18.11.16 – Italian Cinema and Memory in London

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“I think cinema is the memory and the imagination of the country. Take the memory and imagination out of an individual, and he stops being an individual. I think it’s the same thing for a country.”

– Phillippe Falardeau

I’ll never forget the feeling of trepidation, uncertainty, and doubt I experienced when I sat in on my first class in graduate school. It was a Introduction Historiography course taught by Dr. Robert Cassanello at the University of Central Florida. Five years removed from that class, I may have reimagined his initial introduction to the class into something right out of the opening scene in The Paper Chase.

This class pushed me to what I felt at the time was the furthest extent of my mental capacity, as week after week I became submerged in an endless array of historical theories, perspectives, and approaches. As soon as I buoyed above the crest of one wave, I was immediately washed away by another blast whether it be from E.P. Thompson, Lawrence Levine, Carlo Ginzburg, Richard Hofstader, or Leopold van Ranke, to name a few. As I and my other classmates drowned ourselves in reading assignments and interpretive essays, we each gradually felt as if we were to be overcome by the seeming endlessness our field of study had to offer. Without hope and with unfocused vision we fumbled on through a seeming disconnected array of perspectives handed down to us mere mortals from on high by the supreme academic deities who would go on to become our patron saints. Perhaps it was out of pity, but most likely by design, about halfway through the semester we had a very frank discussion as a class in regards to how we will be able to navigate the labyrinthine Library of Babel that is the field of historical studies. Dr. Cassanello’s advice was straightforward, simple, and direct: “Eventually it all circles right back to where you started.”

Over the next two years as I worked toward finishing my Master’s degree, that kernel of advice remained tucked away in the back of my mind. Through all that time I sought the moment were I would return to the beginning and when I would see the knowledge I had gained through new eyes. As promised, I experienced a small but momentous amount of familiarity during my preparation for Capstone exams and later while writing my Master’s thesis. Another moment of profound clarity came from reading Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery’s landmark Film History: Theory and Practice, which did much to help me untangle the intricate web of methodological approaches that exist within the field of film history. Furthermore their work helped to inspire me to pursue this particular field as my topic of study.

As I transitioned from an uncertain Master’s student, to only a slightly secure  Ph.D. candidate, the circular nature of my field of research became increasingly apparent. The touchstone moment came in June 2015 when I presented on my research at the HoMER (History of Movie Going Exhibition and Reception) Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Here I was able to meet and sit in on panels with many of the authors who had influenced my research, including Robert C. Allen. One of the most memorable sessions I sat in on, was a panel titled “Reconstructing Post-War Italian Audiences: New Perspectives and Methodological Challenges.” This panel was the first time I was exposed to serious scholarship on how a national cinematic identity is defined by historians. I was especially inspired by Danielle Hipkin’s oral history of older Italian’s film memories, John Sedwick’s use of statistics and local newspaper publications, and Daniela Treveri Gennari and Silvia Dibeltulo’s use of GIS mapping to understand distribution patterns. These new approaches reminded me of the tidal wave sensation I previously had felt at the start of my graduate career. I was also significantly influenced by Catherine O’Rawe’s message that interpreting subject realities and medium realities, are not just a source of additional information, but instead are a means to convey the history and identity of a place and ultimately transcend meaning beyond their intentions.

You can learn more about this fascinating project here.

With this background in mind, my return to the United Kingdom in November 2016 was an important reminder that I have at  very least completed one full revolution around my field of academic study. I was invited to join in on a one-day seminar with a focus on Cinema Memory and Audiences at the University of London, hosted by the Centre for the Study of Cultural Media. What I enjoyed most about this opportunity was that I was able to witness firsthand the progress and setbacks that the Italian Cinema Audiences Project had experienced over the past year and a half since I first was introduced to their work.

I particularly enjoyed the latest oral histories that were shared by the ICAP, both for the enjoyable content, but also for the insights the participants offered. I also couldn’t help but to add my own snarky commentary on some of the interviewee’s reminiscences.

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Ultimately the aim of the workshop was to bring together researchers, practitioners, curators and cultural organizations from different backgrounds so that they can share ideas and their experiences of working in areas related to cultural memory, oral history and digital technologies. This was also accomplished by way of introducing a few projects that operate with a similar methodology as ICAP. If you are interested in learning more about what was discussed at the workshop, feel free to view the recording of the presentation below:

Dr. Anne Fee of the University College of London, shed a fascinating light on the class-power dynamics of Parisian working class cinemas during the interwar period, while Dr. Richard MacDonald of Goldsmith’s College shared the complex cultural rituals that developed in outdoor cinemas in Thailand.

The last third of the workshop involved a series of seemingly unrelated but surprisingly interconnected projects. Katherine Ford of The Cinema Museum in London discussed a well-being program called The Gentleman’s Cake Club. According to Sarah Culhane’s write up of the project (see link) the initiative is described as such:

“Attended by a small group of local men, the club provides a social space where participants can meet and chat. The group is facilitated by Ford who, in addition to providing tea and cake, uses an iPad to support the men’s conversation. The conversation generally unfolds organically and Ford allows it to go in whatever direction the men take it. Frequently she will use the iPad to ‘illustrate’ some aspect of the discussion by checking a fact or showing the group an image or video related to the topic of conversation. She explained that occasionally she also uses the iPad as a device to ‘unblock’ the conversation if the men are less talkative. A simple thing like checking the weather for the next day can be enough to get discussion flowing again.”

Following a similar thread, Ana Salzberg of the University of Dundee presented the ways in which the a care home can be used to establish a cinematic community. She discusses how Scottish care facilities attempt to re-create the cinematic experience for residents as a way to prevent loneliness and boredom, and foster social connectivity. She suggests that recreating the sensory experience of the cinema emphasized by the drawn curtains, popcorn, and big screen – allows residents to enter into particular pleasures of spectatorship. In turn this approach intensifies certain emotions, memories and sensation, and enhances their present experience too, acting as a form of care towards present-day forms of embodiment and connection.

Simon Hopper’s discussion on “The Power of Memories” was yet another riveting talk, which I encourage you to watch at least in part:

Dr. Cahal McLaughlin’s presentation did not directly correspond with cinematic memories per se, but it applied many of the best practices that can be used in conducting a successful memory project. His discussion on the Prisons Memory Archive curating a  collection of 175 filmed walk-and-talk recordings with those who had a connection with Armagh Gaol and the Maze and Long Kesh Prison during the conflict in and about Northern Ireland. The recordings were made in 2006 and 2007. The range of participants includes prison staff, prisoners, relatives, teachers, chaplains, lawyers, doctors, probation officers and maintenance workers The recordings capture how everyday life was impacted by the conflict and builds a rich tapestry of the story of the prisons, just one of the many stories from the conflict.

Ironically enough, the last presentation: Alasdair Hopwood’s discussion on The False Memory Archive was not recorded, so it may not have really happened. Based upon fascinating scientific research that demonstrates how susceptible we are to false memories, Hopwood offered us a unique collection of vivid personal accounts of things that never really happened. Opening with a display of digitally manipulated photographs of UFO sightings, Hopwood’s work evocatively reflects the way we creatively reconstruct our sense of the past, while providing insight into the often humorous, obscure and uncomfortable things people have misremembered. Altogether each of the topics addressed during this day-long event intersected in ways that may not have been immediately apparent had I not of benefited from taking my first full revolution around the field of film history. As I continue to develop my own questions and approaches toward better understanding cinema’s regional dynamics, I increasingly rely on workshops and panel sessions such as these to help me stumble toward that elusive, vague sense of understanding that only comes after a multi-light year galactocentric orbit.

Since this post is already running a bit overlong, I had to cut short the travel component of this week’s entry. However, building on my new found appreciation for urban street art, I’d be remiss not to share with you some highlights from my wanderings through London and trip to Banksy’s hometown in Bristol over the course of the weekend. For those of you not familiar with Bansky’s work, I’ll just leave this here:

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