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Luigi Pirandello: Shoot! (17)

Luigi Pirandello: Shoot! (17)

Shoot! (Si Gira, 1926) The Notebooks of Serafino Gubbio, Cinematograph Operator by Luigi Pirandello. Translated from the Italian by C. K. Scott Moncrieff.

BOOK III

6

It is not so much for me, Gubbio, this antipathy, as for my machine. It recoils upon me, because I am the man who turns the handle.

They do not realise it clearly, but I, with the handle in my hand, am to them in reality a sort of executioner.

Each of them–I refer, of course, to the real actors, to those, that is to say, who really love their art, whatever their merits may be–is here against his will, is here because he is better paid, and for work which, even if it requires some exertion, does not call for any intellectual effort. Often, as I have said before, they do not even know what part they are playing.

The machine, with the enormous profits that it produces, if it engages them, can reward them far better than any manager or proprietor of a dramatic company. Not only that; but it, with its mechanical reproduction, being able to offer at a low price to the general public a spectacle that is always new, fills the cinematograph halls and empties the theatres, so that all, or nearly all the dramatic companies are now doing wretched business; and the actors, if they are not to starve, see themselves compelled to knock at the doors of the cinematograph companies. But they do not hate the machine merely for the degradation of the stupid and silent work to which it condemns them; they hate it, first and foremost, because they see themselves withdrawn, feel themselves torn from that direct communion with the public from which in the past they derived their richest reward, their greatest satisfaction: that of seeing, of hearing from the stage, in a theatre, an eager, anxious multitude follow their ‘live’ action, stirred with emotion, tremble, laugh, become excited, break out in applause.

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, an 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.

They feel that they too are slaves to this strident machine, which suggests on its knock-kneed tripod a huge spider watching for its prey, a spider that sucks in and absorbs their live reality to render it up an evanescent, momentary appearance, the play of a mechanical illusion in the eyes of the public. And the man who strips them of their reality and offers it as food to the machine; who reduces their bodies to phantoms, who is he? It is I, Gubbio.

They remain here, as on a daylight stage, when they rehearse. The first night, for them, never arrives. The public they never see again. The machine is responsible for the performance before the public, with their phantoms; and they have to be content with performing only before it. When they have performed their parts, their performance is film.

Can they feel any affection for me?

A certain comfort they have for their degradation in seeing not themselves only subjugated to the service of this machine, which moves, stirs, attracts ever so many people round it. Eminent authors, dramatists, poets, novelists, come here, all of them regularly and solemnly proposing the “artistic regeneration” of the industry. And to all of them Commendator Borgalli speaks in one tone, and Cocò Polacco in another: the former, with the gloved hands of a General Manager; the other, openly, as a stage manager. He listens patiently, does Cocò Polacco, to all their suggestions of plots; but at a certain stage in the discussion he raises his hand, saying:

“Oh no, that is a trifle crude. We must always keep an eye on the English, my dear Sir!”

A most brilliant discovery, this of the English. Indeed the majority of the films produced by the Kosmograph go to England. We must therefore, in selecting our plots, adapt ourselves to English taste. And is there any limit to the things that the English will not have in a film, according to Cocò Polacco?

“English prudery, you understand! They have only to say’shocking,’ and there’s an end of the matter!”

If the films went straight before the judgment of the public, then, perhaps, many things might pass; but no: for the importation of films into England there are the agents, there is the reef, the pitfall of the agents. They decide, the agents, and there is no appeal. And for every film that will not ‘go’, there are hundreds of thousands of lire wasted or not forthcoming.

Or else Cocò Polacco exclaims:

“Excellent! But that, my dear fellow, is a play, a perfect play! A certain success! Do you want to make a film of it? I won’t hear of it! As a film it won’t go: I tell you, my dear fellow, it’s too subtle, too subtle. That is not the sort of thing we want here! You are too clever, and you know it.”

In short, Cocò Polacco, if he refuses their plots, pays them a compliment: he tells them that they are not stupid enough to write for the cinematograph. From one point of view, therefore, they would like to understand, would resign themselves to understanding; but, from another, they would like also to have their plots accepted. A hundred, two hundred and fifty, three hundred lire, at certain moments…. The suspicion that this praise of their intelligence and depreciation of the cinematograph as a form of art have been advanced as a polite way of refusing their plots flashes across the minds of some of them; but their dignity is saved and they can go away with their heads erect. As they pass, the actors salute them as companions in misfortune.

“Everyone has to pass through here!” they think to themselves with malicious joy. “Even crowned heads! All of them in here, printed for a moment on a sheet!”

A few days ago, I was with Fantappie in the courtyard on which the rehearsal theatre and the office of the Art Department open, when we noticed an old man with long hair, in a tall hat, with a huge nose and eyes that peered through his gold-rimmed spectacles, and a straggling beard, who seemed to be shrinking into himself with fear at the big coloured posters pasted on the wall, red, yellow, blue, glaring, terrible, of the films that have brought most honour to the firm.

“Illustrious Senator,” Fantappie exclaimed with a bound, springing towards him and then bringing himself to attention, his hand comically raised in the military salute. “Have you come for the rehearsal?”

“Why… yes… they told me ten o’clock,” replied the illustrious Senator, endeavouring to make out whom he was addressing.

“Ten o’clock? Who told you that! The Pole?”

“I don’t understand…”

“The Pole, the producer!”

“No, an Italian… one they call the engineer. …”

“Ah! Now I know: Bertini! He told you ten o’clock? That’s all right. It is half past ten now. He’s sure to be here by eleven.”

It was the venerable Professor Zeme, the eminent astronomer, head of the Observatory and a Member of the Senate, an Academician of the Lincei, covered with ever so many Italian and foreign decorations, invited to all the Court banquets.

“Excuse me, though, Senator,” went on that buffoon Fantappiè. “May I ask one favour: couldn’t you make me go to the Moon?”

“I? To the Moon?”

“Yes, I mean cinematographically, you know … ‘Fantappiè in the Moon’: it would be lovely! Scouting, with a patrol of eight men. Think it over, Senator. I would arrange the business. … No? You say no?”

Senator Zeme said no, with a wave of the hand, if not contemptuously, certainly with great austerity. A scientist of his standing could not allow himself to place his science at the service of a clown. He has allowed himself, it is true, to be taken in every conceivable attitude in his Observatory; he has even asked to have projected on the screen a page containing the signatures of the most illustrious visitors to the Observatory, so that the public may read there the signatures of T.M. the King and Queen and of T. E. H. the Crown Prince and the Princesses and of H. M. the King of Spain and of other Kings and Cabinet Ministers and Ambassadors; but all this to the greater glory of his science and to give the public some sort of idea of the ‘Marvels of the Heavens’ (the title of the film) and of the formidable greatness in the midst of which he, Senator Zeme, insignificant little creature as he is, lives and labours.

“Martuf!” muttered Fantappiè, like a good Piedmontese, with one of his characteristic grimaces, as he strolled away with me.

But we turned back, a moment later, at the sound of a great clamour of voices which had arisen in the courtyard.

Actors, actresses, operators, producers, stage hands had come pouring out from the dressing-rooms and rehearsal theatre and were gathered round Senator Zeme at loggerheads with Simone Pau, who is in the habit of coming to see me now and again at the Kosmograph.

“Educating the people, indeed!” shouted Simone Pau. “Do me a favour! Send Fantappiè to the Moon! Make him play skittles with the stars! Or perhaps you think that they belong to you, the stars? Hand them over here to the divine Folly of man, which has every right to appropriate them and to play skittles with them! Besides… excuse me, but what do you do? What do you suppose you are? You see nothing but the object! You have no consciousness of anything but the object! And so, a religion. And your God is your telescope! You imagine that it is your instrument? Not a bit of it! It is your God, and you worship it! You are like Gubbio here, with his machine! The servant. … I don’t wish to hurt your feelings, let me say the priest, the supreme pontiff (does that satisfy you?) of this God of yours, and you swear by the dogma of its infallibility. Where is Gubbio? Three cheers for Gubbio! Wait, don’t go away, Senator! I came here this morning, to comfort an unhappy man. I made an appointment with him here: he ought to be here by now. An unhappy man, my fellow-lodger in the Falcon Hostelry…. There is no better way of comforting an unhappy man, than by proving to him by actual contact that he is not alone. So I–have invited him here, among these good artist friends. He is an artist too! Here he comes!”

And the man with the violin, long and lanky, bowed and sombre, whom I first saw more than a year ago in the Casual Shelter, came forward, apparently absorbed as before in gazing at the hairs that drooped from his bushy, frowning brows.

The crowd made way for him. In the silence that had fallen, a titter of merriment sounded here and there. But stupefaction and a certain sense of revulsion held most of us spellbound as we watched this man come towards us with bent head, his eyes fastened like that on the hairs of his eyebrows, as though he refused to look at his red, fleshy nose, the enormous burden and punishment of his intemperance. More than ever, now, as he advanced, he seemed to be saying:

“Silence! Make way! You see what life can bring a man’s nose to?”

Simone Pau introduced him to Senator Zeme, who made off, indignant; everyone laughed, but Simone Pau, quite serious, went on introducing him to the actresses, the actors, the producers, relating to one and another of them in snatches the story of his friend’s life, and how and why, after that last famous rebuff, he had never played again. Finally, thoroughly aroused, he shouted:

“But he will play to-day, ladies and gentlemen! He will play! He will break the evil spell! He has promised me that he will play! But not to you, ladies and gentlemen! You will keep in the background. He has promised me that he will play to the tiger. Yes, yes, to the tiger! To the tiger! We must respect his wishes. He is certain to have excellent reasons for them! Come along, come along now all of you…. We must keep in the background…. He shall go in, by himself, in front of the cage, and play!”

Amid shouts, laughter, applause, impelled, all of us, by the keenest curiosity as to this strange adventure, we followed Simone Pau, who had taken his man by the arm and was urging him on, following the instructions shouted at him from behind, telling him the way to the menagerie. On coming in sight of the cages he stopped us all, bidding us be silent, and sent on ahead, by himself, the man with the violin.

At the sound of our coming, from shops and stores, workmen, stage hands, scene painters came running out in full force to watch the scene over our shoulders: there was quite a crowd.

The animal had withdrawn with a bound to the back of its cage; and crouched there with arched back, lowered head, snarling teeth, bared claws, ready to spring: terrible!

The man stood gazing at it, speechless; then turned in bewilderment and let his eyes range over us in search of Simone Pau.

“Play!” Simone shouted at him. “Don’t be afraid! Play! She will understand you!”

Whereupon the man, as though freeing himself by a tremendous effort from an obsession, at length raised his head, shook it, flung his shapeless hat on the ground, passed a hand over his long, unkemptlocks, took the violin from its old green baize cover, and threw the cover’down also, on top of his hat.

A catcall or two came from the workmen who had crowded in behind us, followed by laughter and comments, while he tuned his violin; but a great silence fell as soon as he began to play, at first a little uncertainly, hesitating, as though he felt hurt by the sound of his instrument which he had not heard for so long; then, all of a sudden, overcoming his uncertainty, and perhaps his painful tremors with a few vigorous strokes. These strokes were followed by a sort of groan of anguish, that grew steadily louder, more insistent, strange notes, harsh and toneless, a tight coil, from which every now and then a single note emerged to prolong itself, like a person trying to breathe a sigh amid sobs. Finally this note spread, developed, let itself go, freed from its suffocation, in a phrase melodious, limpid, honey-sweet, intense, throbbing with infinite pain: and then a profound emotion swept over us all, which in Simone Pau took the form of tears. Raising his arms he signalled to us to keep quiet, not to betray our admiration in any way, so that in the silence this queer, marvellous wastrel might listen to the voice of his soul.

It did not last long. He let his hands fall, as though exhausted, with the violin and bow, and turned to us with a face transfigured, bathed in tears, saying:

“There…”

The applause was deafening. He was seized, carried off in triumph. Then, taken to the neighbouring tavern, notwithstanding the prayers and threats of Simone Pau, he drank and lost his senses.

Polacco was kicking himself with rage, at not having thought of sending me off at once to fetch my machine to place on record this scene of serenading the tiger.

How perfectly he understands everything, always, Cocò Polacco! I was not able to answer him because I was thinking of the eyes of Signora Nestoroff, who had looked on at the scene, as though in an ecstasy instinct with terror.

Luigi Pirandello: Shoot! (17)

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