The article analyzes the experiences of Italian women editors as examples of the complex interplay between modes of resistance and acceptance developed by women professionals in a male-dominant film industry. Retracing the evolution of the profession of editor from the silent era to the 1970s, the article navigates the genealogies of Italian women who worked in the cutting room. These women used their creative and professional skills to overcome obstacles imposed by a film industry that otherwise reproduced entrenched patterns of gender and class discrimination. In particular the case of Ornella Micheli, a professional editor who worked on more than sixty films between the 1950s and the 1970s, reveals a practitioner who fitted into the mechanisms of her working environment, but also developed her own personal strategies to affirm her professional status and ensure the continuity of her career.
This article discusses the experiences of Italian women film editors during the central decades of the twentieth century, with a particular focus on Ornella Micheli, a professional editor who worked for more than two decades in the postwar years. Micheli's career is discussed in relation to the precarious conditions that have characterized the work of female professionals throughout the history of Italian cinema. All the individual experiences mentioned in this article are analyzed as reflections of “structures of feeling” in the Italian film industry.1 Raymond Williams considers these as “practical consciousness,” or expressions of “meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and the relations between these and formal or systematic beliefs” that stimulate practical action. These range from “formal assent with private dissent, to the more nuanced interaction between selected and interpreted beliefs, and acted and justified experiences.”2 The experiences of women editors are read in relation to Williams's framework, and the practical and material consciousness of the postwar Italian film industry, which consistently reproduced traditional patterns of gender and class discrimination that forced women to seek modes of resistance and/or acceptance.
The bond between women and editing has a long history in Italian filmmaking, as Italian women developed a close relationship with the invisible and manual professions of the cinema industry. From the anonymous cutters of the silent era to the first professional editors of the 1930s and 1940s up to the present, women editors have been overshadowed by the male professionals who occupied the more decision-making and creative positions. This issue of visibility reflects the relationships of power within the industry, yet the continuity of women practitioners in the cutting room suggests the existence of more complex dynamics. These dynamics can be traced back by analyzing the individual experiences of female professionals in relation to the broader context of film production in order to uncover the “structures of feeling” that characterized their professional lives.
Micheli was one of many professionals who worked mainly for Italian “exploitation” and popular genre features in the 1960s and 1970s, when this kind of low-budget production represented the core of the Italian film business in terms of both investment and box office income.3 The films were characterized by industrial and standardized modes and by authorial detachment, in that individual directors were not interested in developing their own stylistic signatures. This meant that Micheli, unlike editors working in higher-budget and art-house productions, was less dictated to and directed in her work by senior creative figures. She was also well integrated into the mechanisms of the Italian film industry: the daughter of Roberto Rossellini's key grip, Micheli apprenticed under one of the most acknowledged female editors of the time, Jolanda Benvenuti, who also worked with Rossellini. Micheli worked as an assistant editor from the end of the 1950s, when she began her professional career, until 1981, when she worked on her last film, Porno Holocaust (1981), directed by Joe D'Amato. The crucial years of her professional life were during the so-called golden age of the Italian film business and reflect its production culture in the few decades in which it was a major international player.4
Micheli's filmography includes more than sixty titles, mainly ones directed by popular cult filmmakers such as D'Amato, Riccardo Freda, and Lucio Fulci. Among many others, Micheli edited gothic films such as Raptus (L'orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock, 1962) and The Ghost (Lo spettro, 1963); spaghetti Westerns like I'll Dig Your Grave (Sono Sartana, il vostro becchino, 1969) and The Man in the Silver Saddle (Sella d'argento, 1978); the sexploitation film Sweet Kisses and Languid Caresses (Oh, dolci baci, languide carezze, 1970); horror films like Don't Torture a Duckling (Non si sevizia un paperino, 1972) and Beyond Darkness (Buio Omega, 1979); and the pornographic horror film Sexy Nights of the Living Dead (Le notti erotiche dei morti viventi, 1980).5 Thanks to the continuity of her professional life, it is possible to find her name, but only on a quantitative basis (in other words, by tracking her work from the film credits), since she is not listed in the main professional index of the time, The Italian Cinema Yearbook (L'annuario del cinema italiano).6 Her work on genre feature films, which were excluded from the canon of Italian cinema for decades, contributed to her invisibility, unlike in the cases of Benvenuti and Tatiana Casini Morigi, who worked with critically praised directors.7
The long history of invisibility of female practitioners like Micheli points directly to questions of historiography and methodology, illuminating the intersection of issues shared by both women's film history and production studies. In other words, the way the Italian film industry has been investigated so far requires an additional effort in terms of methodology in attempts to investigate the historical contributions of women to Italian filmmaking. Interviews and traces of material culture were essential tools for this article, which aims to build an archaeological approach to women's film history and to reconstruct marginalized production cultures. It investigates the gaps left by traditional sources and institutional accounts of film history, which have rarely taken into account matters such as the materiality of work and the contributions of below-the-line professionals, and difficult-to-quantify aspects like social and professional capital.8 The result is a “film scholarship without films” that allows us to, as Shelley Stamp puts it, step into “a world where women circulate, have agency and make meaning” by tracing back, as Jane Gaines says, “the industrial conditions of women's meaning making.”9
Micheli's experience can be traced back only through secondary sources. As she passed away almost ten years ago, the main source for this research is an interview I conducted with her brother Bruno, who worked as her assistant from 1964 to 1981.10 Even though she was the trusted editor of the cult director Lucio Fulci, there is only one recorded interview with Micheli available that is (unsurprisingly) entirely centered on Fulci.11 The popular films that she edited in the 1960s explicitly appealed to male spectators and still represent cult objects for a predominantly male fandom that in general reveres the figure of the director, following the traditions of art-house film criticism.12 When Fulci died in 1996, the testimonies of his collaborators, like Ornella and Bruno Micheli, were collected as behind-the-scenes anecdotes for fans, but these naturally focused on the director's persona and style. Given the partial nature of these sources, it is essential to frame them in a broader reconstruction of the general mechanisms that characterized the Italian film industry, and more specifically the working conditions of its editors. This further complicates the previously discussed question of methodology, given the heterogeneous nature of the sources available and their limited correspondence with those of Anglo-American production studies.13 As such, the next section provides an overview of the state of the Italian film industry during Micheli's career and the sources available, showing their limits and their possibilities.
SPOTLIGHTS AND BLIND ALLEYS IN ITALIAN PRODUCTION STUDIES
As a preliminary approach, it is necessary to reconsider the sources that enable us to find traces of women in the Italian film industry. Production studies is a relatively new field, and gender studies has only recently found a place in Italian film studies. This partially explains both the difficulty in accessing archival sources and the lack of interest in the material and working conditions of film practitioners in studies of Italian cinema. However, there are many sources available, and they served as a solid ground for this research.
To date, investigations of the Italian film industry have followed three main paths. One is anecdotal, involving interviews with practitioners conducted by film critics, such as Goffredo Fofi and Franca Faldini's The Adventurous History of Italian Cinema (L'avventurosa storia del cinema italiano, 1981).14 The main contribution to the history of editing is Stefano Masi's book In the Dark of the Cutting Room (Nel buio della moviola, 1985), which is a collection of oral testimonies. Masi is a film critic, director, and journalist, and his interviews reflect a specific interest in editors—including a few women editors—who have worked with acknowledged directors.15 Therefore, although Masi's work represents a fundamental reference for this article, it is important to stress its partial perspective, due to the author's view that editing is subsidiary to directing. Indeed, as Francesco Di Chiara and Paolo Noto point out, these “anecdotal” contributions nurture a persistent “adventurous” narrative of the Italian film industry that gives practitioners a mythological aura based on subjective notions of talent and improvisation.16 The second group of studies considered here are historical investigations that take an economic and institutional perspective, for example the classic study by the Marxist film critic Lorenzo Quaglietti, An Economic-Political History of Italian Cinema, 1945–1980 (Storia economico-politica del cinema italiano, 1945–1980, 1980), which analyzes the intervention of Italian politics into the structures of film production.17 This economy-centered approach was followed many years later by more systematic investigations supported by archival research, including Barbara Corsi's With a Few Dollars less (Con qualche dollaro in meno, 2001) and Daniela Manetti's book on the Fascist period, A Very Powerful Weapon: Film Industry and State During Fascism, 1922–1943 (Un'arma poderosissima: industria cinematografica e Stato durante il fascismo, 1922–1943, 2012).18 However, in privileging aspects such as financing, production (and producers), and legislation, these studies do not offer a perspective on working conditions, labor, or gender.19 The last group of studies on the Italian cinema industry mainly focuses on technological advancements with no specific address to their relationship to labor and gender.20
A few studies published in the 1970s did deal with the intersection of work, creativity, and gender issues in the postwar context, perhaps thanks to a favorable cultural and political scenario that coincided with the peak of the Italian feminist movement and the significant weight of unions in Italian politics and institutions of the time. The most relevant contribution in this respect was a special issue of the Italian film journal Bianco e Nero on women in cinema, edited by Cinzia Bellumori and published in 1972.21 Bellumori surveyed the presence of female professionals, from workers in film stock development plants to actresses, combining quantitative and qualitative sources to analyze how the Italian cinema industry systematically excluded women from decision-making and creative positions. Covering two decades, from 1950 to 1969, Bellumori explicitly engaged with a feminist perspective and linked discrimination in the Italian film industry to the broader inequalities that affected female workers in general. This study represents the only systematic attempt to date to investigate the role of female practitioners in the postwar Italian film industry. Scholars and institutions today are focusing their attention on present conditions.22 In 1977 the journalist Patrizia Carrano published a book on the relationship between women and Italian cinema that engaged with contemporary feminist debates in relation to women's representation in Italian erotic cinema.23 Carrano asserted that the crisis regarding women and their representation was partially understandable as a consequence of male hegemony in the Italian film industry, and that Italian male-dominated film criticism could be only counteracted with a female-centered film culture—female film critics and directors. Carrano explicitly accounted for the difficulties of women working in the Italian film industry, but her journalistic approach and militant tone made her study more a testimony than a neutral documentary source on practitioners' working conditions.
Given these few empirical and primary materials, complementary sources such as professional and technical manuals, industry press, contracts, archival materials, and oral testimonies are essential for the reconstruction of the actual working conditions of Italian women film professionals. In particular the 1956 manual for film producers edited for the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia (CSC) by Valentino Brosio and a 1966 handbook on cinema techniques by Paolo Uccello are primary tools for understanding the role of editing in Italian postwar filmmaking, and the working conditions and procedures in the cutting room.24 The unavailability of technical manuals on film editing could be explained by the lack of formal training for this profession at the CSC, where training for editors was part of their program in film direction. A specific training program for editing was not inaugurated until 1983.
Archival sources play a crucial role in this research, in both a positive and a negative way. Access to the documents of trade unions such as the National Association of Producers (Anica) and the CSC film school is complicated due to matters of gatekeeping and leakage.25 With regard to trade unions, their division into three separate organizations—Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL), Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori (CISL), and Unione Italiana del Lavoro (UIL)—which were in turn organized into local divisions, makes any attempt to find historical records particularly challenging. Even when individual union officials have been sympathetic to this research, the findings were partial and did not lend themselves to the discovery of general trends of the kind that can be traced in other archival sources. Indeed, most of the complementary archival research was conducted using the papers of the production manager Mara Blasetti, stored at the Cineteca di Bologna.26 As a rare case of an archive belonging to a female film professional, it allows the study of materials relating to women's working conditions and filmmaking practices. This collection covers the same years as Micheli's career and includes private correspondence as well as production plans that provide data on the pay gaps between professionals above and below the line.
THE FEMALE EDITOR IN ITALIAN CINEMA
From the first footage discovered of Esfir Shub's The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) to the digital fan-labor practice of vidding, women's creativity has established a privileged relationship with editing that leads to unexpected results in different cultural and historical contexts.27 Monica Dall'Asta and Alessandra Chiarini interpreted women's preference for editing in cinema as a consequence of the material conditions of film production that inform the hierarchical structures of commercial cinema.28 These conditions have changed over time, as the strong presence of women in the silent era suggests. With regard to editing, Giuliana Bruno's study on Elvira Notari and the contributors to the Women Film Pioneers Project have demonstrated that female editors played a primary role in many national film industries since the early decades of cinema.29 Most of the trends outlined by Kristen Hatch in her article on the American editor Margaret Booth can also be found in the Italian context.30 In particular, the transition from the anonymous and serial work of the “cutter” in the early years to the creative, recognized profession of the editor marked a similar path for Italian women working in the cutting room.
As shown by a photograph of female workers in an editing room included by Vittorio Mariani in his 1916 Practical Guidebook on Cinematography (Guida pratica alla cinematografia), in Italy, as in the United States, “assembling reels and cutting negatives was tedious work that often fell to young working-class women.”31 However, with the advent of Fascism in Italy, and its ambition to build a full-fledged national film industry, this situation changed rapidly. In particular starting in the 1930s, the efforts of the Fascist state to centralize and control cinema production prompted the institutionalization of the industrial apparatus, including film criticism, which launched a huge debate over the definition of national cinema.32 Despite considerable scholarly attention to this delicate phase of Italian film history, little has been written on how this process actually affected women professionals. In any case, it is significant that at the CSC at its foundation, in 1935, women could only specialize in acting and scenotecnica, which trained professionals in makeup, costume, and set design.33 This strongly gendered film training program responded to a broader change in the consideration of the cultural function of cinema, but also corresponded to the gradual segregation of women from Italian public life during the Fascist regime.34
With regard to editing in particular, considering both the strong presence of women in the cutting room in the previous decades and the lack of specific training in this profession at the CSC, this process was more nuanced. Stefano Masi affirms that editors were “by definition the most obscure among the close collaborators of the director,” yet this was precisely the period that editor Mario Serandrei attributed to his “high stature as an intellectual” in promoting the editor as fundamental to the creative process of filmmaking.35 This change to Serandrei's status reflects the institutionalization of the film professions in the 1930s, and the partial erasure of their artisanal and technical nature in favor of their aesthetic and intellectual aspects. This process coincided with the establishment of the unquestioned centrality of the director, relegating manual professionals like editors to subsidiary yet still crucial positions. These changes in characterization of roles appealed to many male assistant directors, who were promoted to “professional” editors and gradually overtook women, who nevertheless continued to do manual and creative work, often uncredited.36 This created a hierarchy in the cutting room, where the figure of the cutter, usually a woman, was downgraded to a lower position, generally of assistant editor under the supervision of chief editors, who were mostly men.
Despite this, the career continuity of a small group of female editors already active in the 1930s suggests a more complex dynamic that cannot be reduced to a simple pattern of exclusion and discrimination, but rather hints at the coexistence of strategies of resistance to and acceptance of the “unwritten rules” of the film industry.37 One emblematic example is Maria Rosada, a chief editor at Cinecittà studios and a professor of editing at the CSC in Rome. The exceptionality of Rosada's case proves the existence of female editors in decision-making and senior institutional positions, and at the same time confirms the strong link between women and editing that allowed her to gain a professorship even among the mostly male teaching staff. The exceptionality of this case further illustrates how the success of female professionals was influenced by complex dynamics based on individual prestige and social capital that more often prevented women from succeeding. In this respect, a particularly revealing episode that involved Jolanda Benvenuti, Micheli's mentor, counterbalanced the positive experience of Rosada, and further complicates any attempt to frame the experience of female professionals in a predictable “success versus invisibility” dichotomy. Benvenuti was the trusted editor of Roberto Rossellini at the time of his neorealist trilogy Rome, Open City (Roma città aperta, 1945), Paisan (1946), and Germany Year Zero (Germania anno zero, 1948), widely considered a milestone of postwar Italian cinema. In Rome, Open City, the director substituted for Benvenuti's name that of her well-known male counterpart, Eraldo Da Roma. Many years later, in an interview released in the early 1990s, Benvenuti recalled her exclusion:
I didn't care. … But now, see … they didn't put me [in the credits] because they didn't put women's names … they didn't let me put it even in Paisan … but who wasn't aware that I'd worked on Rome, Open City? Everyone knew that, I was the only one left. They put everyone else's names, they left out just me.38
The financial statements for the film provide further proof of the importance of her work, since her pay (64,875 lire) was higher than Da Roma's (60,000 lire), and in fact the highest among all the female practitioners involved, with the exception of the lead female actor, Anna Magnani.39 Benvenuti discovered her exclusion from the credits after the film's release and did not complain at that time because the suppression of women's names from film credits was accepted even among female professionals. She never asked Rossellini for the reasons behind his decision, and they continued to work together for many years.
It is important to stress that the production of Rome, Open City was surrounded by material constraints and other difficulties caused by the devastation of World War II. The Italian film industry had been shattered by the German occupation, and all its infrastructure in Rome built by the Fascist regime was shut down. Like other professionals who worked with Rossellini on the film, Benvenuti had to deal with the scarcity of basic equipment, especially film stock, and had to adapt to the extreme working conditions imposed by the improvised nature of the production. Thus her creative and technical contribution was not limited to editing, but covered many other aspects, like directing and sound recording. Her exclusion from the credits of Rome, Open City has meant the exclusion of a female professional from one of the key narratives around the “miraculous” efficiency of the Italian film industry during this period. The case perfectly illustrates the high cost she paid—namely, her name's suppression from the film's credits—despite having built a trusted relationship with the director. At the time she naturalized this discrimination, which was based on both gender and class. Indeed, in the interview, when she reports on her work with Rossellini, she refers to him as dottore, the Italian formal appellation for people with a college degree.40 This confirms what Benvenuti recalled in another interview: “There were many other girls like me that worked as editors. But we didn't have any tutelage. None of us had a college education. At the time, for being a director, you needed a college degree. For being an assistant director, you needed a college degree. … We uneducated girls had no say in the matter.”41
Indeed, at the time, formal training for film professionals was regarded as not unlike a college education, an idea that coexisted with the traditional artisanal mindset that characterized the Italian film industry. This double bind mirrored the patterns of gender and class discrimination in Italian society at the time, which in turn prevented women from accessing prestigious careers and higher education. After the war, and increasingly during the 1950s, Italy witnessed a project for the “moralization” of society that targeted women as mothers and wives and discouraged them from working outside the home or participating in public life.42 With the 1960s and the economic boom, the traditional place of women in Italian society began to be questioned, but as historical investigations into the labor market have demonstrated, discrimination against female workers persisted and was backed up by legislation.43 A law formally establishing equal pay for both sexes passed in 1956, but women could not access the magistracy or managerial positions in Italian public institutions until 1963, when employment contracts that allowed women to be fired if they married were also abolished.44 As such, the existence of female professionals in the Italian film industry must be read in a general context of subjugation that was reinforced and at the same time transgressed through informal habits and behaviors.
As a profession relatively accessible to women, film editing reflected gender discrimination in some ways. As a postproduction and below-the-line professional, the editor was less recognized and less remunerated than on-set practitioners like cinematographers. During the postwar years the practice of paying fixed amounts, negotiated in advance in relation to the prestige of the editor, was established regardless of how many hours a job might require. This encouraged professional editors to collaborate on several projects at the same time out of financial necessity and often compromised the quality of their work, which was increasingly handed over to assistant editors. Small productions, typically genre features, limited the hiring of assistants and film checkers in order to save money, and thus editors had to work even more quickly to make enough money to survive. In this kind of production, editors worked for less than the standard eight to ten weeks usually accorded to bigger projects.45 Collaboration with acknowledged directors was essential for building social capital and assuring continuity of work, so much so that a small group of reputable editors used their prestige to obtain more projects, became similar to small firms, and monopolized the market by establishing long-term collaborations with particular directors. Unsurprisingly, the frequent demotion of female editors to assistants corresponded with their being paid lower wages, exacerbating their precarious status. Indeed, assistant editors and film checkers (the assistants specifically responsible to assemble the cuts, who were mostly women) were hired and paid weekly, with shifts of ten to twelve hours per day. Other lower-grade professions related to editing were also dominated by women, including workers at film processing plants. These factories usually employed female workers at low pay with few chances of promotion to more remunerative managerial or executive positions.46
The few female editors who achieved prestige adapted to this system, which also encouraged familial and friend-based networking and discouraged new entrants. The fact that there were no formal training structures increased the likelihood of access via informal means such as family ties, which represented a general and established practice in the Italian film industry, where since the 1930s personal recommendation had been the primary means for professional recruitment.47 This particular aspect further proves how women professionals adapted, contributed to, and influenced the “structures of feeling” of the Italian film industry. Indeed, industry workers frequently provided access to the film professions for their relatives and lovers, importing emotional baggage into the workplace and its professional relationships. An emblematic example of this is the Oscar-winning editor Gabriella Cristiani, who started her career alongside her lover Franco “Kim” Arcalli, whom Stefano Masi referred to as “her man, and then her master.” In her interview in Masi's book, Cristiani accounts for her professional experience as a reflection of her relationship with Arcalli, as her private and emotional life coincided with her career progression.48
Private and familial relationships were essential aspects of the artisanal mindset that characterized the Italian film industry, which was substantially based on forms of nepotism across all of its structures. Starting from the wage system, project-based modes of production fostered the reproduction of gender biases and social inequality.49 Precarious labor promoted the re-traditionalization of gender roles at work, which assigned a growing importance to pre-capitalist and informal social structures.50 In the case of Italian film workers, the resulting bonds, usually based on familial relationships and acquaintances, were influenced by socioeconomic circumstances where gender, race, and class biases were also at play.51 As such, the continuity between the family and the working environment can be read beyond the lens of Italy's infamous “amoral familism.” The American anthropologist Edward C. Banfield coined this notion in 1958 as the result of his fieldwork in a rural community of southern Italy.52 Banfield observed that the members of the community showed exclusive interest in the economic benefits of their nuclear families, leading to chronic social backwardness and economic underdevelopment.
It is interesting how this notion contributed to Italian society's long-lasting resistance to modern capitalism and how family business models actually represented the Italian adjustment to a capitalist economy, which reproduced masculine and patriarchal authority in its production structures.53 The Italian film industry likewise based the majority of its structures on familial ties. As such, it reproduced pre-capitalistic understandings of labor and privileged familial connections over other forms of professional networking. By encouraging the hiring of relatives, the system increased the exclusivity of the community of practitioners, blocking social mobility and creative independence. It is interesting to note that, excluding the few accounts on the Italian film industry that engage with a feminist perspective, like Bellumori's and Carrano's, professionals and film critics have described this environment by stressing positive values like friendship and comradeship. Indeed, the history of Italian practitioners is mostly based on accounts emphasizing instrumentality and contingency, as well as common sense and community. The sense of belonging, as the example of Benvenuti proves, naturalized inequalities and prevented dissent, which also explains the lack of unionization among Italian female below-the-line film professionals.54 However, it is important to take into account of the testimony of Clara Tonini, an assistant editor and trade union steward interviewed by Carrano, which explicitly referred to the obstacles women faced in becoming professional editors. Tonini affirmed that it was very unlikely to achieve that position until age thirty-five to forty, when there were fewer female chief editors, since at that age the majority of women had left their jobs to take care of their families. Tonini also referred to specific difficulties relating to her role as union steward, and affirmed that being a single woman made her experience bearable.55
In addition to these structural conditions, material and technical aspects contributed to the gendering of Italian film professions as a product of those “technologies of gender” that Teresa de Lauretis demonstrated not only as essential for the capitalist division of labor, but also as expressions of “several interconnected sets of social relations—relations of work, of class, of race, and of sex/gender.”56 In editing, the enclosed nature of the workplace enabled the relative persistence of women in the cutting room as private-public dichotomies overlapped with the gendering of Italian film professions. In general, private and enclosed spaces have been crucial in the history of women's creativity. As de Lauretis noted, “Women's activity has been marked by a recurrent connection between knowledge and confinement.” The consequent “non-recognition of official history” put women in the position of establishing their own history by the “very contradiction” of speaking from the space of their confinement, in other words, from that “room of one's own” that “constructs a discursive space in which not woman, but women are represented as a social and affective instance.” The result is a “history always in process, here and now, and based in practice, contradiction, heterogeneity.”57 This is certainly true in the case of Italian female editors, since their persistence in the film industry was tied to a complex and contradictory alternation of acceptance and transgression. The award-winning editor Lucia Zucchetti recently stated:
There is a pride that goes with being in a male dominated industry. … I have to say, however, that editing is possibly the one specialization in film where women have been given more access and that I believe is because an editor contributes a lot but does all the work locked in a dark room, behind the scenes—their contribution is not apparent.58
Since she was “not the little girl who used to sing and dance in front of an audience,” Zucchetti was “quite comfortable with being behind the scenes,” and preferred to have a “rewarding relationship” with her collaborators.59 In the cutting room, social interactions were limited to two or three individuals, and issues of authority played out face-to-face and were closely affected by individual skills. This makes film editing very close to craftswomanship.60 Confinement, manual skills, and the limited weight of authority in the small working environment of the cutting room helped women to maintain and strengthen their privileged relationship with editing.
This is underlined by Italian manuals and technical books, which use a gendered vocabulary to describe the entire editing supply chain. For instance, the Italian term for film checker, passafilm, is always preceded by the feminine article le. Similarly, film development plants are described as all-female environments, and female and male editors themselves use metaphors of midwifery and sewing to describe their work. These allusions perform through language the gendered quality of the manual work and skills attached to editing, as well as the gendered nature of the workplace. In the case of lower-grade professions, like those in film development plants, the all-female environment made waged labor more socially acceptable for women outside the domestic sphere, in a social and historical context that discouraged any work that distracted women from their “natural” aspirations of wives and mothers. As demonstrated in this overview, both traditional expectations of female social roles and the specific demands of the film industry influenced women's access to film professions, consolidating patterns of gender discrimination that mirrored broader understandings of the relationship between women and creativity.
ORNELLA MICHELI: A WOMAN EDITOR CAUGHT BETWEEN PROFESSIONALISM AND FAMILISM
Ornella Micheli's career corresponded with the peak of Italian cinema production in the 1960s, when the increased rate of production—to almost two hundred films per year—promoted the standardization of the industrial apparatus.61 The artisanal skills of Italian professionals were pivotal to the rationalization of costs, thanks to these individuals' agreeable attitude to standardization and the recycling of materials and equipment. Editors like Micheli became specialists in maximizing results for low-budget productions. Her filmography reflects the eclectic skills required for her job, as she was working on different film genres at the same time, reproducing the same standardized practices. The low-budget nature of Italian genre productions exacerbated many difficult aspects of the editors' working conditions, and Micheli's experience provides an interesting example of how female practitioners dealt with these constraints.
To date, historical critiques of Italian film genres such as spaghetti Westerns, Euro-spy, and horror have usually interpreted the presence of women in terms of increasingly sexualized female characters on-screen; the contributions of invisible female practitioners have generally been overlooked.62 The apparent clash between the display of women's images as pure spectacle and the invisibility of women's labor behind the scenes must be reevaluated to give a more nuanced historical account of the relationship between women and cinema. As Pam Cook noted in relation to American grindhouse and exploitation films of the 1950s and 1960s, low-budget Italian productions were conceived as commodities for male markets, and were therefore considered “trash movies generally … unworthy of serious critical attention,” yet they “present serious problems for feminists.” These films, which explicitly took advantage of misogynistic stereotypes and embedded capitalist and patriarchal production structures, “produce contradictions, shifts in meaning which disturb the [same] patriarchal myths of women on which [they rest].”63 I suggest that these contradictions are even more striking when considering the work of below-the-line female practitioners like Micheli. Popular Italian genres like exploitation films are at odds with the conventions of mainstream and classical cinema and were excluded from the aesthetic canons of national cinema for decades.64 More specifically, popular Italian films transgress the canons of realism and transparency, which traditionally conceal practitioners' labor and repress film's materiality in order to assert the credibility of the mise-en-scène.65 The resultant “excessive, over-present materiality” that appears on-screen, such as the emphasis on low-cost special effects or the repetition and recycling of footage, emphasizes the role of manual labor and consequently the ability and skills of film professionals to adapt to challenging production contexts.66 As such, the unexpected visibility of women's work in these controversial films represents further proof of contradictions in the patriarchal structures of Italian cinema.
A brief overview of Micheli's filmography highlights an extraordinary proximity to the careers of other female editors of the period, like Giuliana Attenni, who worked with Stefano Vanzina (Steno) and Mariano Laurenti, directors of low-budget comedies. In their thirty-year experience, both Micheli and Attenni each edited more than sixty genre features, under just a handful of directors. This trend became more remarkable in the late 1960s as a consequence of the boom in national production, and in response to the precariousness caused by increased fragmentation of labor in the Italian film industry of the time.67 As with medium- to high-budget productions, a strong personal relationship with a director was pivotal in ensuring continuity in employment. For this reason, there was little competition among editors. Indeed, Micheli's brother Bruno recalled the friendly environment:
When my sister and I were working in the cutting room … in Fono Roma studios, we met a lot of people we already knew. There was a café and a canteen, so we used to have lunch with the other editors—and I remember that we often ate with the elder female editors and it was a very pleasant time. No competition. Everyone owned their own directors.68
Bruno's testimony confirms a genealogy of women editors who maintained good relationships because they did not need to compete for jobs, despite the precariousness of their employment. Bruno recalled Micheli's collaboration with Fulci as based on mutual understanding: “Lucio was really satisfied with Ornella's work. Her editing was tight, rhythmic, so after one week the director already had his edited copy.” Fulci rarely visited the cutting room and hardly ever demanded modifications, since Ornella “knew how Fulci shoots.” In other words, Ornella was rather independent, and her professionalism was particularly appreciated. She enjoyed working with Fulci because he was “very respectful of someone who knows his job.”69
Professionalism was central to genre productions, and the choice of editor was strategic when it came to saving time and money. Micheli was quick to understand the director's needs at the preliminary screening, then in the cutting room she made her decisions alone. This relative independence required further skills to fulfill economic imperatives: for instance, starting in the early 1970s, films frequently used stock footage instead of more expensive, newly shot content, and it was the job of the editor to insert this without compromising the quality of the film. Moreover, the frequent reuse of discarded material from previous films heightened the responsibility of editors to maximize the content used in finished productions. Finally, editors like Micheli could collaborate on international coproductions without leaving their hometown. That this profession required little mobility made it more accessible for women, but nevertheless it required intensive working patterns. As Bruno Micheli recalled, they would work in the cutting room for entire nights, and their familial connection probably facilitated Micheli's work. Indeed, the relationship between the editor and his or her assistant was based on concentration as well as physical and mental closeness. Bruno stressed that his role was similar to a surgical assistant: Micheli had the leading role of the surgeon and made the crucial decisions and technical gestures, and he had to pass her the right cut, following and anticipating her plan for the composition.
The centrality of Micheli's familial bonds, especially with her brother, stressed the need for a family who understood the job in a period when women's work in general was still contested. Indeed, Micheli came from a family of film professionals: her father was Rossellini's key grip, and thanks to him she started her apprenticeship with Benvenuti, then worked with the famous editor Roberto Cinquini.70 She then married the production manager Piero Donati, brother of the producer Ermanno Donati, and worked on many occasions with her husband, as well as with other members of the Micheli family who were hired as technical staff on the same productions. This is the reason, at least in Bruno's account, that Micheli's collaboration with Fulci ceased following the director's decision to stop working with “the Michelis”—a decision for which Bruno did not offer an explanation. Despite having worked with Fulci for fifteen years, Micheli's professionalism was not enough to keep her job.
Through the example of Ornella Micheli, I have stressed the complexity of the experiences of women film editors by highlighting broader historical patterns of gender and class discrimination within the Italian film industry. Although female practitioners were excluded from top-level positions, their skills and creativity nurtured every aspect of filmmaking. Editing is one of the most emblematic examples of this dynamic of constraint and necessity, further confirmed by the strong presence of women in this field. De Lauretis's notion of “feminist genealogy” has allowed me to trace a twofold movement from the collective—and almost entirely obscure—history of Italian female editors to the specific case of Micheli. In this respect, Micheli's experience could be considered both as individual and as offering access to a collective narrative that still requires investigation through new genealogies.
Through the case of Micheli and her related genealogy of female editors, I have attempted to uncover the interplay between resistance and alignment to the patriarchal mechanisms of the film industry that characterized women editors' work in the middle decades of the twentieth century. It is precisely by retracing these dynamics and showing them in relation to other genealogies of women practitioners that we can place new “feminist bricks” in the building of women's film history.71