On the Nitrate Picture Show

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 05/12/2016

A couple of weeks ago, Shotgun Cinema attended the Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY. We’ve written in the past on this blog about nitrate, but to see it onscreen in the Dryden Theatre – one of the few cinemas in the U.S. capable of safely projecting nitrate – was frequently a revelation. Equally glorious were the deep and unapologetically serious vibes of cinephilia humming around the festival. (This is a festival that announces the names of the projectionists before every screening, after all.)

For the festival’s second year, the Eastman Museum pulled in other archives from around the world to collaborate and in some cases lend prints. At this stage of the game, for any film made before about 1951, although nitrate isn’t the only surviving element, it’s often the earliest, most original one. All the film prints in the program were created before that year.

To recap, film stock is made up of two parts: the emulsion – the photosensitive chemical compound that reacts when exposed to light, creating an image – and the base, the physical object to which that the emulsion is affixed. Film base needs to be flexible, to move through a projector and be wound onto reels, and strong enough to avoid being destroyed while doing so. Most early film bases were made of nitrocellulose, a.k.a. nitrate, which ticks the above boxes, but which is also extravagantly flammable, making it the source of many horrifying incidents in the early years of cinema until it was definitively phased out in the early 1950s.

Nitrocellulose is also an organic compound, meaning that a nitrate film print is literally a living thing, and reacts in varying degrees to changes in temperature, humidity, and other factors that cause chemical decomposition. This in turn means that each nitrate film print is its own living thing that has reacted over time to its very own set of surroundings, and so to an unparalleled degree, a nitrate print is a one-of-a-kind art object, with its own unique history and provenance to boot. The curation of the Nitrate Picture Show reflects this, as it involves not only selecting appropriate titles and locating nitrate prints, but also ensuring, through painstaking inspection and testing, that the print is actually projectable: not too shrunken, not too scratched, without emulsion decay or decomposition, and so on. This makes each print shown at this festival a rare bird indeed.

Two highly decorated archivists gave keynote addresses that set the tone for the festival: David Francis and Wolfgang Klaue, who have both worked long careers as film archivists and have been instrumental in establishing the field. Both addresses were punctuated by, for us at least, startling revelations about the early years of film archiving. Francis detailed the frequent relocating of film prints at the British Film Institute in the 1970s, and printing copies onto safety film on a crude printer cobbled together with rubber bands and surplus. Klaue, in a tone of profound regret, confessed to destroying nitrate elements in the 1970s after copying them due to extreme restrictions on storage space. Mention was made of stated policies by major studios to destroy original nitrate elements after copying, and of distracting the driver who came to collect old film prints to be melted down for the silver in their emulsion, and then replacing original or unknown prints in his van with multiples from the archive that could be parted with. In every case, the physicality of the print was one of the driving forces behind every course of action.

As both men detailed, the earliest film “archivists” were collectors and mavericks, like Henri Langlois, who wanted to save and collect film prints both to show and more or less for their own sake. The notion of film “preservation” – copying film prints onto safety film, making circulation copies before originals became unusable, and the safeguarding of film prints in stable, environmentally optimized conditions – emerged gradually after World War II, with underfunded and understaffed organizations arriving at what we now see as best practices through serious trial and plenty of error.

However, the Nitrate Picture Show emphasized throughout the weekend that this was a festival of film conservation, as opposed to preservation. The term, aside from being appealingly environmental, blends the missions of early collectors and the archives – both to save the physical object for its own sake, and to preserve it for actual use. The physical object of a film print – or a hard drive – can be seen either as essential to or an encumbrance to experiencing the art. Part of the mystery of cinema – both analog and digital – is that the story onscreen feels so ephemeral, and yet relies completely on physical means – cameras, projectors, rooms, humans. One thing the concept of film conservation illustrates is that the physical object and the ephemeral story onscreen are one, and that preserving the story means preserving the object and everything related to experiencing it.

Although digitalness was refreshingly absent during the weekend, it seemed to hang about the fringes, observing and maybe taking in wisdom. Digital moving image archiving doesn’t make a physical object go away, not yet, and the sheer volume of digital information requires an archive of any sort to confront the physical fact of computer hardware, power sources, rooms – in a way, a very similar set of challenges to an analog archive. As digital archiving gradually accepts standards, archives may make judgment errors and experience catastrophes, and digital cinema may someday escape the shadow of analog film, but it’s hard to imagine that any digital media could inspire the level of reverence of one-of-a-kind film prints like these. By showing such rare and beautiful prints, part of what was conserved at the Nitrate Picture Show was the very complex experience of seeing an original work of art – and perhaps expanding the notion of what actually constitutes the art itself.

Here you can visit the festival website and see the program, which is not announced until the day of the first screening. The dates for the third annual Nitrate Picture Show have not been announced, but suffice it to say, we recommend going next year.

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