Rose-Tinted Telescopes: Nostalgia, Preservation and Cinema Paradiso (1988)

By Sam Thompson

Cinema Paradiso, dir. Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988. Runtime: 2 hours, 54 minutes

Walt Whitman asked of America,

“Is it a dream?”

and answered,

“Nay but the lack of it the dream”

This winter, on its twenty-fifth anniversary, a cinematic re-release of Cinema Paradiso will confront a new generation of movie-lovers with Whitman’s enigmatic response. The film hasn’t changed (this is a “fully restored” version of a director’s cut that’s been around for a decade now), but what has changed is the audience. We’re jaded and bored, more nostalgic than ever for a collective film memory that has begun to fade. This time round, director Giuseppe Tornatore’s paean to lost love and a dying movie culture may just be too sad for the cinephile to bear. Paradoxically, the only therapy for this melancholy is to go and see it.

Cinema Paradiso is a series of memories – the restless recollections that we entertain between sleep and wakefulness. The memories belong to Toto, and take us back to his childhood in a rural Sicilian village, replete with maternal discipline and paternal absence, and his relationship with the local projectionist, Alfredo. Toto’s retrospection is sparked by news of Alfredo’s death. In a dreamy transition, Tornatore uses the sound of wind-chimes outside his window to link Toto’s colourless Roman apartment with his childhood role as the bell-ringer at Mass. The sound continues into the next scene in which we see the local priest inspecting a film in the parish cinema. Each ring of his censorial bells is a fiat against un-Christian carnality. At each ding-dong, Alfredo dutifully records the moment where he needs to cut. Toto is hiding behind the curtain, watching gleefully. It’s the archetypal genesis of cinematic passions – voyeuristically peeking at frustrated libidinal impulses. (This is possibly a little too cute in its adherence to psychoanalytic orthodoxy). Through this aural motif of bells, we’re introduced to the main players and ideas. Furthermore, through the juxtaposition of the cinema and the church, the projection booth and the altar, Tornatore offers the central object of his nostalgia: the communal act of transcendence. Toto’s nostalgia is clustered and undefined. He sees much in his childhood that he has since lost: a sense of belonging – both to a family and a community, his lost-love, Elena, and his youthful passion. But these distinct ideas are all subsumed under the Cinema because it is the context that made them all possible. For this reason, it is the Cinema and its facility for moments of collective transcendence that affects this feeling of nostalgia in the audience.

Tornatore invites us to look back at this possibility before we say goodbye to it forever. Alfredo – as a cipher for film itself – gives the audience an opportunity to vicariously mourn the loss of this culture. At the time of its release, this logic was sound. Kids who grew up seeing a short serial; two features; a cartoon and a news program in the 1950s would form the base of a demand for triple-bills at grimy Boho cinemas in the 1980s. In this way, perhaps the conservative mainstream informed the habits of the niche counterculture through inculcating the ritual of regular cinema-going. Young viewers today never went to Saturday matinees or Grindhouse all-nighters. They may feel, after Alfredo’s symbolic demise, that they are being asked to attend the funeral of someone they never knew. We live in the time of the ‘last projectionist’; small film-going attendance; and lacklustre independent cinemas (EuropaCinema dominates programming throughout UK ‘independent’ cinemas). Most significantly, our world is saturated with screens. We may occasionally achieve transcendence through those screens (some claim this for certain kinds of gaming). However, the many dogmas of movie culture now appear horribly antiquated. Chief among these are that the moving image in-itself has a magical propensity for eliciting transcendence and that there are ideal conditions for this experience, conditions which roughly align with the traditional cinematic ritual.

David Thomson writes in The Big Screen, ‘In the earliest days, the primitive movie shows seemed to be life in our lap, but now the many lap devices often whisper to us that we are not to bother with life’. It is this notion that perpetuates the salience and sadness of Cinema Paradiso. Although the film is superficially a nostalgic look at the big screen and the art of projection, it is ultimately a celebration of life in all its vagaries. Great cinema presents life as it can be – joyous, terrifying and transcendent. It presents it so well that it makes us want to leave the cinema and go live it. What is necessary for this filmic effect is a separation of realms. Now that screens are a constant fixture of our lives, surrogates for pity and joy, such a separation becomes increasingly difficult. In Paradiso, teenagers masturbate to the silhouette of Bridgette Bardot’s bum and the crowds cheer when villains are caught. We still live vicariously through screens, but atomistically. Now everything, from relationships to identity, is reduced and self-contained in a private, pin-protected screen. Alfredo is the one who thwarts Toto’s romance with Elena and dictates that his future will herald directorial success rather than domestic happiness. The Cinema has the pernicious power to obscure all other value and pleasures that life contains. In this sense, Paradiso is a cautionary tale. The movies are a wilful temptress obfuscating the importance of living authentically outside of the silver screen.

Mourning the passing of the Cinema as a place of worship and the moving image as sacrosanct is an exercise in ahistorical romanticism. Identifying the yearning that Cinema Paradiso expresses does not enjoin us to the luddites who bemoan the contemporary bastardisation of the practice and content of the movies. They form, if not a critical consensus, then a persistent critical buzzing. It was better in their day, before 3D and the franchising of stories, before the arrival of East Coast money (and now Far East money). Their eventual place in history is already recorded in every recalcitrant regressive claiming cinema was a stillborn art, corrupted in its nascency by commerce; or those that believed sound (and then colour) were ill-advised perversions; or that rang death bells at the advent of television in the 1950s or VHS in the 1980s. All were proved wrong by creativeness of movie-makers and distributors.

The feeling of nostalgia is not diminished by the fragility of its object. If anything, it’s a heightened, headier yearning fuelled by what Joan Dideon described as the ‘presentiment of loss’ – a disposition to see immanent destruction in all of our experiences. Our realisation at the loss of communal transcendence leads us to an awareness of the fragility of all that the movies are, constantly under attack from the caprice of the free-market and the tyranny of bad taste. Didion’s response to this was assiduous diary-keeping: experience cannot be lost when it is meticulously recorded. This preservationist impulse is one that should be shared by cinephiles in the face of Paradiso. The impossibility of this preservation for some aspects of movie culture (cinemas will never again attract the number of customers they did in the 40s) will transform a preservationist impulse into a progressive one for some people. Ingenuity is required from the new generation to make movies the chief candidates in our search for communal transcendence. Both image and presentation must be revitalised or else we lose the fight to Angry Birds and Snapchat.

There is evidence of this ingenuity occurring. Alfonso Cuarón made us feel like children again with Gravity (2013), a film so phenomenally unique that it evades description. The experience requires metaphor – ‘virtual abseiling’ was a decent effort. Cuarón resurrected our suspicions of the filmmaker as supra-scientific magician. Tornatore exploits this association. The first time Alfredo is seen outside of the projection booth, he conjures 50 lire to get Toto out of trouble. It’s an act of fraudulent deception. Orson Welles would see this as the perfection duality: movie-maker and trickster. Two sides of the same coin. Cuarón deceives our proprioception, our sense of balance and orientation. We’re in the hands of a true trickster once again. No-one shouted at the screen during Gravity, but the audience did all grip the armrests together. This may be the closest we now come to communal transcendence. It was achieved by contemplating the content/form of movies and their mode of presentation as undivorceable. Gravity, as a series of images, is unequivocally wedded to IMAX 3D presentation.

The options available to the young cinephile remain meaningful ones. Those who treasure swimming in the dreams of the past must preserve this possibility. Conversely, those who affirm the modern aesthetic, who want to give the wistful dream of the movies to some future generation, are the progressives. We need both. A buoyant film culture demands dialogues. One must be between preservationists and progressives: between the archive and the festival; history and criticism; restoration and creation. Consider Paradiso again. It’s a film about a director looking back, primarily at his relationship with a projectionist. The final and most affecting scene shows Toto watching a montage of kissing, spliced together from all the censored 40s scenes. Toto, the film maker, bites back the tears as he is confronted with Alfredo’s final act of amorous preservation. In the modern age of screen ubiquity, we increasingly abstract presentation from content. Nothing is more conceptually distant from screens and light than an .AVI file. The preservationist’s role is to reverse this trend.

Some will remain unmoved by Cinema Paradiso. They’ll call it trite sentimentalism; confine it to postmodern pastiche and nothing more. These viewers will be immune to the sense of yearning that the film evokes. Anyone who feels simultaneous hope and despair at the long shadows of desolation cast by the destruction of the past will feel it doubly in the face of Tornatore’s prayer. Of course, Paradiso is mellifluous (teetering constantly on the precipice of mawkishness) but it is also masterful in its puppetry of our nostalgia without ever simply colonising the images of the past. It will make you laugh and cry in equal measure and there’s little more to ask for from a film. However, be warned. The laughter may be bittersweet and the tears won’t be for a blind, old projectionist but for the iPad in your hands and for callous history that determined they will no longer be shed in the dark with strangers. Resist wallowing in this unrequited regret. Remember: the lights still dance. Solace comes in knowing that just by going to the movies we exercise a nostalgic desire to retain such strange practices. Attendance is performative preservation.

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