"The music seemed extraordinarily fresh and genuine still. It might grow old-fashioned, he told himself, but never old, surely, while there was any youth left in men. It was an expression of youth–that, and no more; with sweetness and foolishness, the lingering accent, the heavy stresses–the delicacy, too–belonging to that time." —"The Professor's House," Willa Cather His last words, in a hospital four months later, are said to have been 'Mind your own business!' addressed to an enquirer after the state of his bowels. Friends got to the studio just before the wreckers' ball. Pictures, a profusion, piles of them, littered the floor: of 'a world that will never be seen except in pictures'" —"The Pound Era," Hugh Kenner
HEART OF FIRE
Often when I go to a movie, usually one made before 1960, I think about the opening scene of The Red Shoes, of Marius Goring and his friends sitting in the cheap seats of the ballet. I think about the fact that those seats were available and that young people, specifically young people without a lot of money who had to work for a living, were rabidly trying to get their butts in those seats.
The news that come the first weekend in May the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY was going to put on a film festival devoted to screening nitrate film prints, rumored to be a one-of-a-kind aesthetic experience, brought both immediate excitement (the act of projecting nitrate as rare as the prints themselves) and Pompei-esque visions of death (the film stock is extremely flammable). But after that immediate excitement came the logistics and with them the associated costs. The price of a festival pass (150 dollars)* combined with the cost of transportation and lodging and other necessary sundries, added up to, for me at least, a fairly expensive weekend. To be more specific, since money and concepts of what is expensive are all relative and very different for different people, at a minimum, the cost were you, as I was, starting out from somewhere as nearby as New York City (and had some lodging and transportation luck with Airbnb or friends) would likely be in the neighborhood of 500 dollars. Personally, that is more than sum total of extra money (post-rent, bills, student loans, food, etc...) that I have every month. This isn’t to say the festival was overpriced. When you break it down, the cost of the pass was more than appropriate considering the number of movies screened and the non-negotiable location-associated costs, given the need for a nitrate-safe booth and nitrate prints. But an event that at minimum costs 500 dollars does bring to light whom a festival like this, and in turn, celluloid, are for, and what the implications of that are and might be.
Generally, what you might call "nitrate cinema," that is, movies produced in classical Hollywood before 1951 when nitrate stock was replaced by the much safer, less-flammable, acetate stock as the industry standard, was a cinema created with and for a working class, thanks to the streamlined and profit-driven nature of the studio system. Watching films from that era in the context of an event with the above costs, which is presumably how they will be viewed from here on out, raises concerns about what happens to an art form when the only people with access to a firsthand knowledge of it are the privileged and in turn, the collective consciousness of it begins to change. It could be argued (well) that this is something that happens to most art forms as technology and time progress (and large amounts of outside money have to step in to preserve, restore, and exhibit) but I also imagine most people, even if they could not say a great deal about it, could distinguish between a painting and a picture of a painting, or between a CD and a live performance. As it stands, most people cannot recognize what a projected piece of any kind of celluloid looks like and, worse, are not even aware that such a thing exists. In other words, with the transition to digital we're losing something very few people knew existed to begin with.
Cinema, and film projection in particular, has always been a performance art, and in many ways the real (or final) auteur has always been the theater and the projectionist, who are always free to (and have historically) remove important film frames and sections, put reels in the wrong order, miss a changeover, and more. Watching a movie, Samson and Delilah for example, in the snackless Dryden Theater in Rochester amongst an audience of many hardcore academics and cinephiles with three projectionists in the booth for safety purposes is nothing like (I imagine) it would have been to see the movie at its original Paramount premiere, even if it was the exact same print. Cinema is a living and breathing art form, an ever-shifting cumulative one—as its technology changes so does its definition and so does its history. A person born in the early '40s would experience firsthand the movies (and changing technologies and production methods) of the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, and so on, but would only be able to see many silent and 1930s movies in a dedicated way later in life when they were consistently broadcast via Turner Classics Movies, many for the first time. That experience of cinema, that specific acquired film history, will die with that generation. My own generation, give or take a few years on either side, is one of the last that grew up seeing celluloid regularly, while also having access to a large amount of older films through video, television, and now the internet. From that generation, a small group of us (judging from my IRL NYC moviegoing experience and a quick scan of the Nitrate Picture Show crowd) are seemingly the last ones truly interested in the celluloid medium, in both the past and present tense.
When the lights go down and an image graces the movie screen, we know the difference and it's our blessing and our profound curse that we can’t forget it (and worse, that we care). Where this leaves us, all we can do in the meantime (our own living cinema history), is to do our best to experience it—to form challenging and diverse relationships and communities; to do the necessary work to maintain those relationships and communities; to discuss; to document; to archive; to preserve—as this specific cinematic experience, this specific art form, will in all likelihood die with us.
We can also do our best to put the cinema we care about in front of as many eyes as possible, while simultaneously educating the audience about the materials that are part of the experience—people should always know what they are seeing (or not seeing). It would also seem to make sense, in our current image-based culture and workplace, that schools would be required to teach the history of moving images (including the absence of women and minorities throughout it) and media literacy, the same way they teach literature, art, and music. Short of that bureaucratic miracle, try writing an email about a 35mm screening of The Phenix City Story (or Great Day in the Morning or Jesse James or Wild Boys of the Road or...) to a friend. Once its politically charged content is no doubt flagged, you'll not only be archiving your thoughts and experience with the government, you'll indirectly be giving someone in the NSA a free of charge cinema history lesson that they can share with their children.
Social media can be important for cinema, too, but less as an open forum for discussion (public self-promotion, no matter how well-intentioned, isn't discussion or action) and more through the unstoppable commodification of all information (and information senders) sent through the world's various feeds. They want data, give them Dwan. Or better yet, Dorothy Arzner.
That all said, and at the same time, the scene at the George Eastman House was not a somber one or a cynical one or even one that resembles (I imagine) a weekend in the Hamptons. My first night in Rochester, a friend and I who had come to the festival a night ahead of our other friends with whom we had rented a house were lucky enough to find free lodging at the one-bedroom apartment of a friend and Eastman House employee. As it turned out, at least 10 other people were as lucky as we were. That night film enthusiasts from Belgium, Italy, Spain, and a large contingent from Slovenia spent the night talking, drinking, and doing tarot card readings. Eventually we all retired to a floor almost completely covered with air mattresses. When we awoke, we drank coffee and pored over the festival's just released program of film titles while patiently waiting in line for the bathroom, whose plumbing had suddenly decided to drain very very very slowly.
At first glance, the program (kept secret until the first day of the festival) seemed somewhat tame, a tried and true grab bag of canonical titles. However, as the festival progressed and my eyes slowly started to become accustomed to what exactly projected nitrate looked and in turn felt like, the chosen films began to make more and more sense and to present an almost subversive lesson about nitrate and in turn film projection as it relates to digital projection. What looks “good” or “bad” is indeed subjective and when you are screening a 75 year old print it is impossible to claim you are seeing the director’s intentions. But what became crystal clear as each movie lit up the screen was that people making movies prior to 1951 were working with vastly different tools with which to tell their stories and in turn likely had very different expectations about how their work would look.
And even as I begin to question (more and more as is evidenced by the time-gap between the festival and the appearance of this article) the role that privileging a past embedded with gender imbalance plays in the present day's continual, stubborn upholding of that imbalance (perhaps nitrate was flammable for a reason...), being able to experience first hand the specific tools that Wellman, Curtiz, Hitchcock, DeMille, Clément, Dieterle, Powell, Stahl, Reed, and more were using when they made their movies, has deeply informed my understanding of what cinema is and how it moves through the world as a living art, continually being lost and found and reinvented.
In Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown, as Jennifer Jones's titular Brown happily attempts to fix a clogged pipe, Charles Boyer's Adam Belinski tells her that "happiness is a matter of purely personal adjustment to your environment." For the moment, as far as cinema is concerned, this means figuring out how to contextualize and appreciate (while still questioning) what it means to watch movies digitally, even ones that were originally shot and projected on film, along with the much harder task of adjusting and adapting the art form's controlling systems.
And, hopefully, for one weekend a year it will mean lots of Genesee Cream Ale and adjusting our eyes, remembering what true black really looks like, and having the privilege to experience a piece of the past.
A Star is Born (William A. Wellman, 1936) / print from The George Eastman House
William A. Wellman’s take (the original) on the story of Esther Blodgett story screened as a preview event for the festival. In years past I had been able to see the movie on regular (acetate) 35mm three times, and as recently as June 2014 in Il Cinema Ritrovato’s William A. Wellman retrospective. It’s a movie that, despite occasional bursts of bright color, is surprisingly dark and muted, given the brashness of the various remakes. The frame tends to press into the actual scene, with darkness surrounding the color and light. On nitrate, those were the kinds of shots that stood out. They appeared more textured, with a contrast that applied not only to brightness but also space. Certain shots seemed more akin to oil painting than acetate 35mm.
After the movie ended I had the added bonus of having a discussion with William Wellman Jr. about the movie and his father. It was a highlight for me personally but more importantly it was the perfect way to open the festival, as it grounded the object-based event in storytelling and in history, in the importance of how these objects came to be and why.
Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) / print from MoMA
Michael Curtiz’s cultural behemoth had somehow managed to escape my eyes before seeing MoMA’s nitrate print in the Dryden Theater. For a long time it seemed unnecessary to rush out when a print screened (if ever there was a movie that wasn’t going anywhere…), but when DCP came on the scene, 35mm screenings, not unlike safe passage out of Casablanca, became much harder to come by.
Despite not having a 35mm reference point (or any total reference point) for Casablanca, watching this specific print made it clear to me that black and white is nitrate’s bread and butter. I’ve seen my fair share of celluloid eyes sparkle in black and white (most notably in the B&W films John Alton shot for Anthony Mann) but Ingrid Bergman’s eyes reached a level of luminosity not previously seen by my own. At moments it seemed like it might actually be possible to swim in the whites. But even with Bergman’s beauty and Bogart’s charm, the individual I was most excited to see engulfed in silver emulsion was Peter Lorre. His character opened the door to the unexpected transactional underpinnings of the movie, something I did not expect from what clip reels had led me to believe was simply a great love story that featured a piano player. I also did not expect to get such a short amount of time with Peter Lorre and his now darker than ever scheming eyes. Thankfully, the wise programmers at the George Eastman House anticipated my devastation at the thought of only being able to see 12 minutes of Lorre on nitrate...
The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1934) / print from the George Eastman House
Whereas I primarily noticed light in Casablanca, the power of blacks in Hitchcock’s early 30s thriller are what stood out. In particular, the final sequence suggested the depth that nitrate made possible. When the kidnapped girl, followed by her captor, flees to a rooftop and into the dark, dark night, her pale skin and tiny frame actually seemed to be on a separate plane in the frame, with both nothing and everything behind her.
Samson and Delilah (Cecil B. DeMille, 1949) / print from the Library of Congress
The decadence of nitrate made for a perfect pairing with the decadence of DeMille and his Delilah, at an early morning screening that immediately woke up everyone (or at least my row of enthusiastic friends). The gooey film stock presented a sparkling scandalous world, and, in a relatively simple scene, Hedy Lamarr to be enveloped by smoke as she made some kind of dastardly plan. Just like Hitchcock’s damsel in distress, Delilah and all that surrounded her occupied a much larger visual space than normally seen on 35mm. The stock, especially for color films, causes everything to look more vibrant and in turn what seems to stand out with nitrate are the simplest compositions. These are what allow you to really see the difference.
Complicated and busy scenes still look ravishing though, and for this I am glad because I wanted everything this movie of excess could give. I wanted all the lions, all the jewels, all the scheming, and all the toasts to the woman that was destroying him that George Sanders could muster.
Les Maudits (René Clément, 1947) /print from the British Film Institute
Post-Ingrid Bergman's eyes, René Clément’s black and white, World War II submarine story was my first opportunity to see water on nitrate. When the story found itself ensconced in a submarine the print didn’t appear noticeably different than regular 35mm, but once the camera ascended above the water something else began to happen. The starkness and darkness of the story of Nazi sympathizers trying to flee crashed up against the thrill of the above-sea level battle sequences with their light rippling on the water and almost seemed to provide an accidental commentary on the power and danger of privilege.
Nothing Sacred (William A. Wellman, 1937) / print from the George Eastman House
Nitrate Wellman round two was as fresh and fun and timely as I remembered it. Routinely miscategorized (and in turn criticized) as a screwball, the nitrate stock worked its magic and illuminated how the film is really a social satire in shabby screwball clothing. Lombard and New York City both shined through the muck, with Lombard’s pale skin providing an emotional contrast with the city’s actual and figurative darkness.
Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948) / print from the George Eastman House
Prior to the Dryden’s Saturday evening screening, I had seen William Dieterle’s metaphysical romance, a deeply personal favorite, three times on 35mm, the last time a mere six days before the Nitrate Picture Show screening, and their blind programming (I may not have seen the movie in Brooklyn if I knew it would be playing in Rochester) allowed me a true comparative experience. The differences were intensely palpable—from the way the Matthews and Spinney sign glittered outside the art gallery as Joseph Cotten's Eben Adams stepped inside, to the haunting depth that the filters on shots of Central Park allowed. More impressive, however, was how the images worked hand in hand with the disparate audio, often seeming to be slightly out of sync or to be coming from a different source than the image suggested, to form a cinematic world completely on its own jarring terms.
If I had any doubt that nitrate was indeed different, it was, as I watched Adams work through his own doubt about his strange and timeless love, dispelled very quickly.
Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947) / print from the Academy Film Archive
It seemed impossible that Powell and Pressburger's mysterious and otherworldly story of a group of nuns attempting to set up shop on a remote mountain wouldn't look jaw-droppingly incredible on nitrate. After a day of nitrate, I was anticipating an experience of pure awe at the sight of Deborah Kerr's Sister Clodagh, pre-sisterdom, fishing in glittering blue water or Kathleen Byron's Sister Ruth emerging from the convent, her darkened eyes standing out against her sickly pale skin, her hair blowing in the wind. But what struck me, and has stayed with me, was how nitrate took the emphasis off the story and onto geography—of places, of spaces, and most importantly, of faces. The texture and color (or lack thereof) of Deborah Kerr's young face in relation to that of her much older Mother Superior as they talk about her upcoming assignment was unlike anything I had ever seen, the nitrate stock almost allowing you to feel the differences in their skin textures and tones. On previous viewings of the film, that conversation was beautiful in its simplicity, but on nitrate it was decidedly the most complex moment and the image that defined and grounded the entire film.
Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945) / print from the UCLA Film and Television Archive
I spent a fair amount of 2014 studying the films of John Stahl for a piece I did on his 1932 melodrama Back Street. In the context of his entire body of work, Leave Her to Heaven, his best known film, has always been somewhat of an anomaly to me, until that is, I saw it on nitrate. Stahl’s films are all grounded in a stripped down aesthetic and choreography. The framing is deceptively simple and straightforward. In other words, he does a lot with a little as he quietly and deceptively builds. And through the accumulation of stark images emerges some of the most deeply felt emotions committed to cinema.
Watching Heaven projected on nitrate was the first time I felt I truly understood the movie. It was the first time I was able to see past the camp and the shock and see the things that defined his other films—the complete sadness and tragedy of the love affair—of being unable to reach another person. The extreme darkness of the blacks, of Cornel Wilde's hair, eyes, and suit and the depth and texture of the frame, somehow slowed the film down for me. Engulfed in the thick, silver, film stock, the characters seemed horribly stuck in the lurid world. Each new scene became its own, almost Joseph Cornell-like, world with the characters unable to connect with the people around them—each one seemingly in their own world.
The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed, 1948) / print from the George Eastman House
Carol Reed's exploration of a young boy's trip through universal disillusionment ebbs and flows between suspense and sadness and humor and even horror. But amidst the social drama, or rather around it, are staircases, balconies, large dense rooms accented by patterned walls and floors. The depth the nitrate gave these black and white spaces seemed to envelop and in turn diminish the human aspect of the story. Scenes were not about people as much as they were about where people were, where they were not, how they moved, where they hid, and where they needed to be. Perhaps it was this separation and focus on space, on its largeness and design, both signs of wealth and status, that for the first time switched the focus of the movie from a tragedy about losing one's innocence and made it more of a dark comedy or satire about privilege.
(Can Paradise actually be Lost if it was never there to begin with?)
WORKS AND DAYS
Once upon a time on an ill-fated internet date, the conversation turned to Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. He was a big fan. After sharing my toned-down, I’m trying to be a polite girl on a date "opinion" (he was pretty cute) that it was fine but I didn’t like the ending, my prospective suitor attempted to explain (mansplain) what said ending had meant. When the annoyed me who doesn’t often go on dates cut him off to specify that I did in fact understand the ending, I just found it to be rather stupid, he replied by asking if I just didn't like metaphors, then? My answer to his question was that I did like metaphors, sometimes...
Before getting lost in Casablanca, some friends and I found the time to take a drive out to visit Louise Brooks’ grave at Rochester's Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. It was a beautiful Spring afternoon and we drove with the windows down, listening to Rochester's surprisingly good hip-hop and classical stations. We had looked up what section of the cemetery she was in and I was somewhat surprised as we kept driving by the more prominent sections in the front of the cemetery—Louise Brooks being not only one of the best remembered silent film stars but also a huge fashion icon. Finally, we found her unassuming section and got out of the car to figure out which spot was hers. I thought it would be fairly easy to find, sure that there would be lots of paraphernalia and offerings surrounding the grave of Louise Brooks. We each took a row and set out among the tombstones and, as it were, we didn't find it. So, we kept looking, walking through the rows. Eventually we gave up and Googled to figure out the precise location of her grave. Once we had that information we continued to look, now paying attention to the markers on each row and after a much longer than expected search we found Miss Brooks in the back corner of the back section of the cemetery. Most of the graves in this section were unadorned but alongside Brooks's were a small, ragtag group of objects: a photo, a dirty Snoopy doll, and an American flag.
In 1955, James Card, the then curator of the George Eastman House, found Louise Brooks living in obscurity in New York City. He encouraged her to move to Rochester, which she did for the remainder of her days. During her time there she researched films and wrote for a variety of film journals. She also wrote a book about her life in the movies.
"Which is all of the story, like a torn papyrus. That is how the past exists, phantasmagoric weskits, stray words, random thing recorded. The imagination augments, metabolizes, feeding on all it had to feed on, such scraps. What Sappho conceived on one occasion on Mitylene is gone beyond reconstitution; the sole proof that she ever conceived it is a scrap from a parchment copy made thirteen centuries later;" —"The Pound Era," Hugh Kenner "His temporary release from consciousness seemed to have been beneficial. He had let something go–and it was gone: something very precious, that he could not consciously have relinquished, probably." —"The Professor's House," Willa Cather
Films Still Sources:
DVDs of The Red Shoes / Cluny Brown / A Star is Born / Casablanca / The Man Who Knew Too Much / Samson and Delilah / Les Maudits / Nothing Sacred / Portrait of Jennie / Black Narcissus / Leave Her to Heaven / The Fallen Idol / Beggars of Life
Photos of the author, including the one where I'm holding the original cyan layer of the technicolor negative of Meet Me in St. Louis (!!!), and of the air- mattress-floored apartment, by Caroline Golum
All other photos by the author
* The Nitrate Picture Show paid for my pass to the festival. I paid for my transportation, lodging, and meals.