3rd Nitrate Picture Show recap

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 05/12/2017

Once again the fires were only those of our passion, as Shotgun Cinema visited the George Eastman Museum in rainy Rochester, NY, for the third annual Nitrate Picture Show, their film festival devoted to nitrate film exhibition. The festival has built what appears to be a comfortably sized and passionate group of supporters, eager to experience nitrate film, be surprised and challenged, and simply bask in an environment completely devoted to the art of film.

This year’s program reflected a growing sense of enthusiasm and trust, featuring titles preserved in over a dozen archives in the U.S., Austria, Britain, Sweden, Finland, Japan, France, and elsewhere. With so few screens worldwide able to safely project nitrate, it’s great to see growing enthusiasm, perhaps reflecting a consensus over how to treat these art objects so they can be optimally experienced. Which, complex though it is, definitely includes projecting one-of-a-kind original prints. Guest lecturer Alexander Horvath of the Austrian Film Museum provocatively alluded to this in a talk asserting the connection between a film, the projection apparatus, and the room in which the film is seen.

Also being refined is the notion of what it means to project nitrate film. The Nitrate Picture Show initially drew interest (certainly from me) from the novelty of seeing nitrate films projected, and from curiosity over how nitrate film stock might compare to later film stocks. But after only three years, NPS’ philosophy of film conservation, as opposed to restoration, is sinking in for me on a macro level: the necessary interaction between the film print, specialized machines and labor, and the darkened room, which is greater than any one title.

The titles themselves continued to be a thrilling mix – in part because the program isn’t announced until the morning of the festival. The program was anchored by world classics like Ozu’s Early Summer, Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, and Hitchcock’s Spellbound; underseen gems like the Cary Grant-Shirley Temple comedy The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, the Czech worker drama The Strike, and Jules Dassin’s noir Night and the City; and Technicolor delights like Anchors Aweigh and the 1943 version of The Phantom of the Opera. Short films again offered fascinating glimpses of world cinema culture in the first half of the 20th century. As always, the festival concluded with a film that wasn’t announced until it was onscreen: in this case, the 1946 noirish psychodrama Restless Blood from Finnish director Teuvo Tulio, a truly rare and delightfully insane treat.

The role of art in passing along cultural memory is clear; for cinema, this means watching films, not merely digitizing or copying them, and not merely saving them in vaults or on servers. Alexander Horvath hinted that we’re only beginning to understand the complexity of what it means to conserve cinema as a means of transmitting cultural memory, and that we may never “arrive” at solutions. Considering cinema as a quintessentially modern art form, its cultural consequence is still unfolding, like climate consequences from modern industrial processes. We cannot ignore, and don’t yet understand, what we have unleashed.

Developments in digital cinema exhibition continue to hurtle forward, with wireless feature delivery and laser light engines disrupting barely established delivery and projection conventions, and projector-less LED screens in development. In the face of these commercial interests, the success of events like the Nitrate Picture Show reflect the still-growing awareness that, under the category of moving images, film and digital cannot replace each other, and require only some of the same tools and conditions to be experienced. And that those distinct tools are as much a part of the essence of film as art as the story being told. (TB)

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