Il Cinema Ritrovato takes place in one of Italy’s most beautiful cities, Bologna, home of the world’s oldest university (established in 1088) and some of the nation’s finest cuisine. The festival is dedicated to restoration and to screening silent films, and it displays a very high level of film-historical and film-theoretical energy, both in its programming and in the critics, historians, and theorists invited to speak.

For me, as a moviegoer, the main excitement of this year’s program involved rediscovering an American filmmaker I thought I already knew. Raoul Walsh is known as a director chiefly (and understandably) for five scaldingly tough action-genre classics, made between 1939 and 1949: The Roaring Twenties (39), They Drive by Night (40), Manpower (41), High Sierra (41), and White Heat (49)—movies that will live forever as iconic vehicles for their “tough guy” stars George Raft, Humphrey Bogart, and James Cagney.

At Cinema Ritrovato’s Walsh retrospective I encountered a different career entirely. I discovered that he began making features in 1913—including nearly 70 features before sound came in—and his subject matter was often surprisingly highbrow. There are adaptations of Carmen and Peer Gynt among his silent titles, and innumerable films set overseas in one exotic and romantic locale after another. The notion of Walsh as exclusively a two-fisted he-man director—a next-best, slightly-more-unsubtle-and-simple-minded Howard Hawks—probably needs wholesale revision. As does the constant honorific justification of Walsh’s oeuvre on the grounds of its “simplicity” or its being “pleasantly unpretentious.”

Of the three films I saw, two were silents from the mid-Twenties (What Price Glory and The Red Dance) and one (Band of Angels) was made well after his “golden decade.” All three have tough charismatic male protagonists with whom the director clearly sympathizes (played by Edmund Lowe and Victor McClaglen in What Price Glory, Charles Farrell and Ivan Linow in The Red Dance, and Clark Gable in Band of Angels). But the films are not the sort of tight-vigorous-efficient genre pieces that Walsh criticism typically celebrates. They are extravagant epics, each with a vast background and a remarkable insistence upon the erotic as the driving element of the action.

What Price Glory

What Price Glory (26) takes American soldiers from imperialist adventure in the Far East to the horrors of fighting on the Western Front in World War I, while focusing on two men’s endless battle for a woman’s love. The Red Dance (28) depicts the last days of corrupt Czarist Russia, succumbing to the new tyranny of Communism, but this film too displaces attention abruptly to a sexual triangle that comes to symbolize the conflicted personality of the nation itself.

Band of Angels (57) is as terrifyingly and provocatively conflicted as The Searchers in its explicit examination of miscegenation and its portrayal of a slave trader (Gable) who obsessively tries to redeem himself, in endlessly perverse situations with a black woman whose sexual love he craves and a black man who he wants to claim as his son. All of this is played out against the epic unfolding of a civil war that leaves us in little doubt that the victorious North is as racist as the South.

The play in these films between political-historical catastrophe on the one hand and erotic intrigue on the other makes Walsh seem like an astonishingly strange and sophisticated artist, not the competent he-man he has been celebrated as. The female characters have a peculiar inaccessibility and otherness that make them weirder and more interesting than the heroines of most Hawks or Ford films. Raoul Walsh, a latent feminist? I’m not sure I want to go quite that far. I only know that he is a much more complicated figure than his current reputation allows.

What was also vital and exciting besides so many superb screenings was a series of talks the festival organized as an examination of the current state of cinephilia. These were perhaps particularly intense because it was a case of a festival putting up its own raison d’être for definition, dispute, and debate. The panelists were essentially asking in what context a festival like Cinema Ritrovato functions, and what real right it has to exist. A succession of important cinephiles and media theorists—including panelists Ian Christie, J. Hoberman, David Kehr, and Henry Jenkins, and attendees such as Jonathan Rosenbaum, Scott Foundas, and Girish Shambu—delved into the subject.

After listening to the participants and mulling over my reactions, I decided to frame my own brief contribution to this thorny problem of definition and classification. Cinephilia in a lofty sense began when intellectuals and artists identified cinema as essential to modernism in the Twenties. This involved the film theorizing of Eisenstein, Epstein, Munsterberg, and Balazs, joined with the transformational practice of Soviet cinema, and the discovery of a globally popular movie art in the work of Chaplin, Griffith, Stroheim, and others.

They Drive by Night

Cinephilia was reborn in the Fifties and Sixties largely in France but also around the world (criticism and aesthetic theory were where English filmmakers Karel Reisz and Lindsey Anderson got their start, for instance). Two phenomena occurred simultaneously: the cultic investigation and celebration of aesthetic riches in American cinema that had gone largely unrecognized (Hitchcock, Hawks, Minnelli, Ray, Sirk and Fuller), and the discovery that some of the main practitioners of this cult (Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, etc.) were producing extraordinarily important new art. The French filmmakers were not theoretical giants like those of the Twenties, but they were voices doing something akin to what the Soviets did in one crucial respect: making a certain new audience aware of the unique convergence in cinema between high aesthetic seriousness and universal/international popularity.

While Godard and Truffaut and their brethren were not boffo box-office successes (neither was Eisenstein in Russia, incidentally), their conflation of critique and practice at least initially held as axiomatic the idea that a rapprochement between commerciality and aesthetic merit was conceivable. This is not quite the same thing as Lenin saying “Cinema is for us the most important art form,” but it intuitively reaches a similar ground. This is the ground that postulates, as David Kehr puts it, that movies “matter.”

What is in dispute now is whether movies matter in the same way that we feel that they did before, in the Fifties and Sixties, and what cinephilia is or can be if they do not. In part it is hard for us to see how movies can matter in the way that they used to because materially they are ceasing to exist. Nitrate and celluloid, always at risk, are now on the verge of total disappearance.

There is at the same time another decisive intellectual-cultural problem. Even though the Soviets were really the first and last to affirm unequivocally an association between cinema’s aesthetic destiny and its status as a technologically accessible form for a politically motivated mass audience, the specter of that conviction continued and continues to be our template for the notion of film as the art form of what was Modernity, and whatever we would want to classify as our contemporaneity. In other words, in a post-1989 world, a key part of the unconscious of cultural-political vocabulary that enables us to imagine cinema’s decisive popular centrality as a medium has simply ceased to exist.

Band of Angels

The universality of cinema as cinephiles in the Twenties and Sixties conceived of it was in many ways populist (and everywhere but Russia never avowedly Communist). But it never associated cinema’s potential for dynamic universality with the notion of a worldwide box-office blockbuster, which has become the dominating term for cinema’s power, and for some its only significance, at least in the last 30 years. The evaporation of a left-wing alternative in the world, the disappearance of “actually existing socialism,” has dealt a blow to the unconscious logics of cinephilia, and ostensibly allowed universality and populism to bleed into little more than marketed, programmed commercial success.

Could this situation change? Is it perhaps changing as we speak? If cinema is not the art form of our contemporaneity, there is another and different sense in which what we might more generally call “visual media” is. The computer (with mini-cam attached) may be, or seems to be, what the movie camera was. A Man with a Laptop is undoubtedly being made and conceived of in some sense, by some new Dziga Vertov in Korea or Tunisia, in our time, at this very moment—“as we speak.”

The resurgence of various post-Marxist leftisms represented in Europe by the politics of Negri and Hardt, the sympathetic rereading of the anarchism of Debord, and last year’s Occupy Wall Street and the vast promise of the Arab Spring—all describe a confluence of awakening forces, that must call out to visual media for their articulation. Cinema technology played various important roles in the radical ideologies and regimes of Stalin, Hitler, and Roosevelt. Cinema did not passively record but rather helped invent the history of the 20th century. There is a new confidence, even a certainty, that our trans-media or “visual media” situation is playing a role in political events around the world and will continue do so, even more, in the next few years.

This is the context in which a discussion about a renewal of cinephilia needs to be discussed. It’s a time for a grim awareness of what has been lost, and also a unique moment of hope.

I had one other hugely thrilling experience in Bologna at Cinema Ritrovato. On three successive nights in the Piazza Maggiore, there were huge screen presentations, with excellent sound: restorations of Grand Illusion and Lawrence of Arabia, and a program of classic Chaplin shorts. Watching these films with a rapt audience of hundreds, as I shared pasta with my wife and 11-year-old son, it momentarily became impossible to believe that movies mattering could ever irrevocably become a thing of the past.