there was anything worth hearing in an intro that boiled down to: it’s a different kind of story from Ozu, but some shots are the same. Even with my neck craned painfully, I could see this was more than an oddity by an not-yet-formed artist. The festival director sat next to Wenders and laughed along, projecting parity with this famous man as he gestured for an employee to move the water jug to his side of the table.
But these exceptions aside, the films were allowed to speak for themselves. Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle is such a perfect example of form that it transcends any content or context. Queen Christina shone brightly, clarifying a major theme of Momoullian’s. Garbo must sacrifice love to become the titular queen, and in Song of Songs Dietrich must sacrifice herself to become a statue for her lover and a wife to her upper-class husband; these women are forced into images, like actresses moulded into stars. Garbo had briefly left Hollywood before Christina, and in its final sustained image of her face, as the Queen leaves her Kingdom, you can almost see her imagining her final escape from Hollywood that would come in the early 40’s.
Apart from a rowdy and stupid crowd in the seminal King Boxer (a reminder of how far martial arts cinema has to go, even amongst cinephiles) the audiences were wonderfully self-selecting. I can’t imagine many groups being as moved by Stella Dallas as we were, weeping as Stephen Horne’s beautiful live orchestral score sang through the Piazza. In moments like those there is almost a sense of community, even within a city that remains distant. Parts become totally familiar – the walks from one cinema to another and the affordable, fast-serving restaurants and cafés inbetween – but the whole remains fuzzy and comfortably exotic.
Playing to such a select group can make the festival almost comically insular. Multiple screenings were dedicated to the obscure French company Lux Film, who were presented as interesting simply by the fact of their existence, certainly not on the merit of their films, which ranged from bad to not-good. Still, this is noble work. Somebody should be looking in these margins, even if it isn’t me. I saw as many interesting as brilliant films, but many of both that I wouldn’t have otherwise. So even if Mamoullian, for example, is less a great auteur and more an interesting and exuberant stylist, what other festival would think to ask that question?
Published 13 Jul 2023
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