The archiving of film elements has come a long way since nitrate stock went the way of the dodo. Preservation is less romanticized now than it was half a century ago when collectors and cinematheque directors set off on wild goose chases around the world to find lost works, conducted highly unscientific experiments such as burying film canisters in the ground, and projected irreplaceable copies with reckless abandon. Today a somewhat exhaustive list of silents have been found and preserved (making the pursuit of originals less an active search than a matter of casual or accidental discovery, though there are certainly cases apart), experts wouldn't dare to leave a print in less-than-optimal vault conditions, and original copies are rarely projected unless proper restoration work has been finished. That said, any person familiar with the nuts and bolts of archiving would have to admit that the progress and science of preservation is still, to put it politely, an unpredictable entity. Financing for restoration and proper vault conditions—not to mention administration and training for future film restorers—is tenuous. The politics inherent in the preservation world only become more apparent as outside influences weigh in. Hence the "over-restoration" of certain works (Metropolis  comes to mind) or the under-exposure, on an international level, of selected national cinemas (early Italian cinema being the most prominent case in point).
Since its inception, the Bologna Cineteca has taken lengths to preserve Italy's national film heritage, and Il Cinema Ritrovato has done its part in showcasing a broad panorama of the local production to its elite international viewers. The famed works of northern producers and the evolution of Turin-based studios, for instance, have been fastidiously studied, and one could even say are no longer an unknown example. As a consequence of socio-economic prejudice, the southern, poorer areas remain out of the mainstream. The emphasis on Neopolitan producers and distributors as well as representations of Naples by non-natives at this year's Il Cinema Ritrovato, in a selection curated by Elena Correra, Luigi Virgolin and Andrea Meneghelli, is an essential step in opening up the cinematographic discussion of a region. Many times these histories evolve by happenstance, as when collections are inspected and found to be of interest. Fausto Correra (1889-1962), great-grandfather of Elena, ran Napoli Film, a distributor and lab. In addition to collecting French shorts from Pathé and Star Film, Fausto produced lyrical amateur actualités featuring the Neopolitan landscape. These came to the Cineteca about a year and a half ago in 35mm nitrate and 9.5mm stock associated with the Pathé Baby format. The Naples films are undated and fragmented, and herein their mystery and beauty: one can recognize in them a desire to capture, for the ages or just ephemerally as a expression of delight and veneration, the mesmerizing oceanside vistas of a great city. Correra's bits and pieces would make suitable companions to Jean Epstein's sea poems shown at last year's festival.
Historians wish for films to be available in their full forms—especially works by venerated authors like John Ford—but these scraps become dream-like, forcing the viewer into a state of trance, curiosity and resourcefulness. The idea of completing a story by oneself is a largely modernist tendency in film. The violent coming to a halt in narrative film fragments—Ford's The Last Outlaw (1919) and North of Hudson Bay (1923) are examples here at the festival—would later be adopted as a formal technique by avant-gardists like Joseph Cornell. Film history, in its splintering of these objects, created its own unintentional vanguardism. Geographically there is also a subversion that happens, as these films, almost obliterated in the years since their short runs, turned up in places far from their origin (the U.K., Czech Republic and Holland in the case of many of the Fords). Nearly everyone present for the screening of The Last Outlaw, a two-reeler available in roughly half its length, agreed that it was a superb example of Ford's elegiac rendering of western myths. And North of Hudson Bay, of which roughly forty minutes remain, ends at, one assumes, its best moment, as Tom Mix finds himself nearly devoured by wild dogs. In other examples, fragments are frustratingly cryptic. The first episode of Maciste contro la morte (1920), shown in recent Cineteca restoration, is so choppy that in moments a viewer has to assume the title cards play both a descriptive and imaginative function (as plenty of the action is missing). This one is purely of interest to completists, being the Maciste figure is one of the titans of early Italian film, as crucial a recurring character as Sherlock Holmes was (and remains) in the English speaking world.
One of the luxuries of Il Cinema Ritrovato is that it unites the best silent film accompanists and composers in the world. These scores, if they are not flashy or by a star composer who has worked in contemporary feature films, are rarely remarked upon in the arena of commercial DVD distribution. Donald Sosin, whose playful original music to Ford's Bucking Broadway (1917) is available (along with the film, of course) on Criterion's Stagecoach (1939) release, has been a fixture here for years. Here he is seen at Sunday's Bucking Broadway performance:
Timothy Brock, another veteran attendee (see his answers to the questionnaire below), was partly responsible for the greatest silent film event of last year's festival, composing a grandiose (suiting the title subject) orchestral score for a projection of Marcel L'Herbier's Feu Matias Pascal (1926) at Bologna's 18th century Teatro Comunale. This year he took a shot at Ford's Three Bad Men (1926), arguably the director's silent masterpiece, and the results didn't disappoint. One of Brock's major strengths is his ability to oscillate naturally between moments of farce, quiet drama and high tension in these films. Ford's tone, in particular, could change from quietly tragic to crudely humorous at the drop of a hat—a potential test to even the most seasoned accompanist. To do it at the orchestral level, even more so.
At Monday night's Singin' in the Rain (1952) screening at the Piazza Maggiore, the sound accidentally went out in the film's most iconic moment. The audience of two-thousand or so grew testy, and one could feel Gene Kelly's dancing momentum quickly dispel in the warm Bologna air. But it was, to the mind of this commentator, a brusque and incisive reminder of what was lost in the transition to sound, even more cutting—because of the circumstance of the projection and the context of the festival itself—than the examples parodied throughout Singin' in the Rain. Let's not take sound—or silence—for granted here.
Daily Questionnaire x2
Participants for this edition: Antonio Rodrigues (programmer, Cinemateca Portuguesa), Jay Weisberg (film critic, Variety), Catherine Gautier (programmer, Filmoteca Española), Timothy Brock (silent film score composer), Dominique Païni (curator, formerly of Centre Pompidou and Cinematheque Française) and David Meeker (film historian, formerly of the BFI).
How many times have you been to Il Cinema Ritrovato?
AR: Two, but I've been meaning to come many more times.
JW: Since 2001.
CG: Many, many times. Almost twenty.
DP: Since the first!
DM: Six or seven.
How many programs do you plan on seeing?
AR: Four per day.
JW: From 9am on—whenever there's a slot!
CG: Sometimes I see bits and pieces, but normally between three and five per day.
TB: Normally five or six for the whole festival, but this year I'm trying to triple that.
DP: Three per day.
DM: Two-three per day.
What program or film are you looking forward to the most?
AR: All the silents.
JW: Centi anni fa (the festival's annual program of film's from one hundred years ago).
CG: Pierre Etaix's Le grand amour (1969).
TB: Stanley Donen.
DP: Three Bad Men.
Can you think of a major discovery that you have made at the festival in the past?
AR: "La parte di Vichy" program
JW: Well, Vittorio Cottafavi (subject of a retrospective at last year's fest) was not the major discovery I was expecting.
CG: Michael Curtiz films from the 30s.
TB: Early Italian cinema, particularly the "Machiste" films.
DP: Francesca Bertini.
DM: Feuillade's Tih Minh (1918) was a rediscovery for me.
In your opinion, who is a figure in film history deserving a closer look?
AR: Mauritz Stiller.
JW: Lois Weber. American divas like Norma Talmadge, particularly from the point of view of our reading of femininity in teens and twenties. Eastern European cinema in the 30s, which remains incognito for most of us...
CG: Monta Bell, Joseph H. Lewis, Paul Fejos.
TB: Hanns Eisler.
DP: Monta Bell.
DM: Edmond T. Gréville.