The 5th Nitrate Picture Show

The George Eastman Museum's unique festival in Rochester, NY curates and projects movies printed on the volatile film stock.
Andrew Northrop

A woman walks into her bedroom to the absurd sight of a cow laying on the bed, and she diligently ushers it out of the room as if it’s a regular occurrence. This is one of the many surrealist images found in the Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí film L'âge d'or (1930), which was projected on screen at the George Eastman Museum’s Dryden Theatre in a rare context the first weekend of May. On the front of the image: the many scratches and marks of a well-played print that travelled through Europe and the United States with Henri Langlois from the Cinémathèque Française, who sold the print to the museum following financial difficulties while touring the United States with it and other films. Behind the image, the silver nitrate film base—that incredulous, highly flammable and volatile material associated with disaster and phased out of production by the 1950s. The stories of theater fires, vault fires1 and films lost to history due to poor storage in the early days of filmmaking are forever etched into the lore of cinematic history, but in the right hands, and with the correct environmental specifications, nitrate film can actually be quite stable, offering a glimpse at cinema’s teleology prior to the introduction of safety and acetate film stocks. This print of L'âge d'or hasn’t been screened to an audience in decades, and, due to the gradual shrinkage of nitrate prints over time, this may also have been the last time it could safely pass through a projector.

Frame enlargement from L'Age d'Or (Luis Bruñuel, 1930) 

To refer to the Nitrate Picture Show as just being about screening a volatile format again just for the sake of it would be a disservice to the festival’s wider connective tissue. Beyond the careful art of projection and the safety protocols necessary to pull off such a feat of presenting these prints again, the three-day festival is a celebration of the audiences, archivists, projectionists, institutions, and historians who make this cinematic experience whole. The audience are regularly encouraged to applaud the projectionists, and the festival staff is populated by practitioners of the museum and the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation who helped facilitate tours, workshops, and insightful conversations. And in the catalog, alongside historical quotes about each film, several lines concerning the physical condition of each print outline the frailty of the Nitrate Picture Show’s presentations, with many of the prints being less than 1% shrunk—the amount deemed safe for projection.  

Partner institutions including MoMA, the Library of Congress, Academy Film Archive, UCLA Film and Television Archive, the Kansallinen audiovisuaalinen instituutti in Helsinki, the Austrian Film Museum, and the Swedish Film Institute also provided films for presentation, allowing for a wider selection of prints beyond the George Eastman Museum’s already fruitful collection. The prints were further accompanied by insightful introductions from related practitioners, containing reflections and historical contexts. The fruits of these collaborations particularly shined during the “Nitrate Shorts” program, where the first-hand footage of war and a patriotic American voiceover of John Ford’s newsreel about conflict in the Pacific, Battle of Midway (1942), wildly contrasted against the colorful stop-motion exterior of Tulips Shall Grow (1942) by European emigre George Pal, which soon gave way to reflect upon the Dutch peoples’ traumas of Nazi invasion.

Frame enlargements from Tulips Shall Grow (George Pal, 1942), top, and Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947), above.

The dynamic range of each nitrate print is something that makes viewing them uniquely different to modern film bases for sure, whether they are black and white or in colour. Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947) feels truly at home in the silvery hues of a black and white nitrate print given its film noir lighting, and the animated shorts such as Swooner Crooner (Frank Tashlin, 1944)—found in the shorts program—were so vivid in their color range that it almost feels like a crime that further animated films couldn’t live in that iteration of cinematic materiality. In many ways, a large bulk of the festival’s appeal is devoted to witnessing how prior audiences witnessed cinema, but there’s a reflexive element that comes into play as well. Audiences aren’t afraid to laugh and pick apart the absurd moments in L'âge d'or2 nor the gender expectations of prior decades that now feel outdated and cringeworthy when revived in other films at the festival. An easy concern about the Nitrate Picture Show would be that it is unable to offer films past the 1950s and therefore might risk enforcing a sense of blind nostalgia, but in reality, the festival often allows the audience to re-examine the socio-political dynamics found within cinematic past.

Though the festival undeniably speaks to the cinephilic and the nostalgic, it’s at its strongest when it brings more difficult historical records into focus. Alongside the different approaches to tackling war on screen in the shorts program, one of the first prints on the table at the festival’s “Nitrate Touch” sessions—where attendees could handle various nitrate films up close—was of the U.S. Army production Atomic Blast at Nagasaki (1945), with an aerial view of the bomb’s cloud post-detonation on display in a cinematic format that is often lauded and referred to as vivid, yet the act depicted is of condemnable genocide. The print’s presence is a reminder that, however much we fetishize the materiality of film, we can’t look away from the fact that cinema has often been utilized by militaries to document war and genocide, and that its just as important to come face-to-face with those moments as it is to watch a piece of classic Hollywood or avant-garde French cinema. After all, the festival is built upon archival practice, and one of the most important aspects of preservation is the retention of the uglier moments of history alongside those that are designed to entertain and comfort us.

Top: Deborah Stoiber holds up a 1900 Lumiere Brothers’ print at the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center. Above: Todd Gustavson stands with an operational Lumière Cinématographe. 

More proximate, the festival and the museum’s ties the legacy of George Eastman and Kodak in Rochester are omnipresent (the nearby Eastman Business Park spans 1,200 acres), and many of the objects on display in the Nitrate Vault, Technology Vault, and the Nitrate Touch sessions interface directly with early cinematic achievements, technological changes, and cinematic figures. Before I’d even sat down to watch a film I’d been to the Technology Vault underneath the museum, where curator Todd Gustavson screened The Kiss (William Heisse, 1896) through a Lumière Cinématographe that had been modified to work with a LED lamp, before showing off the many cameras, projectors, and other objects that the museum houses. I’d also been to the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center, where preservationist and the festival’s Technical Director Deborah Stoiber showed off a 1900 nitrate print of a Lumière brothers film, with single sprocket holes on either side of the image. As someone with a keen interest in early cinematic developments, those two experiences were incredibly significant, embracing a heightened dialogue with cinema’s materiality. And at other points during the festival it was rewarding to see peoples’ specific interests in portions of cinematic history also flourish. This included looking at a print of the casting call trailer for Search for Beauty (1934) during the Nitrate Touch sessions alongside another attendee with an enthusiasm for classic Hollywood, who effortless fired off a list of actresses who successfully auditioned and then appeared in the Paramount project.

Top: A nitrate print of Market Scene, City of Mexico (Edison Manufacturing Co., 1898). Above: A Technicolor nitrate print of Forever Amber (Otto Preminger, 1947)

The Nitrate Touch sessions were not only a chance to see something rare, but also an opportunity to see certain changes and processes that aren’t immediately visible in the conventional viewing experience. It was these moments where the emotional and technological edges of the cinematic experience come into view. With the print of Market Scene, City of Mexico (Edison Manufacturing Co., 1898) that was on display, the smaller sprocket holes found on Edison’s film stock opposed to Eastman’s offer a glimpse of what it was like before the film industry reached a degree of standardization, and each frame’s primitive looking edges highlight the literality of the term “motion picture.” On other prints, specific edge codes3 give away places of origin, years of production, and/or how close the print is to the originating one.

There were also several Cinecolor prints on display, something which digital media will never transmit the density and color range of. Consisting of emulsion on both sides in order to combine the two-color channels filmed simultaneously in-camera, the Cinecolor prints show the rainbow-like reflections that you sometimes see in soap suds as they’re flexed under a light. The festival screened two print of this type: the comedic western The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (Preston Sturges, 1949), where several moments—notably the title cards—look as if the film wasn’t a transparent material at all but rather a dense canvas, and the Lowell Thomas-narrated Gardens of the Sea (Movietone Adventures, 1947), in which Coral Reef fish take their place as logical nominations for the Cinecolor system to have been tested on. In both examples, shots with a prevalence of certain colors become somewhat of a less appealing sight due to the limitations of the two-channel system and its nature of shifting hues outside of those it can ontologically capture, but retrospectively become charming insights into how cinematic practice was adapting. 

A promotional still of Rebecca from the George Eastman Museum’s archive. 

The most popular film at the festival was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), the director’s first Hollywood production. Hitchcock as auteur has a draw of course (as does Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, and most David O. Selznick productions), but the screening also created a dialogue with historical context, production changes, and the edges of the cinematic experience through Stoiber’s introduction of the film and the inclusion of several screen tests from the museum’s collection. The chosen print was one of three held at the Louise B. Mayer Conservation Center and came with the United Artists titles that were changed in later distributed prints, and Stoiber outlined Hitchcock and Selznick’s strained working relationship and the changing of the adapted book’s homicide to a suicide to adhere to the Motion Picture Production Code’s standards. 

The screen tests provided the most interesting glimpse into the production of Rebecca, and part of that power lies in the fact that too often these types of filmmaking ephemera are relegated to a behind-the-scenes featurette hidden on home video releases. Watching them in a cinema with a large audience is an entirely different and far more engaged experience, especially given that one of the screen tests of Joan Fontaine sees her wearing the famous red dress from Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), which was in production around the same time, and which the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center famously holds the Technicolor camera negatives of. Fontaine, suffering from the flu and reluctantly bought in for the tests, incited the audience into laughter throughout the silent footage with her various eye rolls and frustrated movements. Meanwhile, the auditioning screen test of Anne Baxter, who was 16 at the time, prompted discussions on how inappropriate it would have been for her to be cast in the Fontaine’s role. Several of the tests also exemplify Hitchcock’s role as an auteur, with two reading from the script but carrying none of the director’s trademark sense of tension, nor the final film’s gothic atmosphere, due to being overseen by others and taking place early in pre-production.

When Rebecca was finished and released in 1940, the screen tests surely meant very little to those involved, as they didn’t represent the completed film. But they were fortunately preserved, allowing festivalgoers to view them in different contexts decades later, whether that’s seeing the film’s connections to Gone with the Wind and Baxter—with the crew likely unaware of their future successes at that time—or the various “what-if?” scenarios that arise while viewing them. All that wouldn’t have been possible without the work of practitioners like Stroiber. The Rebecca screen tests perhaps exemplify the wider connective tissue of the Nitrate Picture Show best.

Various cameras held in the George Eastman Museum’s Technology Vault 

In many ways the festival is an experiment around the questions of “what does it mean to care for an image that is volatile?” and “how can preservation interface with the practice of film festivals?”—both of which create different answers depending on your own personal interests in cinematic past. Those questions are largely addressed through a heightened sense of temporality, and an emphasis on enjoying the lasting effects of sharing that particular volatile print with an audience. It’s unlikely that the Dryden Theatre attendees nor anyone else will see those specific prints projected ever again, and the festival even plays on that fleetingness by announcing the films on the first day of the festival and saving a further unannounced film for its closing “Blind Date with Nitrate.”

It’s easy to see the Nitrate Picture show as an antithesis of many contemporary film festivals where emphasis is placed on the new and emerging while subsequently, and awkwardly, glossing over the fact that many of those same films never receive distribution for wider audiences, thus potentially squandering their chances of repeat viewings and historical assessment decades later. But more aptly, the festival’s strength is that it offers an experience that runs parallel to other festivals and which makes something out of the fact that it ontologically cannot show films produced after 1950. Amid a busy world of film-viewing that increasingly becomes about instantaneousness and festival programs full of clashes and rushing between venues, it’s refreshing to attend a small festival where value is placed on all of its attendees being at the same screening to lend their eyes to a unique print, and where the sometimes fleeting materiality of cinema is amplified.

1. The 1937 Fox vault fire and the 1965 MGM vault fire led to the loss of the only known copies of several films.

2. Amongst the film’s ‘set pieces’; a man kicking a dog, a man shooting a child (twice) after an innocent prank, and a woman releasing sexual tension by sucking on a statue’s toe.

3. The meanings behind edge codes were a notorious trade secret in prior decades but now act as an invaluable guide for preservationists.

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