Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Multiple Sources for Women’s Film History
Giuliana Muscio

Last modified: 2010-05-28


Historical work on film can benefit from a much wider variety of sources nowadays.  Feminist, gender or race/ethnic studies, and other socio-cultural approaches  have produced a body of knowledge that has widely enriched the list of the “films-you-must-know” and the materials to read, producing new filmographies and new bibliographies.  At the same time, the risk of losing forever films that would be worth to be restored, but have not been identified as important yet, or the existence of audiovisual materials still not catalogued and not present among our traditional and standard sources create a tension in the field.  New media have incredibly and disorderly expanded our possibilities to access documents, images and films. YouTube and Internet reveal the existence of totally unexpected audiovisual materials. Collector items surface on ebay or on satellite TV. At times, the extras in a DVD might be more interesting and unexpected than the film itself. The problem with all these sources is that they appear quite randomly, more by chance than through scholarly procedures.  Moreover, one cannot always find the sources and condition of these materials, and even less one can be sure of the accuracy of the text presentation (there might have been editing, reframing and a lot of other interventions on the text, whether a film or a document). And yet a fragment on the net is much better than nothing at all! Anyway, this should only be the starting point to access the “real thing.”

 When looking for specific titles, after searching the FIAF database, one should always check out Amazon or the collectors’ sites. Home video catalogues should also be checked before declaring a title “lost.” 

 If the films you need for your research are nowhere to be found, you can use catalogues such the AFI sourcebook or encyclopedias such as the Italian Filmlexicon (which has good filmographies: contrary to French sources, it always includes the original title, together with the Italian one.) The AFI catalogue has filmographic listing according to names — even obscure players or figures — and also according to subject matter and themes, which might constitute a useful short cut at times. Starting from filmographies, one can move on and read the synopsis of the relevant films, cross-reference the credits, etc. Obviously this is not even close to seeing a film, but in my work on the American screenwriters of the silent period, I realized that going from a filmography to the information in the AFI catalogue, I could learn the names of the people (director, star) whom the individual screenwriter worked regularly with, and in which studio, in which genres, and even detect the most recurrent themes.

 Obviously, historical research first of all leads to archives, documents and special collections. Of course, the more obscure the topic or the figure to be researched, the more difficult it is that documents can be find all in one place and with the name of the person immediately obvious. You need to be creative but rational, and most of all lucky. Creativity is necessary to investigate unmapped sources, but you also need to be rational to figure out how to follow the scarce traces found in filmographies or printed materials, and how to make all the possible associations and connections. And you need to be lucky too. When working on the films made by Italians in Italian in the early 1930s in New York or New Jersey, I could check the filmography in the AFI catalogue. But it was impossible to detect what  in these films was really Italian or Neapolitan (as in the case of Notari’s O festino and ‘A legge reappearing in NY in the early 1930s).  I had to distinguish what had been simply integrated with sound and what had actually been made by the immigrant community. Very few titles exist, and only a couple of films have been restored; some of the other titles survive in a limbo, without any possibility of being seen, because they are not thought of as “lost masterpieces.” Here the lucky shot was the discovery of a collection of an Italian distributor in New York, which includes theatre programs (with the address of the theatre and a brief bilingual presentation of the films that were screened for the immigrant community), film posters drawn and printed in the US (very different from the original Italian ones), lobby cards (which allowed me to identify the actors of some films who were for sure made in the US) and personal papers. Most importantly, the collection also included some films, and with the careful scrutiny of the lobby cards, I was able to identify them.  Thus I discovered several titles, which did not appear in the AFI catalogue.  This is probably because usually they did not have a censorship visa and were not advertised in the traditional way in the American press. In fact, while trade press or newspapers or fan magazines are a very good source of information with regard to the average commercial product, the same is not true when it turns to experimental, independent or ethnic products.

 In conclusion, one should spot and identify multiple sources, but always keeping in mind that the aim is to get as close as possible to the “original.” We should be careful not to spread out mistakes and false information. We all know how IMDB can lead to embarrassing mistakes!

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