PRINT Summer 2014


Paolo Gioli, L’operatore perforato (The Perforated Cameraman), 1979, 16 mm, black-and-white, silent, 8 minutes 53 seconds at 18 fps.

After the history of the rectangle in film, we’ll have
to write a history of the meaning of darkness in
the cinema.
—Paolo Gioli

IN HIS DE ANIMA, Aristotle identifies the human being as a blinking animal—at once capable of vision but also, and more importantly, able to close his eyes, to choose not to see, and therefore able to reflect. “[Human eyes have a certain superiority] over those of hard-eyed animals,” the philosopher observed. “Man’s eyes have in the eyelids a kind of shelter or envelope, which must be shifted or drawn back in order that we may see, while hard-eyed animals have nothing of the kind, but at once see whatever presents itself in the transparent medium.” It is the eyelid—and the rhythms of its opening and closing—that enables the passage from perception (vision) to reflection (thought). If the outside world registers in our consciousness as a lasting image, it is as much due to our capacity to close our eyes in thought as it is to our ability to see. In the literary arts since Homer, insight has always been essentially indebted to blindness. At times, Virgil puts his hand over Dante’s eyes in hell, both to protect his pupil from the lacerating vision of sin but also to allow him to learn, as if the moral of the story is best considered with eyes wide shut. Among all the arts, this paradox of blindness and vision, of light and dark, of exposure and closure, is perhaps best embodied in the cinema, with its shuttered cameras and projectors emulating the sheltered apertures of the human body in sensitive contact with the world. And few filmmakers have made such essential paradoxes—of both the body and the cinema—the very stuff of their work as has Italian filmmaker Paolo Gioli, whose films represent a forty-five-year meditation on the cinematic medium as the art of blinking.

Thanks to a series of important exhibitions and retrospectives of his work in Europe, Asia, and North America—including recent screenings at the Toronto, New York, and Hong Kong film festivals and extensive retrospectives at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris and the Lucca and Pesaro film festivals—it is safe to say that Gioli, who emerged as an artist in the late 1960s, is now recognized as Italy’s most important postwar experimental filmmaker. But that was not always the case and, at any rate, experimental and avant-garde filmmaking in Italy has never gotten sustained attention—as have so many other avant-garde film traditions—either in Italy or abroad. Gioli’s rise to prominence has come in spite of such neglect and is all the more remarkable for it. The paucity of critical interest afforded the Italians cannot be explained by a lack of material. Ever since the 1910s, when the Futurist filmmakers Bruno Corra and Arnaldo Ginna began working with music and projected light, Italian visual artists have been developing the expressive potential of motion pictures.1 Today, however, Gioli is one of the few Italian experimental filmmakers who continues to work with celluloid.

BORN IN NORTHEASTERN ITALY in 1942, a year before the Allied invasion, Gioli went on to attend art school at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice, where he studied painting and specialized in portraiture and studies of the nude. It was during these years that the young artist developed his knowledge of European avant-garde film, steeping himself in the work of Dziga Vertov, Hans Richter, and Walter Ruttmann, to name only his most profound early influences. Gioli was particularly taken by Richter’s combination of film and painting and the musicality of the visual forms in his largely abstract films of the ’20s, including the seminal Rhythmus 21 of 1921.

However, Gioli’s actual conversion to filmmaking took place not in Italy but in Lower Manhattan, where he lived for a year beginning in 1967, thanks to a scholarship, and acquainted himself with the then-burgeoning New York art world. It was during this time of tremendous social upheaval in the US that he discovered the work of experimental filmmakers associated with the New American Cinema. The impact of these films on him was enormous, and the detour in his path as an artist from the practice of painting to the creation of moving pictures dates from that unforeseen encounter with American experimental filmmaking.

Shortly before leaving New York, Gioli was befriended by Paolo Vampa, an international lawyer who would end up producing all of the artist’s films. In fact, it was Vampa who gave Gioli the cash to buy his first movie camera, a secondhand 16-mm Paillard Bolex, which he used the way the first Lumière cameramen did in the late 1800s: as a machine for shooting film and as an optical printer. This camera formed the basis of his production in the years to follow, resulting in thirty-seven films (and counting), nearly all made in the 16-mm film gauge.

Ironically, however, Gioli produced his first film, Tracce di tracce (Traces of Traces, 1969), without recourse to a movie camera. Working in the manner of a painter, applying pigments to clear leader, using paintbrushes and rubber stamps as well as his fingers, hands, arms, and other body parts, Gioli recorded various bodily impressions, including the texture of his skin and contours of his flesh, directly on celluloid. The word for film in Italian is, after all, pellicola, derived from the root pelle, or skin. In this manner, Gioli insists on an essential analogy, developed throughout his subsequent work, between celluloid and skin as the sensitive interface between the self and the outside world. In the process, he announces what will be the central preoccupations of his work in film: the human body and the physical and psychological processes involved in sense perception. Furthermore, in its refusal of the camera, Traces of Traces expresses the filmmaker’s great ambivalence toward the technological basis of the cinema, experienced by Gioli, and often represented in his work, as a form of economic and ideological entrapment of the artist struggling against the forces of alienation. Traces of Traces is a visually stunning contribution to the now venerable tradition of hand-painted films, which counts among its most important practitioners Luigi Veronesi and Cioni Carpi in Italy, and Len Lye, Harry Smith, Stan Brakhage, and Norman McLaren in North America. (According to Gioli, he only saw Brakhage’s handpainted films long after he had started making his own.)

Paolo Gioli, Interlinea (Frame Line), 2008, 16 mm, color, silent, 5 minutes 12 seconds at 24 fps.

After returning from the States, Gioli moved to Rome, which by the end of the ’60s had become the center of experimental filmmaking in Italy thanks to the presence of the filmmakers associated with the Cooperativa del Cinema Indipendente, which had been modeled on the Film-Makers’ Cooperative in New York. He soon fell in with the filmmakers associated with the CCI, whose activities continued even after the cooperative’s formal dissolution (two years after its founding and shortly before Gioli’s arrival in Rome). Gioli felt that the neo-avant-garde scene was then in the process of disintegrating because of the political radicalization of so many of the CCI filmmakers. While his own politics were (and remain) firmly positioned on the pacifist Left, one gets the sense that Gioli holds the era responsible for a weakening of the aesthetic—as opposed to ideological—commitments of film artists working at the time. Furthermore, as Italy entered into the revolutionary tumult of the so-called Years of Lead and many filmmakers increasingly invested their energies in radical political groups and projects at the expense of their artistic pursuits, Gioli’s focus on the photographic and technical materials of the cinema very likely marginalized him within the Italian underground. One cannot underestimate the antiformalist attitude of the radical Left at the time, for whom the revolution was a matter of content, not form.

Working in the orbit of the CCI, Gioli would, for better or worse, secure his reputation as Italy’s “structural” filmmaker—here adopting P. Adams Sitney’s term for a type of film that “insists on [a predetermined and simplified] shape, and what content it has is minimal and subsidiary to the outline.”2 In Gioli’s works, the medium is most definitely the message. His films offer up to view the signifying materials of the cinema—the mechanical, optical, and chemical processes at the basis of the medium—elements traditionally, purposely, kept from our awareness as film viewers. In an early consideration of the history of experimental film in Italy, the influential filmmaker and scholar Massimo Bacigalupo identified Gioli as perhaps the only filmmaker on the Italian scene whose work was so “strongly concerned with the nature of the medium.” Bacigalupo writes that “Brakhage’s promises of liberating the eye interested us little,” and he makes the fascinating suggestion that Italian experimental film has suffered from the “disappointment” of filmmakers and commentators in Europe and the US over the fact that the Italians were relatively uninterested in the types of formal investigation embraced elsewhere—perhaps he had in mind works such as George Landow’s Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. (1966). He intimates, perhaps not entirely approvingly, that Gioli was as close as Italy got to this tendency.3 Coming from one of the protagonists of Italian underground cinema, Bacigalupo’s comments offer precious insight into the specificity of the Italian scene, and perhaps also help to explain why its filmmakers were ever relegated to the periphery of experimental film history, if included at all. It is thus perhaps not accidental that Gioli is now identified with the recent interest in the Italian underground: His structuralist approach to film provides a stylistic and aesthetic linkage to the work of the recognized auteurs of experimental film: Brakhage, Bruce Conner, Ken Jacobs, Landow, Paul Sharits, Michael Snow, and Andy Warhol, among others. Gioli’s work affords an opportunity to integrate Italy into the story of international experimental filmmaking at last.4

GIOLI'S FILMS OFFER visual immersions into the inner workings of the camera. He focuses our attention on apertures and lenses, shutters and diaphragms, filmstrips, emulsion surfaces, film rolls, sprockets and sprocket holes, frames, frame lines and aspect ratios, positive and negative images, optical and magnetic sound tracks, editing tape and glue, the jointed images in horizontal montage and the layered images in vertical montage and lap dissolves. For Gioli, if cinema has an essence, it is found in these elements typically removed from the viewer’s cognizance. To the extent that Gioli’s films offer up the cinema’s unconscious apparatus to view, and thereby represent a return of the cinematic repressed, they belong to the legacy of Surrealist filmmaking that started with Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien andalou (1929), a film whose ambition to shock its spectator into revolutionary awareness was expressed violently in its famous extreme close-up of a human eye being sliced open with a razor—a gesture to which Gioli responds with the sutured eyeballs and sewn eyelids of his 1989 film Quando l’occhio trema (When the Eye Trembles), which he dedicated to Buñuel in homage to the Surrealist assault on the ocular.

Film strip from Paolo Gioli’s Quando l’occhio trema (When the Eye Trembles), 1989, 16 mm, black-and-white, silent, 10 minutes 57 seconds at 18 fps.

As Gioli enjoys saying, the cinema would never have been invented—indeed would not exist—without the sprocket hole, the perforation in the celluloid that allows the film strip to be pulled by mechanical claws through the camera’s gate during exposure and, later, in the process of editing, contact printing, and projection. The sprocket hole is the conjugal space in which the filmic image and the technology of the cinema conjoin to produce the illusion of motion. The sprocket hole is a leitmotif running throughout the body of Gioli’s films, indicating their maker’s preoccupation with what might be the central paradox of the cinema: the fact that there is nothing moving in motion pictures besides the regulated flow of eighteen to twenty-four still frames of celluloid per second through a projector. Gioli’s second film, Commutazioni con mutazione (Commutations with Mutation, 1969), offers a multitude of superimposed layers of films (including handpainted leader and 8-mm and 16-mm found footage, complete with optical sound track) in which the sprocket hole figures as the artist’s central concern—as a rectangle of empty white light, devoid of content, and surrounded by frenetic images in cinematic motion. The sprocket hole is an aperture whose shape rhymes with that of the film frame and the film screen: It is the first essential rectangle in this historically rectangular medium, as obsessively explored in Secondo il mio occhio di vetro (According to My Glass Eye, 1972), Schermo-schermo (Screen-Screen, 1978), and several other Gioli films dedicated to the rectangle of the frame and the projected image. In his 1979 film L’operatore perforato (The Perforated Cameraman), Gioli layers his 16-mm film with 9.5-mm found footage of a cameraman turning the hand crank on an unidentified film set—recalling Luigi Pirandello’s 1915 novel Shoot!, in which the cameraman operating his machine represents the alienation of the artist in newly industrialized Italy. Reveling in the 9.5-mm film gauge’s placement of the sprocket hole at the center of the film strip, along the frame line that divides one image from the next, The Perforated Cameraman is surely among the most captivating meditations on the sprocket hole and its unacknowledged function ever made.

In other films, Gioli strips the shutter mechanism out of his camera and sets up external shutters in front of the lens, drawing attention to that other paradox of the cinema: that the legibility of the motion picture depends on rapid alternations of light and darkness, that the visibility of the filmic image carries a debt to blindness, even if the spectator is unaware of the fact that one sits in utter darkness for 40 percent of the time spent in the movie theater. In Immagini travolte dalla ruota di Duchamp (Images Overwhelmed by Duchamp’s Wheel, 1994), Gioli shoots through a spinning bicycle wheel—in tribute to the first readymade—inserting wedges of black paper between alternating spokes to create a “shutter” that rotates at varying speeds in front of the camera. In this manner, he foregrounds the place and function of the shutter while creating a lovely undulating flicker effect in his blinking images. Furthermore, Gioli here displays his wonderfully ironic spirit by signaling the formative influence of Duchamp and the original avant-gardes by literally shooting his film through a readymade and presenting himself (the film’s imagery concentrates on Gioli’s face) as that which comes next. Gioli has devised other external shutters as well, including modified sewing machines, tree leaves blowing in the wind, and his own hand and fingers waved rhythmically before the lens, thereby creating a great variety of flicker effects while also very consciously modifying the technology, refashioning the tools according to the artist’s needs, and refusing to take anything for granted in the artistic process. (As Duchamp once said, few painters understand that paint itself is a readymade.)

Other films, such as Interlinea (Frame Line, 2008), focus our attention on the gap that separates each still image on the film strip, demonstrating that whatever is meaningful in the filmic image depends on a meaningless black line that separates one image from the next, a black frame line—an instant of emptiness in the succession of frames that will be filled in as a consequence of the persistence of vision and continuity provided by the spectator’s nervous system. Indeed, among Gioli’s most popular films are those that focus on persistence of vision—films such as L’assassino nudo (The Naked Killer, 1984) and Piccolo film decomposto (Little Decomposed Film, 1986), which reanimate Eadweard Muybridge’s chronophotographic motion studies, actualizing their original cinematic potential, or the striking Filmarilyn (1992), in which Gioli rephotographs images of Marilyn Monroe from Bert Stern’s published contact sheets, building a rapid montage that transforms Stern’s photographs of the movie star posing for the camera, taken six weeks before her death, into a sort of phantasmatic flip-book. In the process, Gioli reminds us that the cinema, whose greatest martyr was perhaps Marilyn Monroe (whom Gioli clearly presents as a figura Christi, complete with a bleeding stigma), was born from the nineteenth-century optical machines—the thaumatropes, phenakistoscopes, and first chronophotographic devices of mechanized blinking—that provided an illusion of motion through the rapid succession of still images. In his 2008 film Children, Gioli uses the same technique to reanimate Richard Avedon’s photographs of the Kennedy family in the White House, bringing the dead back to life while intercutting images of the infant Caroline Kennedy, secure in her father’s embrace, with a series of nineteenth- and twentieth-century photographs of children suffering from starvation or illness, or who were victims of US napalm bombings in Vietnam. (Though in this, perhaps Gioli’s angriest film to date, Kennedy’s war also clearly stands in for more recent American aggressions.)

Paolo Gioli with an assortment of his pinhole cameras, Rovigo, Italy, 1983. Photo: Alessandro Andriolli.

In the end, one of the defining characteristics of Gioli’s work is his insistence on this fundamental debt that motion pictures owe to the sprocket hole, the shutter, the frame line, and the silent intervals between images in succession—all the ways the cinema blinks—of which the spectator remains completely unaware (unless there is a malfunction of the projector, at which point the spectator’s trance is interrupted and the poor projectionist, shut up in his hidden black booth, becomes the object of everyone’s scorn).

IF GIOLI IS ONE OF MANY structural filmmakers, what truly distinguishes him—the area in which he has carved out a radically unique place for himself in the history of motion pictures—is his work in pinhole cinema. Starting in the early ’70s, Gioli began experimenting with pinhole photography, making photographs with what he called “stenopeic” devices (from the Greek stenos opaios, or “narrow aperture”). He began building a great variety of pinhole cameras using unusual materials, including boxes of various dimensions, shipping tubes, containers for shoeshine polish and talcum powder, seashells, bread loaves, walnuts, saltines, perforated soup ladles, buttons, traffic cones, cheese graters, and the human hand. He also experimented with large-format pinhole box cameras, using large sheets of Polaroid positive film, and he was among the very first to experiment with Polaroid transfers, producing heavily stratified works with the gelatin and dye layers, the skin-thick pellicola, of Polaroid SX-70 film. Indeed, outside the ever more constricted world of experimental filmmaking, Gioli is well known for his pinhole photography, and there are several catalogues of his photographs in circulation.5 But he is unique in having extended his experiments in pinhole photography to motion pictures.

Gioli has made a series of pinhole motion-picture cameras since the early ’70s, and indeed he worked on his great masterpiece of pinhole cinema, Film stenopeico (l’uomo senza macchina da presa) (Pinhole Film [Man without a Movie Camera]), on and off between 1973 and 1989. For Pinhole Film, Gioli fashioned a camera from an eighteen-inch-long rectangular tube, the entire length of which he perforated with a line of pinholes along one side, so that multiple exposures could be made on strips of 16-mm film that passed through the tube, between a film cartridge at the top and a take-up reel at the bottom. Gioli says that with this camera he “explores” his subjects without the interference of optical lenses and without the imposition of the traditional camera’s single perspective. The shutter device on this camera is rudimentary: a long, hinged door over the apertures, operated by hand. In the making of Pinhole Film, each exposure of a length of 16-mm film resulted in forty-seven “frames”—or rounded exposures—representing just over two seconds of moving image at eighteen frames per second. In projection, the exposures on the filmstrip merge together in diffused lap dissolves of very simple images of windows, bodies, household objects, trees, and plants that are remarkable for their auroral beauty. The varying duration of exposure, together with the irregularity of the handmade apertures and the slight variations in the spaces separating them, all combine to give Gioli’s images their fragile intensity—an intensity that Gioli’s celluloid, like the lacerated eyeball of When the Eye Trembles, can apprehend and capture, but only at the risk of being overwhelmed by the forces of the visible world. His experiments with stenopeic cameras represent an extension of the artist’s reflections on the aesthetic capacities and enabling technologies of photography and film, and his recent pinhole film Natura obscura (2013), with its diffuse images of red poppies in a windswept Italian countryside illuminated by the setting sun, demonstrates that the filmmaker’s explorations of photographic media are far from over.

Gioli’s pinhole films express a desire to return to origins, to a time of potentiality before the commercialization of the medium as narrative entertainment, and thus to offer cinema a chance for a new beginning. Ultimately, Gioli’s investigations center on how we sense things (not only visually) and how such sensory input is processed through language and concepts, finally to be registered in the imagination and archived in memory. The ethical basis of Gioli’s art lies in its focus on the body and its sensual encounter with nature. For Gioli, the film camera locates—in the mysterious, apertured interior of the camera obscura—an analogous encounter with nature as it registers on film. And this analogy between the camera and the human body—the body with its blinking apertures and diaphragmmed orifices, with its skin—would be the central theme of nearly all his films, beginning with his first gesture of pressing his own pigmented body to clear celluloid in Traces of Traces and culminating in his recent film Quando i corpi si toccano (When Bodies Touch Each Other, 2012). This preoccupation with human body and the cultural forces that constrain it, this commitment to the sensorial potential of both the body and the cinema, is what provides Gioli’s work its aesthetic and ethical force.

Still from Paolo Gioli’s Schermo-schermo (Screen-Screen), 1978, Super 8, color, silent, 24 minutes at 18 fps.

ONE OF THE LAST ACTIVE filmmakers of that generation of artists who emerged during the neo-avant-garde season of the ’60s—when the Italian underground flourished, if only briefly, in dialogue with filmmakers in North America (New York City most of all)—Gioli carries on with the avant-garde’s investigations of the aesthetic and technological materials of the medium. Ever the structuralist, Gioli has said that what motivates his various attempts to deconstruct and reconstruct the machinery of cinema, and his ambition to provide an anatomy of the medium, is an ardent desire to overcome what he calls the “technologism” (tecnicismo) of filmmaking—the technological standards imposed on filmmakers by market forces and the commodification of the tools of the filmmaker’s craft. Gioli’s DIY ethic, his insistence on controlling, and sometimes reinventing, all the processes and elements in filmmaking—including camera production, shooting, “acting,” processing, editing, printing, projecting, exhibiting, and distributing—and his minimization of the expense of film production, serves to free the cinema from the commercial pressures and entrenched habits of production and consumption that are responsible for its alienation. “As a premise for my way of making films and working with film, the most important thing is the movie camera understood almost as a laboratory [for the shooting and printing of films],” Gioli has written. “I express my love for the cinema through the movie camera; in terms of time requirements and production costs, I’m beginning to invent them for myself. Free films made freely.”6 For Gioli, such liberation depends on a return to origins, to originality, as he works backward through the history of motion pictures toward a mythical protocinematic starting point, the stroboscopic zero degree of cinema, in order to redeem the medium and make a fresh start. He has said he will continue to make films on celluloid for as long as he is able to find film stock—and he knows those days are numbered now, as celluloid’s obsolescence is all but complete. Thereafter, he intends to move resolutely and without nostalgia into digital media, with which he has merely dabbled up to now, and one can only wonder what marvels will result from his impatient dissections of the new technologies—though certain statements presage important methodological continuities across the media. “One must always investigate how something is made inside,” he observed in an interview, “to see how it resembles us, how it is similar to nature.”7 What I imagine his work will show us, among other things, is where such technology blinks. Today, thanks to ever-increasing opportunities to view Gioli’s work at film festivals and cinematheques around the world, and also on DVD, we are able to reach new clarity on the profound contribution this artist has made, and continues to make, to the history of experimental film in Italy and beyond.

A DVD box set of Gioli’s films (Film di Paolo Gioli) is currently available in Europe and will be released by Raro Video in the US this fall.

Patrick Rumble is a professor of Italian and european studies and chair of the department of French and Italian at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.


1. For his attention to early Futurist film experiments, see Antonio Bisaccia, Punctum fluens. Comunicazione estetica e movimento tra cinema e arte nelle avanguardie storiche (Punctum Fluens: Aesthetic Communication and Movement between Cinema and Art in the Historical Avant-Gardes) (Rome: Meltemi, 2002).

2. P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002), 348.

3. See Bacigalupo’s entry on Gioli’s work in Bianco e nero, May–August 1974, 92 (translation mine).

4. See Bart Testa’s excellent contextualization of Gioli’s work in relation to Jacobs, Peter Kubelka, Sharits, and Snow, in “The Unstable Eye: Paolo Gioli’s Film Practice Seen Through Paul Virilio,” Incite, no. 2 (Spring–Fall 2010): 87–107. See also David Bordwell’s superb essay on Gioli’s layering techniques, “Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema,” in Paolo Gioli: Un cinema dell’impronta/Imprint Cinema, ed. Sergio Toffetti and Annamaria Licciardello (Rome: Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia / Kiwido, 2009), 27–30.

5. See Paolo Costantini, Silvio Fuso, Sandro Mescola, and Italo Zannier, eds., Paolo Gioli. Gran positivo nel crudele spazio stenopeico (Paolo Gioli: Grand Positive in the Cruel Stenopeic Space) (Florence, Italy: Fratelli Alinari, 1991). For a description of Gioli’s pioneering use of Polaroid instant film, see the introduction to Paolo Vampa, Paolo Gioli: Thirty 50 x 60 Polaroids and Five Films, exh. cat. (Beijing: OffiCina, 2007). See also the special issue of Pinhole Journal dedicated to Gioli: Pinhole Journal 12, no. 2 (August 1996).

6. From Paolo Gioli’s essay “Scritti per un rettangolo bianco” (Writings on the White Rectangle) in the booklet edited by Paolo Vampa that accompanies the DVD box set Film di Paolo Gioli (Raro Video/Interferenze, 2005), 29 (translation mine).

7. From “Se hai una perforazione hai già un’immagine” (If You Have a Sprocket Hole You Already Have an Image), an interview with Roberta Valtorta, in Count Down, no. 2 (March 2000) (translation mine).