A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography

Source: Extracts from Italo Calvino (trans. Tim Parks), ‘A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography’, in The Road to San Giovanni (London: Jonathan Cape, 1993), pp. 37-41, 43-45

Text: There were years when I went to the cinema almost every day and maybe even twice a day, and those were the days between ’36 and the war, the years of my adolescence. It was a time when the cinema became the world for me. A different world from the one around me, but my feeling was that only what I saw on the screen possessed the properties required of a world, the fullness, the necessity, the coherence, while away from the screen were only heterogeneous elements lumped together at random, the materials of a life, mine, which seemed to me utterly formless.

The cinema as evasion, it’s been said so many times, with the intention of writing the medium off – and certainly evasion was what I got out of the cinema in those years, it satisfied a need for disorientation, for the projection of my attention into a different space, a need which I believe corresponds to a primary function of our assuming our place in the world, an indispensable stage in any character formation. Of course there are other more profitable and personal ways of creating a different space for oneself: the cinema was the easiest and most readily available, and then it was also the one that instantaneously took me further away than any other. Every day, walking up and down the main street of my small town, I’d only have eyes for the cinemas, three that showed new films and changed programmes every Monday and Thursday, and a couple of fleapits with older or trashier films that changed three times a week. I would already know in advance what films were showing in all five theatres, but my eye would be looking for the posters they put up to announce the next film, because that was where the surprise was, the promise, the anticipation that would keep me excited through the days to come.

I would go to the cinema in the afternoon, slipping out of the house on the sly, or with the excuse that I was going to study with some friend or other, since during the school term my parents allowed me very little freedom. The proof of my passion was my determination to get into the theatre as soon as it opened, at two. Seeing the first showing had a number of advantages: the half-empty theatre, apparently entirely reserved for me, which meant I could lie back in the middle of the third-class seats with my legs stretched out on the back of the seat in front; the hope of getting back home without anybody realizing I’d left, so as then to get permission to go out again (and maybe even see another film); and the slight daze I would be in for the rest of the afternoon, bad for studying but good for daydreaming. Then apart from these motives, none of them things one would really want to confess to, there was a more serious one: getting into the cinema when it opened meant I was sure to enjoy the rare good fortune of seeing the film from the beginning and not from some arbitrary moment near the middle or the end as usually happened when I arrived at the cinema mid-afternoon or early evening.

Of course arriving when the film had already started was to conform with what is a barbarously common habit among Italian cinemagoers, and one that still persists today. You might say that even in those early days we Italians were looking forward to the more sophisticated narrative techniques of contemporary cinema, breaking up the temporal thread of the narrative and transforming it into a puzzle to be put back piece by piece or accepted in the form of a fragmentary body. To console ourselves further, I might add that watching the beginning of the film after one had already seen the end offered additional pleasures: that of discovering not the resolution of the film’s mysteries and dramas, but their genesis; and that of a confused sense of premonition vis-à-vis the characters. Confused: in precisely the way a clairvoyant’s must be, since the reconstruction of the mangled plot was not always easy, and would be even less so if it happened to be a detective story, where the identification first of the murderer and then of the crime left an even murkier area of mystery in the middle. What’s more, there would sometimes be a bit missing between the beginning and the end, since suddenly looking at my watch I’d realize I was late and that if I didn’t want to incur my parents’ wrath I’d have to leave before the sequence I’d come in at reappeared on the screen. So that many films were left with a hole in the middle, and even today, after thirty years – what am I saying? – almost forty, when I find myself watching one of those films – on television for example – I’ll recognize the moment I walked into the cinema, the scenes I watched without understanding, and I’ll retrieve the lost pieces and complete the puzzle as if I’d left it unfinished only the day before.

[…]

When, on the other hand, I went into the cinema at four o’clock or five, what hit me on coming out was the sense of time having passed, the contrast between two different temporal dimensions, inside and outside the film. I had gone in in broad daylight and came out to find it dark, the lamp-lit streets prolonging the black-and-white of the screen. The darkness softened the contrast between the two worlds a little, and sharpened it a little too, because it drew attention to the passing of those two hours that I hadn’t really lived, swallowed up as I was in a suspension of time, or in the duration of an imaginary life, or in a leap backwards to centuries before. Especially exciting was finding that the days had got shorter or longer: the sense of the passing seasons (always bland in the temperate clime we lived in) caught up with me as I came out of the cinema. When it rained in the film, I would listen hard to hear whether it had started raining outside too, whether I had been surprised by a downpour, having left home without an umbrella: it was the only moment when, while still immersed in that other world, I remembered the world outside; and it made me anxious. Even today, rain in film triggers the same reaction, a sense of anxiety.

If it wasn’t time for dinner yet, I’d join my friends trooping up and down the pavements of the main street. I’d go back past the cinema I’d just come out of and hear lines of dialogue echoing out of the projection room onto the street, and rather than the indentification [sic] I’d felt earlier, hearing them now would instill a feeling of unreality, because by now I was firmly in the outside world, and a feeling akin to nostalgia too, as one one who turns back at a frontier.

I’m thinking of one cinema in particular, the oldest one in the town and connected with my earliest memories of the days of silent films, a cinema that had preserved from those days (and did so right up until a few years ago) both its liberty-style street sign decorated with medals and the structure of the theatre itself, a long hall sloping downwards flanked by a corridor with columns. The projectionist’s room had a small window that opened onto the main street and would blare out the absurd voices of the film, metallically distorted by the technology of the period, and all the more absurd thank to the affectations of the Italian dubbing which bore no relation to any language ever spoken, past or future. And yet the very falseness of those voices must have possessed a communicative power all its own, like the sirens’ song, and every time I passed that little window I would sense the call of that other world that was the world.

The side doors of the theatre opened onto an alleyway; in the intervals the usher with the braiding on her jacket would open the red velvet curtains so that the colour of the air outside appeared discreetly at the threshold, and the passersby and the people sitting in the cinema would look at each other a little uneasily, as though facing an intrusion equally inconvenient to both. The interval between the first and second reel in particular (another strange custom practised only in Italy and inexplicably current even today) would come as a reminder that I was still in this town, on this day at this time: and depending on how I felt, my satisfaction at knowing that in just a moment I’d be plunging back into the China Sea or the San Francisco Earthquake would grow; or alternatively I would be oppressed by this warning not to forget that I was still here, not to lose myself in far-off lands.

Comments: Italo Calvino (1923-1985) was an Italian journalist and novelist, author of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller and Invisible Cities. He was born in Havana, Cuba, but his childhood years were spent in Sam Remo, Liguria, on Italy’s north-western coast. The above extracts are from a long piece on his memories of cinemagoing, included in a posthumously-published volume of autobiographical essays.

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