The 7th Nitrate Picture Show – Diane Carson reports

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The George Eastman Museum’s Nitrate Picture Show justifiably boasts of a unique, defining characteristic that differentiates it from other prestigious film festivals. All twelve programs screen on nitrate film, either technicolor or black and white, borrowed from archives worldwide. This first weekend of June, the 7th Nitrate Picture Show did not disappoint, reminding me of the joy immersing oneself in the aesthetic pleasure of nitrate film, the film used before safety film stock became the norm in the 1950s.

Brief historical background: Phased out beginning in 1951 because of its dangerous, exceedingly flammable state (many early cinemas burned to the ground when nitrate film burned as it does, fast and hot, and lives were tragically lost), few theaters today have the safety precautions necessary to project what is still an explosive product. For example, the British Film Institute is the only organization in the U.K. licensed for this purpose. Making access to it even more rare, some professionals estimate that eighty to ninety percent of all silent films no longer exist, for in cinema’s earliest days, it was merely a commodity to be used and discarded.

For all nitrate film, what was kept or casually discarded easily deteriorated badly: shrinking, decomposing into a messy brown powder or a sticky goo, exuding an acrid smell called vinegar syndrome. Therefore, the Nitrate Picture Show is a treasure historically and, as significantly, aesthetically. Cellulose acetate film base (a.k.a. safety stock film) fails every comparison to nitrate film in visual appeal, nitrate film often admired for its luminosity and metallic luster. To its immense credit, the George Eastman Museum now supports a well-attended, annual nitrate festival the first weekend in June in their Dryden Theatre.

Eastman, the man who founded and guided Kodak from the 1880s on, the man who used cellulose nitrate in 1889 for photographic purposes and 35 millimeter motion pictures, has inspired a commendable legacy. As early as 1885 Eastman patented the Kodak camera, Kodak a word he created for its sound and the strength of the letter K. Now, over a century and almost four decades later, this nitrate festival is a heavenly indulgence for film lovers. Adding suspense to the weekend, only the opening night film is announced ahead of time. On Thursday at a 10:00 a.m. press conference ten more programs are announced. The last film, late Sunday afternoon, called a Blind Date, is revealed only as the titles appear on the screen for the audience.

The year-long planning and securing of the offerings results a judicious assemblage of silent and sound, technicolor and black-and-white international selections. Choices are limited since shrinkage of the film all but prohibited projection of anything with shrinkage more 1% until this year. As explained in the program, projectionists’ expertise, repair of bad splices, ability to tolerate some damaged perforations allowed projection of one print with 1.55% shrinkage. The projectionist’s job is a very difficult one, much appreciated by the audience who applauds them before each screening.

It’s impossible to choose a favorite from this year’s twelve programs, but I’ve always been partial to black-and-white. For me, then, the gems were: Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 Der Blaue Engel/The Blue Angel (loaned from the Österreichisches Filmmuseum, Vienna, Austria), René Clair’s 1947 Le Silence Est D’Or/Silence is Golden (La Cinémathèque française), Abraham Polonsky’s 1948 Force of Evil (Library of Congress), Fritz Lang’s 1938 You and Me (UCLA Film and Television Archive), Max Ophuls’ 1933 Liebelei/Flirtation (Filmarchiv Austria), and Carol Reed’s 1949 The Third Man (Packard Humanities Institute at the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the British Film Institute). Most surprising was the 1929 Russian film Kain/Artiom/Cain and Artem (Cinémathèque suisse) directed by Pavel Petrov-Bytov, an almost unknown contemporary of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Dovzhenko. This expressionistic work, based on a Maxim Gorky’s story, critiques anti-Semitism in a dramatic narrative indicting society’s despicable prejudice.

The technicolor treasures were exactly that, headlined by Victor Fleming’s 1939 The Wizard of Oz (a private collector’s print) that overwhelms with its saturated, vibrant colors. Also of note, the opening night film, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 Black Narcissus (Academy Film Archive) stunningly showcases cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s gorgeous lighting. The first program on Friday included technicolor trailers and shorts. The surprise there, Robert J. Flaherty’s 1935 Oidhche Sheanchais/A Night of Storytelling (Harvard Film Archive), is credited as the first talkie in the Irish language. As the program notes explain, Harvard’s Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures found this print “padlocked in its original wood-lined lead shipping box”. It had never been projected for an audience. This is the kind of completely unexpected, miraculous discovery that archivist live to experience. The Nitrate Picture Show audience does as well.

Another striking moment occurred for The Third Man nitrate screening. Explaining that the last reels in the UCLA archival nitrate print were so damaged as to be impossible to view, several better, though still imperfect, reels were discovered at the BFI. The programmers chose to show these rather than a safety print. But, after the full run of The Third Man, the projectionist ran four minutes of a safety print. I gasped. The contrast between the less-than-pristine archival nitrate print and the 50s safety print was night and day, the nitrate displaying a rich range of grays, whites to black, depth of visual information in every frame, gorgeous lighting, etc. The safety print looked flat, washed out (and it was a good safety print) with only the story and none of the aesthetic magic intact. The Nitrate Picture Show is an education in and of itself.

One last and most enjoyable detail I should mention, each screening is introduced by an expert who details the archival source and significant qualities of the film. In addition, two lectures by experts on film preservation and film history are offered between two of the screenings. Finally and importantly for the festival experience, to a person the staff is friendly, professional, and helpful. I’m already looking forward to next year.

Interested cinephiles will find the program here.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.