Giorgio Bertellini

 

On his book Italy in Early American Cinema: Race, Landscape, and the Picturesque

Cover Interview of March 24, 2010

The wide angle

If the argument I make is fairly simple—even intuitive: like other media, cinema domesticated the alleged wilderness of remote places and populations into entertaining representations—executing it required familiarity with a transatlantic network of visual practices and critical debates.

Thus the book incorporates illustrations and methods from the history of painting, print-making, photography, landscape architecture, anthropology, tourism, theatre, caricature, and moving pictures.  This wide framework of references allowed me to show how the power-laden aesthetics of the Picturesque crossed historical periods and geographic distances, moved from the canvas to the photographic plate and the movie screen, and, consequently, served as a long-lasting resource for both racial allegations and identity formations.

The project grew in such a way because of personal interests and inclinations: my background in philosophy helped me think through larger aesthetic debates.  But this broad approach was time consuming.  Ultimately, I was able to carry out the project because of fortunate academic opportunities.  A three-year postdoc at the University of Michigan’s Society of Fellows enabled me to read extensively and entertain an intense dialogue with junior and senior scholars from other fields, without the customary obligations of regular teaching and service.  A few years later I was able to have the same experience during a one-year fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard, where I rewrote the manuscript while trying to weave together all the different strands of my research.  Under these privileging circumstances, the original project, initially centered on the relationship between early cinema and Italian immigrants in New York, gained in scope and ambition.

The broader implications of the argument put forward in the book are, I think, twofold.  On the one hand, if we take seriously the intermedial history of films’ representations, we ought to revisit the widely-held notion of moving pictures’ radical novelty and distinctive modernity.  My study seeks to show that, at least from a racial viewpoint, films’ communicative power was actually fraught with debts to powerful, older, yet equally modern, geoaesthetic traditions.

All too often, the argument about cinema’s novel aesthetic property has stressed its unique capacity to reproduce movement, namely the photographic embalming and manipulation of time.  In this study I seek to complement this assessment by showing moving pictures’ creative complicity with popular notions of spatial and geographic distance, and related perceptions of social and racial diversity.  By relying on, and furthering, this long-lasting aesthetic tradition, familiar to both image-makers and consumers, cinema readily achieved a broad appeal even among the subjects of films’ racially-charged depictions.  This is the second implication of my study.

In the past, scholars have argued that immigrants’ exposure to moving pictures offered them a radically new experience, one that could not easily be assimilated with their own cultural universe, and that in the process “Americanized” them.  My research on the international pervasiveness of Southern Italian landscapes of erupting volcanoes, charming seashores and colorful banditi suggests otherwise.

Since before coming to the United States, Italian immigrants were strikingly familiar with these conventions, which pervaded Sicilian stage plays, Neapolitan melodramas, and local films productions.  Not only did they recognize picturesque representation on American screens, but they also contributed to the resilience of picturesque conventions in their own remarkable theatrical and filmmaking enterprises—as archival holdings and the ethnic press reveal.

The book cover’s composite landscape view is suggestively meant to capture the multiple layers of the Picturesque’s transatlantic circulation.  Featured as a stage backdrop in the 1917 footage of The Godfather: Part II (1974) and, originally, in the logo of the music-publishing firm of Coppola’s grandfather, the image links the picturesque representations of Naples and New York in a single, impossible view.  Here, Old and New World are reunited in a common exoticizing gesture that not only reproduces immigrants’ nostalgia and wonder, but also shows how the Picturesque, despite its long and patrician history, was in 1910s America a widely appreciated visual currency exchanged across social and cultural barriers.