A way of seeing cinema
Luciano Tovoli

(translate by Susan Ann White)

Choose a scene from one of your films, which you consider important because it marked a particular achievement in your career. For example: the plan-séquence in Professione: Reporter by Michelangelo Antonioni, photographed by you. Describe how you filmed it and what emotions it aroused in you, also from a technical point of view.

You've chosen it for me. The film Professione: Reporter is entirely built around that famous plan séquence that was conceived and realized thanks to Antonioni's talent and tenacity. It was 1974 and that same year - a magical one for me - I participated, creatively I believe, in two completely different films, two thrilling, unforgettable cinematic experiences: Pane e cioccolata, the finest work produced by that great author Franco Brusati, and Professione: Reporter by Michelangelo Antonioni.

I think that I developed my way of working with these two films, these two extremely different ways of seeing cinema, without forgetting Banditi ad Orgosolo by Vittorio De Seta, Suspiria by Dario Argento and Il deserto dei tartari by Valerio Zurlini.

With the possibilities offered by the new technologies, how would you reshoot that scene today? Would you get a better result

I think it makes no sense at all to improve things afterwards. In any case, it would be like insensitively trying to colour films in black white. Besides, there is hardly anything to improve. In fact, the Wescam system, in 35mm, was used for the first time on Professione: Reporter, and operated by its inventor Ron Goodman. And I'm using it now, in April 2001, on my latest film, directed by Barbet Schroeder, which I'm shooting at Hollywood! I'm still viewing each shot on a monitor separate from the camera, which was the latest invention in 1974 but is now used on practically every film! The technology that made the plan séquence in Professione: Reporter possible was way ahead of its time!

Do you think that cinema has to be filmed with traditional means, and that the introduction of digital technologies (especially for crowd scenes and special effects) is a violation of the cinema's code?

Codes do not stand the test of time, not even aesthetic ones. Who still remembers that querelle between Umberto Barbaro, a film historian rooted in historical materialism and the idealistic Luigi Chiarini? Their names mean nothing now, except to a small band of followers. Unfortunately.

But it's not that simple, because it was precisely the crowd scenes in Cabiria by the Italian director Pastrone, those first special effects created with matte painting and that circensian grandiosity that was certainly far removed from auteur cinema (just to show that cinema can be anything and everything!), which inspired one of the great fathers of cinema - and not only that produced in Hollywood - David W. Griffith. And wasn't George Méliès' painting his sets in various tones of grey, to create relief, since film then was not sensitive to all the wavelengths of the visible spectrum, a fantastic special effect?

What's your opinion of recent films that have been partially shot - Buena Vista Social Club by Wim Wenders, Gladiator by Ridley Scott - or totally shot - Dancer in the Dark by Lars Von Trier - with digital videocameras and then printed on film for the theatres?

Buena Vista Social Club and Dancer in the Dark were very interesting although extremely provoking; Gladiator less so, even though I think Ridley Scott is great at visualizing his ideas and I have always admired him.>

In November 2000 the first film, Bounds, was distributed via satellite in American cinemas; what do you think of this?

Shame I wasn't there!

Have you ever photographed a film using techniques you would describe as innovative?

On Il mistero di Oberwald Antonioni's idea of attempting to intervene chromatically in only a section of the frame, without altering the rest, was completely new. The idea of colour as not only surface and frame but also depth was the key to solving the problem and I think that in dealing with it we were fully aware that we were carrying out one of the first experiments that would probably not produce perfect results, and that things would change considerably in the future - and the same thing is happening now with digital. But I think that anyone who wishes to trace the history of the electronic and digital image will find that that first experiment provides a solid basis for numerous hypotheses and for putting in perspective, not only from a technological point of view, what is happening today and will happen tomorrow in the field of cinema, that is, stories told with moving images.

What direction should the research undertaken by designers of technology take? Should they move towards miniaturized film cameras and lighter chassis, or digital video equipment?

According to me, the miniaturization of the tools for making movies does not necessarily mean progress. The magnificent, heavy, unwieldy Technicolor camera that we have in the AIC museum, which made unforgettable films like Senso possible, is for me, as I am sure it was for Visconti, Aldò and certainly Rotunno, the ideal means for communicating to audiences (who are not the least interested in the unwieldiness, lack of mobility or heaviness of that kind of camera but rather the emotion that those authors succeeded in communicating with it) and preserving for posterity (since the three black white matrixes guarantee practically unlimited conservation) those remarkable images. I dream of a future when - and I am obviously not talking about applied technology in fields of research in which I am merely interested but not directly involved, such as medicine and aeronautics - this terrible confusion between miniaturization and progress towards who knows where, since everything is once again automatically giving way to the material aspect, also three-dimensional, of the medium employed, will be analysed, pondered and enquired into on the basis of that pleasure, now totally lost, deriving from sight and touch, while there are still photographic emulsions and developers with their distinctive smells.

What do you think about conservation and restoration in the Italian cinema? Does restoration here mean the same as it does in the United States?

I think a commendable attempt is being made, with difficulty and also with a certain amount of confused vested interests, to block that fatal process of deterioration that drastically effects colour films.

The USA is light years away from us (I wouldn't say they were either ahead or behind), or at least that's how it seems to me. They have another mentality, and are almost always motivated by economic interests. The money is found to restore films that can still be exploited on the market. But Americans certainly won't spend the astronomic sums required to carry out a full restoration unless there is a chance of the film earning money. Here in Italy we try to save, with the very little money available, the films we consider significant from a cultural point of view. It's a totally different way of conceiving cinema.

Are there some films that should be restored but remain in the shadows because more acclaimed pictures are given precedence?

Of course there are! But the way that the living vie with each other, also on behalf of the dead, to have not only one but sometimes many films restored, is so typically Italian!

Do you have your own personal list of films you'd like to see restored as soon as possible?

I think that all, and I mean all, films should be saved. Creating priorities, or favouring one's own works in the belief that humanity will not be able to survive without them, is an attitude that I find, shall we say, offensive. I would base future restorations on the luck of the draw.

If all films were shot with digital technologies the problem of preservation and restoration, encountered after a few years with film, would not exist. Any comments?

A point in digital's favour!

Is digital cinema a boat that we shouldn't miss, something we should embrace wholeheartedly, or simply a system to be combined with traditional cinema, a further opportunity - like a Steadicam?

Every means of expression that succeeds in establishing itself is inevitably all-embracing. In the last hundred and fifty years what has been more all-embracing than negative film, so well-liked and, far too soon - believe me - late-lamented?

Experts say that a small improvement in negative film is equal to a huge step forward in digital technology...

A point in favour of film!

When comparing digital and traditional filming Giuseppe Rotunno said: "Cinematography has no substitute, it's like wine and water: we drink both but they're completely different, and one cannot substitute the other. Even though they can sometimes be mixed. What do you think?

I don't think anyone could have made a wiser or more impartial judgment concerning an issue that should not in actual fact concern us.

Cinema attendance is on the increase in Italy and more and more multiplexes are springing up. Often a multiplex in Italy becomes a meeting place for youngsters who go to the cinema to socialize and mainly watch American or Christmas movies. Can you visualize art multiplexes; in this country - they already exist in France - where Italian films are shown many months after their release. A sort of protected zone for a product that is often of high quality. What could the AIC do in this regard?

We have been trying to get a cinema in Rome, that would be run by the AIC, for years. Just one of the many dreams we have not been able to realize.

The new generation of cinematographers create new styles and languages, also as a result of parallel experiences like shorts, videoclips and commercials, which makes them more receptive to the new. What do the veterans, who consider the new instruments a means rather than an end, think about this?

Generations have always succeeded each other in the firm belief that the new generation is revolutionary, and the old conservative. This notion may be valid for a historical and social analysis, but certainly does not apply to activities where talent is more important than age.

Why did you choose a career in movies: was it because of a film, a concept of cinema, or a person who was important to you?

It was because of the sharp shadow of a cluster pine, cast by the setting sun on the peeling façade of an old house in my part of the world, the Maremma in Tuscany, where I grew up. When I saw that sharp shadow on the orange, white and grey wall whose peeling patches were aflame with giant scarlet brushstrokes (ton sur ton, as our refined and cultured set and costume designer friends are wont to say when presenting their work, as I was to find out years later) I automatically put to my eye the Leica (an M-3 with a 50mm. Elmarit - F 2.8!) lent to me by the father of a well-off obliging, irresponsible friend. It was my first colour photo and, I think, my first movie.

Your profession has, with the advent of the new technologies, become more immediate; the ritual of the daily rushes has often given way to snap decisions taken by directors, implemented with videotape or an Avid. Do you see this as other categories encroaching on your territory, or a step backwards?

I have always found it difficult to think in terms of categories. It comes naturally to me to think in terms of the individual, of individual personalities although my background has always led me to have great respect for categories that face life as part of large organizations, in large groups without being able to enjoy many liberties, and also for the many different types of freelance professionals.

But does our profession, making movies in general I mean, seem like a job to you? To me it has always seemed like something less but also something more.

Mario Bava, who was first a cinematographer and then a director and wizard of special effects, said that cinema was artisanal, that it began with ideas, in the mind, was created with one's own hands, and that great effects could be achieved with very little. Do you think that to illuminate a film we should return to ideas, to a good screenplay in which the words are the true special effects?

Mario Bava perfectly symbolized the ingenious artist and craftsman who, closeted in his dark and secret workshop, succeeds in creating remarkable products with a few essential tools and infinite inventiveness. This is what he symbolically represents for me today, apart from his films. I don't think that willpower has much to do with that complete mystery known as the creation of a narrative work and therefore I don't see how willpower will help us to re-create the conditions of the cinema of that period - when Mario Bava was completely ignored, in fact. Apropos of this, I don't think that any of those great thinkers who compile the lists will bother including his films, not even one - I'm sorry, I know it's an awful lot of trouble - among the films to be restored.

Nor do I see why words should be the new special effects! That surprises me, coming from people who create images. I know its a popular catch phrase, but like all catch phrases it smacks dangerously of demagoguery. From the very beginning the cinema, and we have already said this, has always been full of special effects. There have always been two types of cinema: fantastic and realistic. The former has always needed special effects and since this type of cinema is often mixed with the other type, special effects have, shall we say, become second nature to cinema, and therefore a continual temptation for filmmakers. Quite frankly, I don't consider talkies more interesting than silent movies; on the contrary, if I could launch a request from a much more authoritative platform than the small table in my hotel room where I am typing this on an electronic keyboard, it would be precisely that of finding a way to stop the flood of words that has drowned what was one purely a visual form of representation that had reached extremely high levels of expression. Today, in the great majority of cases, the image is no longer the essential element of the film but a kind of indispensable complement (can you imagine a film without images?); indeed, it is often arrogantly and absurdly considered an almost useless and barely tolerable hindrance that as such does not need to be created with particular care, let alone being brought more into harmony with the subject of the film until it becomes its distinctive sign, the sign that incorporates all the other signs, including the word. Because here, if I understand correctly, we are talking about cinema, that is, the image, and not radio or literature, that is, simply the word.

Among other things, I don't think that Italian cinema is suffering from a glut of special effects; in fact, I have often heard people complaining about a lack of them, which is not surprising as they cost so much.

There's one thing I don't understand: on the one hand we criticize American cinema because of its excessive use of these effects, but on the other we'd like a few more in our films! Let's take a lesson from the French, who seem to have hit on the right compromise. They make very interesting movies without special effects, and others on a grander scale that are packed with them, and they really excel at this.

What if the real problem is not the good medium of film being crushed by evil digital? What if the real problem of - Italian - cinema lies elsewhere?