Johnny Guitar (Nicholas ray, 1954)

By Tara Judah

Cinema-going is as mythical a beast as the stories its big screen tells. Much like the tall tale of audience members screaming and running from L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (Auguste and Louis Lumière, 1896), audience experience is sometimes imagined rather than measured.

The greatest ‘truth’ I learnt, when working in a repertory cinema, is that the so-believed-to-be unengaged youth audiences were the most enthusiastic – about both big screen presentation and the shared experience. Issues of engagement attributed to piracy and a culture of immediacy seems, at best, to be a misunderstanding of issues around access and engagement. Positive examples abound – in the UK and across Europe, cinemas, especially, are working with young audiences to better understand and offer the unique experience of collective viewing. If you’ve any doubt, read Simran Hans’ recent article in Sight & Sound and the latest (or any edition of) Europa Cinemas Network Review. The case studies speak for themselves.

Meanwhile, in Bologna, at the 31st edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato, something else is taking shape. The festival brings both popular titles and niche cinema out of the archives from far corners of the globe and back onto big screens, but it doesn’t pander to a culture of FOMO – there are few ‘new’ films to see here. It’s not that everything is shown with on equal footing – some screens are bigger than others (and some auditoriums better air-conditioned, too) – but the hierarchy is such that even the lesser known titles are given plenty of space and hoards of respect. Because, as festival director Gian Luca Farinelli writes, ‘Il Cinema Ritrovato is a solid festival with a program that focuses on transmitting the beauty and uniqueness of cinema as a cultural experience…” It’s the experience, not your dance card, that matters.

So, though Il Cinema Ritrovato has a reputation for attracting cinephiles, it strikes me as one of very few film festivals where no advance knowledge of the titles is necessary. I, along with others, booked travel and accommodation long before the program was announced. It has its core audience of professionals with their expertise, sure, but there is also great freedom in attending with knowledge that amounts to little or nothing at all.

For my part, I work in a video library with some 20,000 films at my viewing disposal and have probably watched only one tenth of the collection. I’m not a member of today’s youth but I do share in some of their habits – I watch films across a diverse range of platforms, which includes the sofa and the big screen. One film I have never, not in years of renting it to enthusiastic others, shown any interest in watching at home is Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954). It’s personal preference, of course, but I have very little interest in watching Westerns.

But, faced with the opportunity to see it restored and remastered, with an estimated couple of thousand viewers, under the stars, on a still summer’s night, on a magnificently big screen, with some of my closest film friends from around the world, I eagerly took a seat. Expanding film knowledge, better getting to know film history and approaching content through the lens of experience can be more satisfying than boxing oneself into a niche corner of self-vetted viewing. While I won’t say that I loved the film (it’s retains enough of its genre’s tropes to not quite work for me), I was surprised by how glorious the sets and landscapes looked, on the enormity that only a truly big screen can offer – even if they did play second fiddle to the awesome Joan Crawford. The power of Crawford as a screen star (star studies also absent from my personal cinema interests) was undeniable and wonderful to watch. But, most of all, it was the shared laughter and applause when Crawford spat out pithy one-liners and defeated her adversary that will make the film memorable for me.

Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974), an oft dismissed spoof horror film – another unusual choice for me – brought moments of unbridled joy as the cinema virtually quaked with full bellied laughter. The ability of corny and literal gags to land on internationally diverse ears was infectious and heart-warming. It is also one of the most stunning black and white digital restorations I have seen. It is a common complaint of the digital format that the blacks are muddy and the contrast amiss. And, though I still imagine a pristine 35mm print would be even richer in its depth of colour and shade, the 4K restoration from 20th Century Fox was impressive.

The invitation from Il Cinema Ritrovato, then, is open: no prior knowledge of films or film history is required to enjoy the seventh art in the company of others. And, as the only ‘new’ thing about the 2017 edition is an extra day of screenings, what Farinelli calls ‘a gift for our audience and our staff’, then there is no doubt that the experience is winning.