Author: Emilio Scaglione
Original Title: Il cinematografo in provincia
Journal: “L’Arte Muta” (Naples)
Date of Publication: 15 Dec 1916
Original Language: ITA
From the moment since motion pictures have replaced bingo almost every evening, life in provincial towns has disappeared. […]. The motion picture theatre has filled provincial life with new sensations. It has created worlds of fictitious experience. Indian pagodas, and Parisian salons, splendid desert oases and obscure Russian drama, tales of love and hate, gambling and money. People in provincial towns would never have believed that so many exciting and vibrant things even existed outside the limits of their area. All this has entered their lives for the very first time and it has made them blink with amazement.
They come out from the theatre bedazzled and a little stunned, returning home to find the bundles of dried corn still set in the corners, bunches of raisins hanging from the rafters, winter pears yellowing on the shelves, the warmth of the fireplace! No…too much excitement. It must be accepted…provincial life has disappeared… its old musty smell has become too strong.
Quince jelly has been relegated to the cellar by celluloid film. The motion picture theatre in provincial towns has resolved one of its worst problems: the problem of personal contact.
I would ask you to consider this aspect seriously. Because it is a genuine fact. In a provincial town, how often do two people of different sex who are not father and daughter, brother and sister, aunt and nephew, cousins, or at least brother and sister in law, get to meet? In provincial towns there is no half-way mark: blood relations, husband, or official fiancé, or nothing . In any other situation, to be able to admire another person at ease is almost impossible. An as for actually talking to one another- absurd !…Touching hands? A fairy tale…or a kiss? Out of the question. This explains the thwarted, decorous, intense and silent love stories that last for seven, eight, ten years before they can reach their legitimate conclusion: marriage. And this is because in reality, those seven, eight or ten years were reduced to the seven, eight or ten days where it was possible for the couple to meet, exchange a promise to be faithful, a furtive squeeze of the hand, in the evening light at the corner of a lane or through the bars of a gate where the dense leaves of the climbing roses did not hide the closely woven protective wiring. How many love poems never progressed past the initial copy in the imagination of so many young people, simply because they had no way of meeting one another ! How many fresh and rosy faces languished behind the carnations on the windowsill, and withered away because there were few passers-by in the road below!
How many batteries were unable to light up the life of those twenty-year olds, simply because there was no friction that could have lit up the spark.
The motion picture theatre has permitted all these things and more. It has drawn the population of provincial towns out of their homes and their isolation, has gathered them together in a theatre in seats that adjoin one another; finally men and women who have seen each other for the first time, or know each other only by sight, and in any case hardly ever speak to one another, are now permitted to sit together. A drastic change indeed ! A couple who would never have been able to approach each other closer than the ten metres between the balcony and the road below to exchange a word to express their feelings, can now sit only a few millimetres apart, so close that now, at least for an hour, they can feel the warmth of an elbow or a knee … and this is able to continue evening after evening, because the low price of the ticket does not exasperate paternal frugality as does the cost of theatre tickets. […].
And this is how the motion picture theatre completed the evolution in provincial towns which already began with the introduction of electric trams. As soon as each small town saw the arrival of its own trams, every carriage was overflowing with the local population, rushing to get a glimpse of metropolitan life .
The shiny tracks gave a touch of modern sophistication to the previously melancholy roads. The dismal silence of the piazzas was now broken by the noisy tram bells. Even the distances seemed to have grown enormously, because they were now measured by the price of a ticket. But as in all things, with advantages come problems as well. The tram travels…it is too fast…too noisy. There is no stage to attract the attention and distract others around them. If it provides the opportunity for a chance meeting it is rarely convenient to be able to talk. Quite frankly, the motion picture theatre is better value. And as well as all else it has one great advantage : it is dark.
By showing the women that they could sit in the dark only a few centimetres away from a man who was not closely related without having to faint with fear, the motion picture theatre made its contribution towards moral education in provincial towns, strengthening the awareness of respectful behaviour, moderating personal character and conduct.
The darkness of the motion picture theatre put a stop to the problem of jealousy.
In provincial towns motion picture theatres needed a little darkness. To tell the truth. It was needed more than drainage systems, aqueducts, reforestation, standard gauge railways, millions of lira for southern Italian schools, the struggle against rodents and mildew, political education, ethical renewal in city councils, dividing up the large land estates. All these struggles are aimed at combating well-known enemies, and hopefully justice will triumph in the end: the lack of a driving force, drought, typhoid, malaria, lack of public transport, illiteracy, hunger, rising prices, electoral fraud, misuse of public funds, feudalism. But darkened theatres must overcome the hundred-armed monster that is possibly the combination of all these aspects, that lies dozing deep in the heart of provincial life: tradition. Motion pictures could be considered as a form of triumph for feminism.
It would appear that motion picture theatres have liberated our women from their gilded cages, where they are normally locked up in stale confined air, letting them out, if only for an hour, for a breath of fresh air. Suddenly they feel they are free to decide for themselves whether they can be decorous and faithful out of choice, or even on a whim, whereas normally they have no choice in the matter. Very often, it is when watching a film that they discover that their brother, father and even husband, is perhaps not the worst man in existence. In any case provincial motion picture theatres permit women a certain element of choice. And the faculty to choose develops her sense of initiative. This, in my opinion, could be defined as moral education.
How long will it take before it will it be accepted in provincial towns that it is possible for an Italian woman to look a man in the eye without having to blush, quiver, or being accused of imagining being unfaithful?
In provincial towns motion pictures are a complete form of entertainment. Something is available for every member of a good middle class family. The father has the pleasure of taking his whole family out for only two lire, and can relax, yawning over the boredom of his work in the office, without his wife alongside some local gossip, accusing him of being incapable of feeling domestic happiness. The elderly wife, set in the mood after watching some heart-breaking episode on the screen, dissolves in tears unseen and sighs unheard, in melancholy memories of her lost youth. For a couple of hours, the grandmother, mesmerized by the trials and tribulations on the screen, interrupts her grumblings about lack of good manners, and decent behaviour. The children follow the action on the screen in part, and in part breathe in the darkness like the aroma of incense. The toddler is deep asleep; thoroughly amazed that he is finally left to sleep in peace, without having stale sweets pushed at him or being shaken awake nearly dislocating a shoulder.
The children’s nanny permits a little nudge from a stranger she cannot recognise in the dark. And everybody has a good time.
But is the motion picture theatre really sufficient to establish a regime of extra-marital affairs?
I doubt it. Provincial life is positive, practical. They are not people given to loosing their heads except on rare occasions. And even if it were so? A little scandal over a love affair, crackling in the hearth of whispered gossip, is a necessary evil in provincial towns. It provides entertainment in the salons during the winter months. It keeps the conversations alive in the afternoons. It creates a stronger bond between the friends who are discussing the culprit, who is then emarginated. And during all this time the fashion for motion pictures grows.
And furthermore, if it is true that where virtue is never forced to struggle a little with vice, it becomes relaxed, loosing its tension, its energy, then you must concede that an affair in a provincial town is sometimes a necessary element, if only to put normal standards back in their rightful place. Since all women in provincial towns are tremendously honest and faithful, then there is only one single danger: that the sense of beauty, of reciprocal fidelity, may be lost, considering it permanently as a universally accepted fact. An affair, with motion picture origins, that creates a hint of doubt, a trace of risk, can rekindle the flame of trust. […]
Last of all, the motion picture theatre reinstates in provincial towns a taste for something that is unknown or that has been missing for a long time: the taste for leisure.
In provincial towns, men work hard and everybody works too much. There is no time to waste and no time for a break. And even when people are not working, every action has a practical objective. Exactly in the same way as a penny will not be spent unless there is something to be gained, here nobody does anything without a good reason. Leisure time is spent for useful purposes. In Naples, in Rome, in Milan, a stroll, a pause for a chat, gazing at something for a while with nothing particular in mind, wasting time with conviction, happily lingering, hitting the pavement for half an hour with the tip of your cane: all this has a purpose. However, nobody in a provincial town with half a brain would ever tell you he is going out for a walk to stretch his legs: he will say he is off to see somebody, or has to go out for personal reasons, or he must accompany some person who is not well to take a breath of fresh air, or he is nervously waiting for the newspaper boy.. […]. One goes to the theatre to see the play for heaven’s sake! However this does not fool even the most ingenuous. When you are sitting in your box in the second row at the theatre, that is to show your social position. Or to make your friends green with envy over your new toilette. Or, in the most common case, to organise a chance encounter – oh! completely by accident- which would be otherwise impossible and which will later lead to a promise of marriage. Nothing is wasted in a provincial town. Everything must be put to good purpose. Above all, time: Gold without dross, as they say in England.
Motion pictures have revolutionised this positive attitude. When one goes to a motion picture theatre one goes exclusively to see the film.
Prices are reasonable. One does not have to dress up. One does not go to show off the latest fashion: it is dark. The friends you may wish to impress will not see you. Instead of playing, children fall asleep. There is no practical objective.
Half an hour spent in a motion picture theatre is almost always a half hour spent in complete leisure. People lounge languidly in their seats without social restraint. Tense elbows begin to relax. Hands lie idle in laps. Jaws drop imperceptibly, and faces take on a slightly vacuous expression behind the lazy swirl of cigar smoke. This is true relaxation! True leisure ! It is like the moment just before drifting off to sleep. Everyday tension is postponed till tomorrow. Left till tomorrow any worries about spending a couple of lire, the irritations of a life made miserable by local disagreements between neighbours: that petty advantage, the petty grudges, the petty problems, the petty ostentations…