- “Shadows by the Film Folk”: A Report on the Volta Cinematograph Centenary Celebrations in Trieste, 14–22 January 2009
With the wintry Triestine “sunshine merrying over the sea,” Joyceans and early cinema enthusiasts flocked to celebrate the one-hundred-year anniversary of Joyce’s ill-fated, short-lived business venture—the Volta Cinematograph (U 1.306). “1909–2009 da Trieste a Dublino: James Joyce e il Cinema Volta” was jointly organized by the University of Trieste’s Joyce School and the annual Alpe Adria Trieste Film Festival, which celebrated its twentieth anniversary this year. The Volta celebrations included a film retrospective (compiled by Elisabetta d’Erme), a competition for the best short screenplay of Giacomo Joyce, an exhibition (curated by Erik Schneider), and an international conference (coordinated by John McCourt).
In a letter to Stanislaus, Joyce wrote: “The Italian imagination is like a cinematograph, observe the style of my letter” (LettersII 203). His missive overflows with swift topic changes and personal musings, reflecting the cinematograph’s “sixty-miles-an-hour” speed and its capacity to satisfy “heightened emotiveness” (LettersII 217). While we might question the extent to which the letter describes “[t]he Italian imagination,” Joyce certainly provides a fairly accurate description of Trieste’s Volta Cinema celebrations. We moved swiftly between cinemas, the conference venue, the exhibition, and various eating and drinking establishments, ensuring that our minds and senses were constantly satisfied. Barely an hour after arriving at the stylishly decorated hotel, it was time for the first event—the grand opening of the celebrations and the inauguration of the exhibition. This rather formal affair was promptly followed by a more informal, yet equally sophisticated, drinks reception at a trendy Trieste bar. Then it was time for a quick, but very sociable, meal before dashing across to Cinema Ariston for “An Evening at the Cinema Volta.”
Luke McKernan opened the event with an informative talk on the Volta Cinematograph. At Joyce’s cinema, a local boy, Lennie Collinge, was responsible for hand-cranking the projector night after night, while the music was supplied by a pianist or small orchestra led by Reginald Morgan. On the Volta’s opening night, the films still had their Italian or German inter-titles since they had been imported [End Page 424] directly from Trieste and no one had planned translations; handbills containing the English translations had to be handed out to the audience. Our “evening at the Cinema Volta” was pretty authentic, although no handbills were needed: the conference coordinators, being more organized than Joyce, had arranged for the whole of the Volta celebrations to be entirely bilingual. All spoken and written texts were presented in both Italian and English. The dexterous Carlo Moser provided a superbly improvised piano accompaniment throughout the program while Paolo Venier untiringly hand-cranked the projector and warned us not to worry if we saw smoke emanating from the projection-box; smoke was, apparently, a perfectly normal occurrence in 1909 cinemas.
The program, chosen by McKernan, included nine films believed to be shown at the Volta Cinema. It is difficult to say for certain whether these were identical, because the titles under which the films were advertised were rarely the same as their original release ones. Thanks, however, to McKernan’s careful and thorough research, we can be fairly confident of the correspondences. The evening began with Une Pouponnière à Paris, which pictured children being cared for in a nursery and is the only surviving film from the opening-night program. Next on the bill was Francesca da Rimini or The Two Brothers, a tragic love story adapted from Dante’s Divine Comedy. The third film, Come Cretinetti Paga I Debiti, was a comic trick one featuring the suitcase-orientated exploits of Cretinetti. The next two films shown were also comedies: Il Signor Testardo featured a stubborn man who comically causes chaos by refusing to move out the way of various obstacles, and A Glass of Goat’s Milk depicted a man who grows horns and becomes progressively more goat-like. Next was The Way of the Cross, a popular American piece telling the tragic story of a Roman who falls in love with a...