Workshop 2

Rylan, X Factor 2012 contestant

Rylan, X Factor 2012 contestant

Bristol, 24 April 2013 (Report)


This second afternoon workshop in a series of events intended to develop the project Italian Cinemas/Italian Histories was generously supported by the Bristol Institute for Research in the Humanities and Arts (BIRTHA) and the Leeds Humanities Research Institute. We are very grateful to Catherine O’Rawe for securing the BIRTHA funding and for her organization of the venue, refreshments and the participant accommodation. Thanks to all the speakers and participants for their precious contributions to the ongoing discussion.

Italian Cinemas/Italian Histories is a project being developed by Alan O’Leary (Leeds) intended to ask the following question: What are the modes, genres and registers in which Italian cinema has dealt with the history of Italy? The goal of the project is to rethink the relationship of Italian cinema to the history of Italy from a descriptive and analytical rather than prescriptive and paternalistic perspective. The project is being developed over a series of workshops and other events, of which the Bristol event, devoted especially to methodological issues, was the second. The workshops are intended to identify important themes and questions, and to establish whether the research questions and goals represent a shared intellectual imperative. Should this be the case, it is hoped that the project will ultimately lead to a large funding bid that will facilitate the assembly of an international group of scholars and construction of a flexible set of methodologies adequate to the analysis of large and complex corpora of films.

Catherine O’Rawe (Bristol) followed Alan’s introduction, and a group discussion on the project approach and concerns, with a presentation entitled ‘History, Biopics, Performance’. The questions addressed in the presentation concerned (1) how traumatic events are negotiated in films through archive footage and (2) how the star body/presence inflects the revisiting of the traumatic past. She discussed in particular the roles played by Kim Rossi Stuart in two films on the 1970s, Romanzo criminale (Michele Pacido, 2005) and Vallanzasca – gli angeli del male (Michele Placido, 2010). In the case of the former, she paid particular attention to the scene of the Bologna station bombing and its use of male emotion as vehicle and analogue of national suffering; with regard to the latter she discussed the controversies about the supposed danger of a charismatic and beautiful actor portraying a murderous criminal. In both films, the real body of the actor is superimposed onto historical events recognized from photographs and newsreel in a process which Catherine described as the dramatization of a public sphere based on memory. She noted the gap between the ‘fiction’ and the ‘history’ personified in the ‘body too much’ (Comolli’s concept) of the star, who is a ghost in the past even as he catalyzes its haunting of the present. Discussing another controversial film on the ’70s, she argued that the use of archive footage in La prima linea (Renato De Maria, 2009) confirmed the desire for a set of objective images that could heal the trauma of the past. Alluding again to Derrida, she said that the film also exemplified the coercive ‘violence’ of the archive itself, in that the archive forced the viewer’s negotiation of the difficult past through an institutional re-presentation.

In ‘Migration Cinema and Queer Temporality’, Derek Duncan (St Andrews) discussed a number of films and explained how critical concepts from queer theory might trouble a project on history and challenge naturalized temporalities. He reprised the idea of spectrality from Catherine’s paper, arguing that in Derrida the spectre also has connotations of the not-yet-born so requires us to engage ethically with the future. He discussed the question of anachronism in relation to postcolonial and queer studies, presenting it as both risk and heuristic: we may read erroneously our own concerns or practices back into the past; or, like John Boswell, we may use wilful anachronism to generate cross-temporal conflict that forces us to confront difference. He referred to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and David Halpern’s challenges to a culturally narcissistic and teleological model of gay identity that ‘progresses’ from oppression to liberation, a model that presents cultures like Italy as backward and conceals the fact that any historical date will have multiple temporalities embedded within it. This led him to the critical concept of ‘chrononormativity’- referring to how life and life-‘stories’ are supposed to be organized – which can allow us to analyse the kind of life options (plots) allotted to characters (in Derek’s work, migrants) in fiction and films and to identify the ‘temporal drag’ of the past’s persistence in a present, even in an individual or gender identity (the choice example given was of a male X Factor contestant’s wearing of a decade-after-fashion Kylie snood). Waiting – typical in migrant texts – was revealed in this perspective to contravene chrononormativity: it is not storied enough. The migrant body tends to be an object of surveillance and suspicion, and is never seen to adequately fit the chrononormative. Used critically, then, chrononormativity can worry histories based on a national story and its exclusions.

In ‘Screening the Prostitute and the Italian Soldier in Films about World War Two: Symptom or Surface?’ Danielle Hipkins (Exeter) interrogated her own methodology of symptomatic reading. Why, she asked, even in her own work on prostitution, is a story about prostitution never a story about prostitution? Do we need to employ a ‘surface’ reading to understand what’s actually in the films she/we study? The symptom won’t go away though: Danielle suggested that the ritualistic condemnation of prostitution on screen seems to point to a disavowal of the pleasure taken in the female body in cinema. Her analysis focused on Le soldatesse (Vittorio Zurlini, 1965) an adaptation of a 1956 novel by Ugo Pirro about the forced prostitution of Greek women by the Italian army during WWII. The quality of critical disappointment with the adaptation pointed to the representation of the prostitute as shorthand for the failed representation of history. Danielle compared the film to Pirro’s source novel and was struck by the degree to which the novel features the interrogation of masculinity and gendered performance, lost in the film and perhaps impossible in a film of this period. But, apart from what is lost – what is there? The film does foreground the main female character’s gaze on the Italian male, and it ends with her leaving to join the (Greek) resistance, a choice elided or denied to women in earlier Italian films. Expressing some reservations about distant reading as a method, Danielle suggested that surface and micro-reading was necessary in order to challenge established stories of Italian cinema. The danger is one of repeating schemas inherited from authoritative commentators like Brunetta when the foundations of their taxonomies need to be revealed and analysed.

In ‘“La storia viva” or “la storia morta”: Competing Notions of History in Post-War Italy’ Charles Leavitt (Reading) argued that we need to take Italian terms and distinctions very seriously in order to understand how historical representation was conceived. He described his research into the use and meanings of the omnipresent keywords ‘cronaca’ and ‘narrativa’ in postwar cultural and literary debates. What he found was a renegotiation of the Crocean categories of cronaca as a sort of lifeless anti-history versus storia as a live history informed by an organizing consciousness. For Croce, the spirit of history had to precede mere fact. In discussions around neorealism, however, cronaca comes to be valued; thus De Sica, speaking about Ladri di biciclette, talks of ‘il meraviglioso della piccolo cronaca’. However, ideas of cronaca differed from writer to writer and filmmaker to filmmaker: in that difference is the key to the concerns of the time and its conception of historical representation. Chuck devoted particular space to Leopoldo Trieste’s employment of the term in manifestos and dramatic writings, and his collapsing of Croce’s opposition. One play, actually entitled Cronaca (1945), is full of references to newspapers, and shows how the search for historical meaning by the protagonist, a survivor of a Nazi death camp, is done through investigation of cronaca. This might be compared to Vasco Pratolini’s use of medieval cronache as models for discussing contemporary experience. In any case, it is clear that artists and intellectuals in the postwar period are engaged in a rethinking of how history needs to be done: how historiography works, how history is told is in question, and the experience of war is confirmed, in this perspective, as central.

The workshop closed with a roundtable and discussion chaired by Catherine.

Tim Cole (Bristol), speaking as a historian and ‘outsider’, suggested that the project could ask big questions like ‘what is history’, ‘what is temporality?’, and could be concerned with how film deals with the relationship of history and past. He suggested that the notion of the past as radically other (as ‘a foreign country’) had to be leavened by Anderson’s notion of the imagined community constructed over time and space: there are continuities as well as contrasts. In terms of methodology, he spoke of shifts of scale as a means to generate novel questions. He mentioned work by his own research group on the ‘geovisualization’ of the Holocaust, and how this is a stage in the research process not its product. The scale of the research can be ‘toggled’ from continent to body. Could we geovisualize the entire history of Italian cinema or, say, all films on the 1970s? The process might allow us to see things anew and to understand what questions need to be asked.

Derek Duncan stayed on the theme of history and historiography. He wondered at what point an event becomes ‘historical’ and when the near contemporary becomes the subject or object of history. He referred to John Foot’s suggestion in the Cambridge workshop that the project’s study should be extended to television: what about digital and ‘private’ recording technologies? He returned to the longstanding issue of whether a historical film is about the period it portrays or revealing of the time of its making. For Derek, the texture uniting the two is the problematic. He discussed the difference between what is historical and what has actually been historicised, not just in terms of lacunae but also in terms of the uneven path that has led to what a culture remembers. We might map absences as well as presences, and the trajectories of historicizing. In terms of methodology, he mentioned the New Historicist habit of beginning a historical analysis with a detail and spiralling out from there. The point, though, is that it is the writer doing this; the detail or method is not intrinsically suggested by the subject itself.

In his contribution, Alan O’Leary spoke about the suggested reading for the workshop, in particular the guiding metaphor of ecology/ecosystem that emerges from several of the texts (ecology/ecosystem in Andrew, Eno and Moretti; ‘field’ in Gordon). It’s a dangerous metaphor because it risks describing processes of culture in terms of the ‘natural’ – and may even lead to a form of social Darwinism where power relationships and historical outcomes are presented as inevitable. Alan said he was not invested in the metaphor, but was convinced of its usefulness as a kind of thought experiment: it challenges us to build a methodology equal to complexity and to the study of relationships rather than objects (texts). It forbids a prescriptive approach, eschews any notion of the ‘top down’ – and therefore of any privileging of auteurist accounts – and puts the emphasis instead on ‘fertile circumstances’ (Eno’s phrase). In response to a doubt expressed by Catherine, Alan argued that the notion of ‘system’ recognized contingency and the accidental character of historical emphases and survivals.

Matt Boswell finished the workshop with some words on impact, mentioning the importance of dissemination, and of early collaboration with external partners so that the project and research questions could be formatted in tandem. He suggested that the distinctiveness of the project could suggest the types of impact to be sought. Drawing on Gordon’s account of the dissemination of knowledge and memory of the Holocaust in Italy, he suggested that we identify and establish links with key agents and organizations involved in historicizing activity in Italy. Furthermore, disturbing established taxonomies is impactful – it’s a question of translating processes and findings into a form something that can effect peoples’ perceptions. Finally, he noted that there is a potential in quantitative methods to create resources that could be useful to establish or aid partnerships with, say, the film industry.

As argued at the end of the Cambridge workshop report, it will be important to articulate parallel lines of enquiry if a large project can be built from shared interests. The lively discussion of methodologies and themes at the workshop – only the ‘formal’ portion of which has been possible to record here – did suggest an intellectual appetite for the topic and that parallel and fruitful lines of enquiry might be discerned and developed. Unfortunately, no funding has been forthcoming from the British Academy for a planned third and larger workshop in spring 2014, but Alan will be taking the project forward with other applications, especially in 2014 during a period of sabbatical leave. A project blog will shortly be set up, with an open invitation to colleagues to contribute. Panels are planned for the AAIS conference in Zurich next year, and two research seminars related to the project will take place in Leeds this autumn: Robert Burgoyne (St Andrews) will speak on historical film (30 October 2013), and Robert Gordon (Cambridge) will speak on his methodology in The Holocaust in Italian Culture and the notion of ‘field’ in relation to visual culture (11 December 2013).


Readings for the Bristol workshop (available here:

  1. Dudley Andrew, ‘An Atlas of World Cinema’, in Stephanie Dennison and Song Hwee Lim (eds),  Remapping World Cinema: Identity, Culture and politics in Film (London: Wallflower, 2006), pp. 19-29
  2. Brian Eno, ‘Ecology’, in John Brockman (ed.), This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking (London: Doubleday, 2012), pp. 294-5
  3. Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010) pp. 5-19
  4. Robert S.C. Gordon, The Holocaust in Italian Culture, 1944-2010 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), pp. 3-13 and 38
  5. Franco Moretti, ‘Conjectures on World Literature’, New left Review, 1 (2000), 54-68
  6. Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees (London: Verso 2005), pp. 1,2
  7. Laurence Raw and Defne Ersin Tutan, ‘Introduction: What Does “Adapting” History Involve?’, in Raw and Tutan (eds), The Adaptation of History: Essays on Ways of Telling the Past (London: MacFarland, 2013), pp. 7-23
  8. Elisa Soncini, ‘Quando il passato lo raccontano i media: Don Camillo, Peppone e il ricordo del dopoguerra italiano’, in Marco Santoro (ed.), Nuovi media, vecchi media (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2008), pp. 251-72

List of participants at the Bristol workshop (some were present only for part of the event)

Matt Boswell (Leeds, Arts Engaged)
Judith Bryce (Bristol)
Charles Burdett (Bristol)
Tim Cole (Bristol)
Derek Duncan (St Andrews)
Ruth Glynn (Bristol)
Danielle Hipkins (Exeter)
Dom Holdaway (Warwick)
Tristan Kay (Bristol, History)
Chuck Leavitt (Reading)
Paolo Noto (Bologna)
Alan O’Leary (Leeds)
Catherine O’Rawe (Bristol)