Exhibition on James Joyce, the Volta Cinematograph and Trieste, on show in Trieste
Well, it’s good to be home again. I’ve spent the past week or so in Italy, mostly in the fair city of Trieste for a conference on James Joyce and the cinema. And an excellent conference it was too, with some fine papers identifying the several ways in which Joyce’s work (particularly Ulysses) has affinities with early cinema.
There was yours truly, speaking about Joyce’s brief time as a cinema manager in Dublin; Marco Camerani, Philip Sicker, Carla Marengo Vaglio and Maria di Battista each speaking on aspects of early cinema in Joyce’s work, especially the ‘Circe’ episode in Ulysses, with references to Georges Méliès, Segundo de Chomon, Leopoldo Fregoli and more; and Katy Mullin on the relationship between the erotic in early Edison and Biograph actuality and comedy films and Joyce. Other speakers covered film adaptations of Joyce’s work, making it a very rounded event. I found the arguments convincing and illuminating, particularly regarding the debt Joyce (an avid filmgoer from 1904 onwards as well as a cinema manager, albeit briefly and somewhat ineptly) shows to early cinema in his fiction. The promised book of essays coming out of the conference will be something to look out for.
There was also (and continues to be) an exhibition on Joyce, the Volta and Trieste, entitled ‘Trieste, James Joyce e il Cinema: Storia di Mondi Possibili’, curated by Erik Schneider, who also spoke at the conference on the discoveries he made in the archives about Joyce’s brief foray into cinema management and cinema in Trieste generally. The reason for the Trieste connection is that Joyce – who was living in the city in 1909 as a language teacher – joined up with some local businessmen who ran cinemas in Trieste and Bucharest and offered to help extend their circuit to Ireland by setting up the Volta Cinematograph at 45 Mary Street, Dublin, in December 1909.
Report (in Italian) on the Joyce exhibition and screening of Volta films, from the Trieste Film Festival’s YouTube channel
Joyce was manager on the cinema for a few weeks only before handing over to Lorenzo Novak (the cinema was sold at a loss in June 1910), but enough exists in the archives to reveal a rich history. The above video, from the Trieste Film Festival (which housed a complementary Joyce film season), shows the exhibition, with contributions from assorted brainy Joyceans, plus scenes from an evening of films taken from the BFI National Archive which were known to have been shown at the Volta. You can see me, mercifully briefly, introducing the show (with much habitual hand-waving), Carlo Moser at the piano, and Paolo Venier heroically hand-cranking a Pathé projector for the whole show (with gaps in between each reel as the films were changed, giving the full house a taste of the authentic 1909 cinema experience).
The films shown were:
- Une Pouponiere a Paris (France 1909) (first shown at the Volta 20 Dec 1909)
- Francesca da Rimini, or the two brothers (USA 1907) (6-7 Jan 1910)
- Come Cretinetti paga I debiti (Italy 1909) (17-19 Jan 1910)
- Il signor Testardo (Italy 1909) (17-19 Jan 1910)
- A glass of goat’s milk (GB 1909) (3-5 Feb 1910)
- The Way of the Cross (USA 1909) (14-16 Feb 1910)
- (Der Kleine Schlaumeier) [original title not known] (France c.1909) (21-23 Feb 1910)
- (Hunting Crocodiles) (France 1909) (7-9 Mar 1910)
- Une Conquete (France 1909) (10-12 March 1910)
(Note – some of the films are possibily those shown at the Volta, and are not definite identifications. Le Huguenot (France 1909), which was advertised for the festival, wasn’t shown)
Also shown was Georges Mendel’s 1908 opera film of the sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor (with Enrico Caruso’s voice) as an example of the synchronised sound film Joyce wanted to show at the Volta, but never did.
For me, the most remarkable discovery in the exhibition was Joyce’s own hand-written list of expenses at the Volta for its first three or four weeks, from the collection of Cornell University Library, accompanied by a letter from Pathé in Britain advising him on the choice of projector, lenses, light source and so forth. Joyce’s venture into cinema, though short-lived, generated a significant amount of information on cinema in 1909 to make it worthy of study for those interested in general cinema history. We know the identity many of the films shown, thanks to extensive advertising in the Dublin press; we have the contracts drawn up; we know the initial expenses; we know about the background business in Trieste; we know how the cinema was decorated; we have the names of three or four of the staff (such as Lennie Collinge, the projectionist who lived long into a ripe old age and was interviewed by film historian Liam O’Leary, who first uncovered the Volta history). What we don’t have, alas, is a contemporary photograph of the cinema, interior or exterior.
There is much in the exhibition on early cinema in Trieste itself, which had a remarkable twenty-one cinemas in 1909. There is a history of cinema in Trieste, 1896-1918, written by Dejan Kosanovic, though in Italian only. Another gem from the archives was the advertised programme for Lifka’s Bioscope, a travelling film show which visited Pola in December 1904, when James and Nora Joyce attended the show. Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus: “The other evening we went to a bioscope. There were a series of pictures about betrayed Gretchen … Lothario throws her into the river and rushes off, followed by rabble. Nora said ‘O, policeman, catch him'”. I’m working on trying to identify which film moved Nora so. Would you believe Lifka’s Bioscope mostly got its film from Charles Urban…?
Anyway, a stimulating conference, a fine exhibition, and bright winter’s sunshine to delight us all.
Statue of James Joyce by the Canal Grande, Trieste