I’m not sure when precisely it hit me—maybe it was as I examined, by hand, the intricacies of the 20th Century Fox logo (from the opening of Otto Preminger’s 1947 film Forever Amber) on a strip of nitrate film stock—but hit me it did, like a ton of bricks, that the first 50 or so years of cinema, save the occasional special screening and site specific film festival, are actually lost forever. For all intents and purposes, that period is something we do not have physical access to. It’s possible to see imitations of films from that time, carefully crafted facsimiles, but the actual art of cinema from its very beginning through 1951 is something that truly only exists in its original material form, the emulsion-filled and incredibly flammable nitrate.
The last time I wrote about the George Eastman Museum’s Nitrate Picture Show was on the occasion of its first edition. I wrote about the fluidity of cinema, of its constantly changing forms and how ultimately the projectionist (whether a human being or a computer of some kind) is the final auteur of any movie you watch. This couldn’t be more true today, when a visit to the multiplex gave me the choice between seeing Godzilla: King of the Monsters in regular digital (a 2D DCP), IMAX (but not native IMAX, more of an approximation of the format), or in the format I ended up seeing, PRIME 3D (3D in a theater with improved sound and seats that vibrated and rumbled when Godzilla roared). Now, after attending a total of four Nitrate Picture Shows, what I’ve come to understand is that cinema, while increasingly fluid today (and for most of its recent history), was originally a constrained art. There was one way to see it, and one very specific expectation that a director and audience would have about how a movie would look. Which is to say, the difference between nitrate film and its replacement, acetate or safety stock, is intensely palpable (to say nothing of VHS, DVDs, streaming, and the like). Watching a weekend’s worth of nitrate prints changes the way your eyes engage with moving images and the expectations therein.
This year’s festival opened with a mix of documentaries and animated shorts, starting with John Ford’s Battle of Midway (1942), featuring footage shot by Ford himself when he learned that the small military base of which he had intended to make a casual day-in-the-life documentary was soon to be under attack. I’m not sure I’ve ever had as manic an experience in a movie theater as I did while watching this film. I was simultaneously in awe of the images and the intense sunsets that colored the young men’s faces as they prepared to go to battle, yet terrified at the content I was watching. The colors were so vibrant and the events so horrific that I found myself crying for two completely different reasons.
The immediate switch to a Frank Tashlin Looney Tune entitled Swooner Crooner (1944) was jarring, but as the program continued to develop this transition began to make perfect sense. The rest of the documentaries screened consisted of a variety of travelogues including looks at London, Norway, and, tragically, Australia’s coral reefs. The animated films—a George Pal puppetoon, a naughty Fleischer, and a new favorite, a Terrytoon called The Temperamental Lion (1940)—played against the documentaries in a surprising way. The shift back and forth between the actual color of the sky, the sea, and the people and creatures that inhabit them, and elaborately drawn worlds, all being given the extreme depth and detail of nitrate, gave the impression that the two worlds, the natural and the animated, are actually not as far apart as one might think.
On the next evening, Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) brought forth realizations about the effect of nitrate on the human body itself. I was struck by how the stock highlighted the folds in Joan Fontaine’s clothes and in turn the awkwardness of her posture, and of how precisely her body moves throughout the film. I also had a similar thought to one I had during my first Nitrate Picture Show occasioned by the beginning scenes of Black Narcissus (1947)—that aged skin, despite what we are told today, is an incredibly beautiful thing.
The Sunday morning screening of John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning (1947) brought to light the specificity of blacks on nitrate and how they are so specific that it is quite easy to tell when someone isn’t wearing black. Being able to see the subtle variances in the shades open up one’s mind to possibilities, creating a richer and fuller world on screen. The same is true, though less obviously, for color nitrate stock. The same Black Narcissus screening caused me to get motion sickness when the nuns stood on the cliff overlooking the abyss. An argument could easily be made that nitrate is more closely related to digital filmmaking, 3D, and composited works, than it is to acetate 35 mm or 16mm. But the two formats, while connected in their visual language, seem to have deeply different effects.
The other night I found myself at Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn for a screening organized by the online virtual studio Kinet featuring the films of Miguel Mantecon. The movies were presented digitally and consisted of a mix of digital footage and scanned Super 8. They were rich and deeply textured, full of light and depth, a showcase of what is possible with digital filmmaking. The screening was filled with friends of the filmmaker and fellow Kinet creators (myself included), with many in attendance having seen the films in some form beforehand. The emotional experience of the movies, the empathy derived from them, based on the discussions I participated in afterwards, was deeply connected to their essential intimacy, how many times you had seen them and also whether you knew Miguel and the stories behind the montage. It was inspiring to see cinema extending beyond the frame to embody actual experience, but there was also a remove in these works (and a lot of digital films that I see), a distance between the images and sounds and my experience as a living, breathing person.
Which gets me to my main takeaway from this year’s Nitrate Picture Show, that what sets nitrate apart, even with all its pizzazz, is how it very simply captures human beings, and how much closer I feel to humanity, people, and my own existence, while watching films projected on nitrate. I’ve never found Humphrey Bogart especially attractive (even if I intellectually understand his charisma), but watching him in Dead Reckoning I astonishingly found myself deeply attracted to him. It was as though I was seeing him for the first time. I can’t help but wonder what might have been possible if we had been able to expand on-screen (and off-screen) representation, to see different people, places, and stories on this deeply affecting film stock. To quote Sam Shepard in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, “It was a feeling of exhilaration, of being alive. That sounds corny, but it’s true.”
An unexpected highlight of my trip to Rochester happened after I had left the festival to return to New York City. It was my turn behind the wheel on the drive home and Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s collaborative song “Numb/Encore” came on (from a playlist created by a fellow Nitrate goer) and for approximately four minutes I felt like I was Colin Farrell in Miami Vice (2006). Oddly enough, it wasn’t the first time, or even the second, I had felt like Farrell’s Sonny Crockett that day. For just as Crockett laments the hand he and Jamie Foxx’s Ricardo Tubbs have been dealt at 11:47 o’clock on a Saturday night, I too had been dealt a hand.
The hand I was dealt (at approximately 3:20 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon) was learning that the last film screened in the festival, the annual “Blind Date with Nitrate,” would be Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Gone to Earth (1950), starring my beloved Jennifer Jones as Hazel. It’s a personal favorite, made by two of my favorite filmmakers, and more than that, a notoriously hard film to see in its original version. Normally, this would have been tremendously exciting news but, as it stood, all my friends who had driven to the festival had already decided not to stay for the officially unannounced Blind Date movie. Everyone with a car had to work the next day and they didn’t want to have to drive back into the city past midnight. So, when my friends sneakily found out that Gone to Earth would be screening and I was told, mere moments before the screening was set to start, my heart sank.
The soul-crushing revelation also raised the somewhat gnarly question of responsibility and ethics when it comes to the Nitrate Picture Show’s withholding of the festival lineup until the morning the festival begins and in how they keep the last title secret until right before it is actually being projected. These film prints, few and far between and shrinking and becoming increasingly unprojectable even as I write this, are, in very real fact, the last opportunities we will ever have to see this particular art form, to know what movies were like for the first 50 years of their existence. I think there is a responsibility to let people know what’s screening so they are able to plan accordingly, should they want to save a few hundred dollars or need to go to work the next day or want to see a particular work by a particular filmmaker that they study or revere. Thankfully, I convinced my driver to stay for an extra 15 minutes so that I could die having seen the nitrate light when Hazel chases Foxie through the woods and so that I could see how deep the black and how vibrant the red would be when the man calls out, in a heartbreakingly slow and deep cadence, “GONE TO EARTH!”
After saying goodbye to our friends, my car mates and myself quickly walked into the theater and stood in the back. One of the directors of the festival got up to introduce the film. He started by announcing that nobody he talked to over the weekend had guessed the correct title but that he had had one discussion with someone about the film. That someone was, of course, me. He then asked if I was there. I half-heartedly rose my hand and said that I was. “Now you have to stay!” he proclaimed, knowing of my plans to leave the festival early. I looked out into the crowd with an open heart, hoping for a miracle, and told the very full audience that I couldn’t stay unless someone could give me a ride back to New York City when the screening was over. The audience (in my memory at least) laughed in response. I then looked out into the crowd and repeated myself and said that I was in fact quite serious, that I couldn’t stay unless I could get a ride back to the city. I slowly looked around the room, full of blank stares and the sound of crickets, as the curtain went up and the lights went down. 15 minutes later I, just like Colin Farrell as he turns and walks away from Gong Li at the end of Miami Vice, turned and walked away from a nitrate print of one of my favorite movies. In a very real sense, that was most likely the only opportunity I’ll ever have to truly see it.