Until now, we have not had any fictional works in the Bioscope Library (the collection of texts on silent cinema which are freely available online from assorted sources). First up, therefore, is one of the first – if not the first – novels to tackle the subject of film (it was preceded by numerous short stories on the theme), Luigi Pirandello’s Si gira, published under that title in 1915 and in revised form in 1925 as Quaderni di Serafino Gubbio operatore (The Notebooks of Serafino Gubbio, Cinematograph Operator), the latter published in English in 1927 as Shoot!.
Pirandello, one of Italy’s greatest writers, best known for plays such as Six Characters in Search of an Author), does not have much good to say about cinema. Si gira is a bitter attack on modernity, in which Gubbio, the first-person narrator, becomes one with his machine in being increasingly desensitized to true life, a denial or absence of experience which is transmitted to people through that arch-representation of modern life, the cinema. The sense of the disturbing nature of modernity as annoying, incessant noise, with the cinematograph as machine, comes out in this passage:
There is one nuisance, however, that does not pass away. Do you hear it? A hornet that is always buzzing, forbidding, grim, surly, diffused, and never stops. What is it? The hum of the telegraph poles? The endless scream of the trolley along the overhead wire of the electric trams? The urgent throb of all those countless machines, near and far? That of the engine of the motor-car? Of the cinematograph?
The beating of the heart is not felt, nor do we feel the pulsing of our arteries. The worse for us if we did! But this buzzing, this perpetual ticking we do notice, and I say that all this furious haste is not natural, all this flickering and vanishing of images; but that there lies beneath it a machine which seems to pursue it, frantically screaming.
Will it break down?
Serafino Gubbio is a cinematographer operator working the Kosmograph studio by day, and writing his absurdist journal by night, as he describes the world that appears before his camera. Pirandello doesn’t attack the cinematograph so much for its own sake as to use it as a means to broaden his target to include all that is dehumanizing. His camera alienates him from society; the act of writing helps him recover his humanity. It is a thesis that some will recognise in Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Reproduction’, and Benjamin cites Pirandello’s book as identifying the alienation inherent in the film performance – “the part is not acted for an audience but for a mechanical contrivance”. Says Pirandello (or rather, Gubbio):
Here they feel as though they were in exile. In exile, not only from the stage, but also in a sense from themselves. Because their action, the ‘live’ action of their ‘live’ bodies, there, on the screen of the cinematograph, no longer exists: it is ‘their image’ alone, caught in a moment, in a gesture, expression, that flickers and disappears. They are confusedly aware, with a maddening, indefinable sense of emptiness, that their bodies are so to speak subtracted, suppressed, deprived of their reality, of breath, of voice, of the sound that they make in moving about, to become only a dumb image which quivers for a moment on the screen and disappears, in silence, in an instant, like an unsubstantial phantom, the play of illusion upon a dingy sheet of cloth.
Ah, poor movies, cause of such anguish and alienation among the intelligensia. How much Si gira represents Pirandello’s own point of view is a matter of debate. There is some knowledge of the workings of the film industry, and Kosmograph owes something to the great Italian studios of the period, such as Cines. But one does not read Si gira (the English title, Shoot, is the phrase so constantly used of Gubbio that it becomes his name in effect) for any documentary accuracy. Its subject is the human, or the ongoing death of the human, rather than cinema per se.
The book is freely available from the Australian branch of Project Gutenberg (oddly enough, it is not on the main Gutenberg site), in its 1927 English translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff. The same translation is published by Chicago University Press.