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The eye of the TV camera

Preliminaries

The preliminary problem with any discussion on the relationship between tv and other forms of entertainment concerns economics and sociology rather than aesthetics. Formulated in the simplest way this can be summarised in the question: has tv taken and does it continue to take spectators from traditional forms of entertainment? Another question inevitably springs from this one: is there a process underway whereby tv is destined to largely substitute theatre and cinema in terms of public popularity and consumption?

A glance at some widely known statistics is sufficient to formulate an affirmative answer to the first question; while the answer to the second one can safely be put off to the future, considering the currently unpredictable limits of tv broadcasting, but without insisting on the apocalyptic tone used a few years ago.

[…] In some cases it could even be said, bordering on the paradoxical, that tv has helped to focus the attention of broader layers of the audience in the direction of traditional forms of entertainment. As regards the cinema, it is sufficient to recall the example of the exhumation of films from the twenty years, from the Thirties to the Fifties, shown on the various American tv networks; this massive operation of relaunching old productions has renewed public interest in the great actors and directors of the past. Considered commercially fruitless by the film companies that sold their films to tv, it cannot be denied that the operation has contributed overall to the prestige of the Hollywood industry, if not on economic grounds, at least in terms of art and customs.

 

Prose theatre, to give another example, had a considerable impact at the box office from tv in Italy and an undisputed psychological revival. The regular transmission of plays and novels may have channelled a new audience towards the theatre, under the impulse of a more powerful star system in television than in cinema. This is a characteristic of some almost-unknown actors when they debuted on tv and who in the wake of the popularity gained through the “family screen” subsequently pursued successful theatrical careers, often reducing their onscreen appearances. Most actors, moreover, exploit the notoriety acquired on tv to do theatre, cinema, picture stories and advertising, thus bringing the interest of their admirers to these forms. In the last five years, tv has contributed greatly to the dissemination of certain forms of entertainment.

[…] A notable enhancement was given by tv to song and musical shows, which in this period are followed enthusiastically by an incredible number of people, so much so that there is talk of a form of collective psychosis. tv is also responsible for a relative revival of interest in forms of entertainment thought to have gone out of fashion, such as circuses and operettas, or reserved for a specialised audience, such as jazz concerts (unfortunately we cannot say the same for symphonic and chamber music, which are almost completely ignored in our programming). In the field of sport, which is considered above all as entertainment on tv, the small screen has renewed a passion for cycling, which was languishing because of the ageing or retrial of its most popular practitioners; it has also aroused a certain curiosity around sports which traditionally do not have much of a following in Italy, such as boxing and athletics.

But we will take a closer look at the complexity of relationships between tv and the traditional forms of entertainment on a case-by-case basis. Naturally, a consideration of genres, imposed by the brevity of our study, involves a degree of arbitrariness and approximation.

The cinema

In the United States, the progress of tv has had a powerful impact on the tiredness of film production. It has been repeatedly observed that, tv or no tv, Hollywood cinema at the start of the Fifties would have had, in any case, to deal with its own shortcomings; the spread of tv has only aggravated and hastened a process already underway and due to various factors: the decline of the star system, the excessive exploitation of outdated entertainment formulae, the competition of European and Japanese “intellectual” productions, censorship. To the competition from tv, American cinema responded by reducing productions and the number of screens, and applying “wider and deeper” policies, the aim of which is the manufacture of an entertainment product that is completely different from that offered by the various television networks.

Colour was not enough to ensure a stable margin of differentiation between cinema and tv in a country where colour was already well advanced; the three-dimensional experiment, attempted between the last months of 1952 and the beginning of 1954, was disastrous in terms of the complexity of using glasses which were necessary for every spectator, and was abandoned more or less straight away; the same fate can be foreseen for recent experiments in olfactory cinema. The policy of the big screen, inaugurated at the end of 1953, instead had a happy outcome, with the launch of Cinemascope, VistaVision, Cinerama and other systems of shooting and projection that ensure the viewer a much wider and clearer vision than that available on tv.

Ultimately, the competition from tv affected only the intermediate area of film production, that of medium-cost films with purely commercial ambitions. To maintain the status of cinema, which seems to have settled in a stable situation and perhaps even hints at a slight recovery, were the “colossal” films and those of a high artistic level: that is, the two forms of cinematic entertainment that tv, thanks to its own practical and moralistic limits, can imitate but not equal. In this sense we cannot really say that tv has hurt cinema on the aesthetic level.

  • Let us now look at what forms of television show are closely related to cinema.
  • The transmission of pre-existing films, made for cinemas and not for tv. In Italy, this does not seem to be very appreciated and, apart from exceptional cases of films of particular artistic value, it is used mostly as filler. In France, for example, it is more popular. […]
  • tv films. This is a hybrid form, insofar as films made for tv can be differentiated from those made for the cinema only by their shorter length (from twenty minutes to a maximum of an hour and a half) and by a number of tricks stemming from the need to spend as little as possible. The shooting of a tv film is more like the recording of a television original than the shooting of a proper film. The action involves only a few settings, a limited number of actors, a prevalence of indoor scenes. The settings are almost always reconstructed in a single theatre, as is the case with television originals, in order to save time: in fact, a few days are usually enough to shoot a tv. Sometimes the tv film is a one-off; more often it is part of an adventure, police, romantic or comedy series, centred on fixed characters in ever-changing situations. tv has thus brought back to a place of honour the technique and the taste of the serials made at the dawn of cinema. On the level of language, the possibilities of tv movies coincide in theory with those of the cinema. In practice, the reduced dimensions of the image encourage directors to narrate above all with “medium range” and “foreground” shots, excluding “long shots”, which are ineffective and confused especially when they are crowded. The interest of the filmmaker is focused on events rather than on style, also because the lighting of the tv studio does not allow, for the usual reasons of speed, the meticulous attention to photography that is granted to the cinematographic camera operator. It is undeniable that the phenomenon of the tv film, taken as a whole, has more to do with commerce than art. Nevertheless, before condemning these serials, we should emphasise the contribution they make, in the most successful cases, to the aesthetic definition of the “cinematographic novella”, a form that the measurements imposed by spectacular film had progressively chased from the screens. On the production level, it can be observed that tv films, due to the flexibility that comes from their lower costs, disregard any taboos relating to the star system and sometimes offer substantial opportunities for actors, writers or directors who have been overlooked by cinema productions. Again in the field of tv films, the range, from the best to the worst, is almost exclusively American. Along with series that seem to illustrate the most facile aspect of commercial cinema, there are others made with appreciable continuity of taste and recognisable commitment. In Italy, in the field of films made specifically for tv, we have not progressed beyond experimentalism, with results that are dubious to say the least.
  • The documentary made for tv. […] Documentaries made specifically for tv refer to journalism and tend to break through the wall that separates the image from the viewer: that is, they put the latter in touch with reality, mainly through direct interviews. In Italian tv this formula, which has its historical precedents in American newsreels, has sometimes happily integrated with the poetics of Neorealism; and has contributed to the discovery of a number of unrecognised aspects of our life and the illustration of social problems. We will talk about the news as entertainment elsewhere. tv journalism is often technically praiseworthy for its timeliness and liveliness, aside from ritual considerations about political bias and the arbitrary limitation of subjects up for discussion. Italian tv does not go anywhere near criminal and judicial issues – an attitude that avoids certain American-style excesses, but also reduces the scope of the service. It should be noted, however, that television news has almost completely finished off the newsreels. […]

The dramatic theatre

The discussion regarding tv drama is closely connected to that on its relationship with the cinema. The staging of comedies and dramas for the small screen has its precedents in a photo-theatrical cinema, which established itself in the early years of sound. It was around 1930 that theatre actors and directors began to devote themselves more and more to cinema, sometimes transferring their most popular successes to film. For many years, critics, while appreciating the contribution of individual artists when they merited it, continued to consider filmed theatre as an intermediary stage between theatre and film.

These purist scruples vanished after Second World War, in the face of some exceptional results from the photo-theatre. French critics have the merit of having defended and valued cinema d’adaptation, which today is no longer considered an inferior and impure genre. Clearly the film director can present a very personal interpretation of a theatrical text, using a strictly filmic language […].

The same critical considerations can be referred in full to dramatic theatre seen through the cameras lens. […] There are, however, some practical limitations that end up assuming a certain importance on the aesthetic level as well. Firstly, it has to be noted that the tv director follows the action from two or three obligatory (even if partially mobile) points; so they do not have the infinite variety of angles available to a film director. Moreover, the tv director has to edit the images by choosing them on the monitor during transmission, i.e. while the action is in progress; chasing it, almost, in an attempt to underline its values. […] Other limitations: the actors have to recite every act in sequence, relying on their memories and minimal help from the prompter; cameras and microphones have to move around the performers without making their presence felt, that is, in a very small space; lighting, as in tv films, does not have all the expressive possibilities of cinema.

 

It therefore seems correct to define theatre on tv as a theatrical performance supported and substantiated by a number of cinematic resources. While making use of transparencies, photographic backgrounds and filmed inserts, the tv director is bound to the unfolding of the action following a typically theatrical rhythm. They can make their weight felt on the visual plane, imposing a style on the images, but will never enjoy the freedom of a film director and will never be able to detach themselves to any great extent from the theatre. Their expressive possibilities are further reduced, to the extent of disappearing almost completely, when the dramatic work is not transmitted from a studio but filmed in a normal theatre; in this case the lighting worsens, the frontal position of the cameras does not allow frequent variations of framing, and the set design and acting do not respond to the needs of television shooting. On the subject of acting it can be added that on tv the actors have to orient themselves more towards the cinema than towards the theatre: in fact, tv does not tolerate excesses in diction, implacably highlighting any forcing in a theatrical sense.

It is interesting to note that also as regards the crisis in dramatic theatre, as we saw for cinema, the price of competing with television has been paid by the so-called “mass theatre”, the middle of the road, and not shows of exceptional artistic level. tv has rather become a refuge for the weakest and most anonymous repertoire of Italian theatre between the wars, which is benefiting from a pointless revival. Alongside these run-of-the-mill comedies, but again employing dubious criteria of moralistic discrimination, Italian tv also presents classic dramatic works of greater weight, in programming that is almost always more than appreciable from a technical and artistic point of view.

 

The television original

By television original what is meant is a piece of drama of variable length that is shot using the tv-theatrical technique, again as though it were live even when it is not transmitted immediately and recording is used. Stylistically the genre falls between theatre and cinema […].

It should be added that television originals flourished for a few years in the United States, where a whole group of young writers was able to incorporate psychological and sociological concerns into an intimist and Neorealistic dimension favoured by the limits of the medium. […] In Italy, where the crisis of theatre drama is felt much more than in the United States, the tv original has not yet yielded significant fruits. The genre is largely uncultivated by our tv, which prefers to focus on novels scripted in episodes, conceived and produced as dramatic or original works. The scripted novels derive their episodic structure from silent cinema and their precedents in radio.

The opera, operetta and musical show

[…] Today, a partial rebirth due to the industriousness of excellent musicians and singers as well as improvements in staging, is counterbalanced by the economically precarious life of the largely subsidised opera houses and the undeniable drying up of the creative vein after the great season of realist opera. On tv, opera is transposed with similar criteria to those employed in the execution of a dramatic text and according to formulae already put to the test in filmed opera productions. One drawback is the fact that opera on tv, as well as the sung parts of operetta and some mixed shows of prose and music, have to use playback […]. Although it is widely held that opera removed from its natural environment loses some of its charm, there have been numerous cases of works performed on tv with style and decorum. It does not appear that tv has stemmed the flow of enthusiasts going to opera houses, while it is has to be acknowledged that many artists have found an excellent launching pad on the small screen. The same can be said of the operetta, which has actually enjoyed a partial revival thanks to tv. […]

Ballet, the musical variety show, the revue and the musical are some of the most assiduously cultivated genres on television. The small screen favours the individual performance of the comedian, the singer or the dancer, rather than the great choreographic paintings portrayed in American musical films: but these too are made, on Italian tv, with alternating success and decorum.

The director can break the monotony of a parade of attractions in a variety show by changing the lighting, the position of the performers, the shots and their order; or, as seen recently on Italian tv, with electronic tricks which allow zooming in or out, splitting and multiplying people, or inserting disparate elements into the frame.

[…] In the resumption of circus performances, which always feature one or other of the existing companies, tv follows the stylistic and technical criteria of news programming. The circuses seek the collaboration of tv for advertising reasons and, apparently, manage to enlarge the numbers of their clientele after every appearance on tv.

Sport as entertainment

On tv the commentary on a football game, a boxing match, the highlights and finale of a cycling race, assumes above all an entertainment value. As will be better seen when discussing news coverage, tv is able to extract the spectacular from the event being covered. In this sense, although eliminating the possibility of live participation for the spectator, a good account of a sporting event almost completely satisfies the enthusiast, who is often able to follow the various phases of the event more closely and carefully. Which is why the agreements between tv and the organisers of sporting competitions are always difficult and laborious: live commentary, in fact, inevitably reduces the number of spectators and causes economic damage that has to be compensated for at the outset. It has been noted that the extensive commentaries and reports with interviews and comments that tv devotes to certain major events dampen public interest in sports newspapers and reduce their circulation.

Current affairs as entertainment

The most original contribution of tv to the performing arts is undoubtedly its already highlighted ability to identify through the square eye of the camera the spectacular – that is, potentially dramatic – elements of any event caught at the very moment it takes place. It is a perfect form of journalism, timely to the maximum and standing at the limits of objectivity, although it is already interpreted dramatically. In fact, the launch of a ship, a wedding, a street demonstration or an awards ceremony assume on tv a narrative significance, almost of elaborate interpretation, which nevertheless uses strictly and exclusively real elements.

It could be said, at the risk of hyperbole, that tv is able to grasp the dramatic potential inherent in human events and meetings, their ability to come to life in narration and in entertainment. […] Faced with a successful commentary we are often forced to admit that there is no show more fascinating than reality, there is no suspense better prepared than the one chance happens to stage, there is no actor better than the everyman who “plays” himself in front of the cameras. This aspect of tv, in our opinion, can benefit the traditional forms of entertainment, and contribute to their rejuvenation and purification from any literary or aesthetic dross.

News events as television entertainment open two different perspectives for the man of today. On the one hand, it can help to refine his way of observing reality, arouse his curiosity regarding the aspects that video from time to time brings to the fore; in this sense, of course, tv has an obvious pedagogical and informative value. On the other hand, there is the risk that the habit of considering reality through the mediation of the “camera” can atrophy interest in the real thing, directing it decisively towards the representation. Between these two poles, positive and negative, the whole range of tv possibilities is laid out, the key to its influence on the world in which we live. […]

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