We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. Click here for more information.

State of the Festival: Out Of the Past – The 6th Annual Nitrate Picture Show

A rare event that projects the highly flammable film format, the experience deeply intertwines the movies with their medium.
Joshua Bogatin
Portrait of Jennie (1948).
We are floating in the heavens, soaring between black and white clouds. A throaty voice reaches out to us from on high. “What is time? What is space? What is life? What is death? Nothing ever dies, but only changes,” the voice declares in the overly serious tone of a kitschy 1950s educational film narrator. Soon a quote from Euripedes fades onto screen, “who knoweth if to die be but to live,” followed by John Keats’ classic lines, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” These hackneyed epigraphs might normally feel stultifying in their obvious pretentiousness, yet tonight they take on a special significance. There hasn’t been a title card yet and there won’t be until the very end, but this film is Portrait of Jennie (1948), the movie that ruined Selznick’s Hollywood career by running up a budget greater than Gone With the Wind without making half of it back. It is being shown as the opening night film of the sixth annual Nitrate Picture Show, held at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York.
Its preoccupation with death, beauty, and beauty in death makes Portrait of Jennie an apt choice for a first film. The audience at the Nitrate Picture Show is there to soak in the beautiful sensation of watching one of the last gasps of a moribund medium—nitrate cellulose. The festival is devoted to the preservation and exhibition of nitrate, and every film is projected on this antiquated and semi-extinct format. Nitrate was the standard format for film making and projection until the late 1940s and early 1950s, when acetate-based “safety” stock took over (this in turn would largely be replaced by polyester-based stock in the late 1990s). Around that time, archives began transferring all of their nitrate materials over to safety stock as a preservation method and, because of its high flammability, nitrate became an increasingly rare medium to see projected (only three other theaters in the United States have the technical capabilities to project it—the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto as well as the Billy Wilder Theater and Egyptian Theater, which are both in Los Angeles, California—neither of which projects it with any regularity).
Like Portrait of Jennie’s artist hero, Eben (Joseph Cotten), who falls irrevocably in love with Jennie (Jennifer Jones), a ghost of a young woman who died decades earlier, those who watch nitrate begin to fall in love with another time. Like Jennie, the material provides many of its own seductive charms. For one, it is the only way to see the film close to how it actually looked to its original audiences. Secondly, there are specific properties of nitrate that, while hard to discern, make for a richer image quality. There is a high quantity of silver in nitrate—allegedly at one time there was more silver in celluloid than in the U.S. Mint—which lends the silvers and grays a special richness and gives the image an overall shine that emphasizes depth in ways that, at times, feels halfway towards a 3-D film. And so as Eben clings to Jennie in the film’s last reel, hoping to save her from the storm that killed her twenty years ago, the audience in the Eastman Museum clings to its own ghost, Portrait of Jennie itself—or at least the original nitrate print of it and the historical aura of its textures.
After failing to prevent Jennie’s inevitable death, Eben finally finishes painting his masterpiece, the titular portrait of Jennie that then hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the film’s epilogue, a group of school children come to marvel at the painting’s beauty, asking each other, “I wonder if she was real?” Watching a safety print or DCP of a classical film after attending the Nitrate Picture show might elicit the same question, “I wonder if it was real?” The voluptuous texture of day-for-night moonlight on water, the Technicolor bluish-whites of Jennie’s dress during the final frame of the film, the specific voluminousness of the voice-over—was it real and not just a facsimile?
We’ll never fully experience an old film as it was first seen since we’ll never be able to visit the past. Explaining how they can still love and hold each other despite belonging to separate times, Jennie tells Eben, “Time made an error.” The Nitrate Picture Show, through the hard work of its many preservationists and projectionists, cultivates those errors, bringing us a vision of Jennie we shouldn’t have any right to see.
It is easy to get emotional over a film, but it is harder to get emotional over a print of one. Yet the Nitrate Picture Show specializes in inducing just this kind of passion. The most profound moment of the festival may have been the last day’s screening of Marcel Carné’s Le jour se lève (1939). The story of a murderer, François (Jean Gabin), cornered in his apartment by the police and awaiting his own death, a melancholic sense of inevitable doom pervades the film. But, sad as it was, the death of François wasn’t the most tragic death during this screening. For we at the Dryden Theater were also watching the death of Le jour se lève itself. Or at least the death of this nitrate print of Le jour se lève, which is the last remaining projectable print and thus the only viewable example of how the film originally existed and was seen by French audiences of 1939.
Le jour se lève (1939).
While nitrate is a durable medium—it can remain close to its original form for 500 years under ideal conditions—because of a long history of neglect and destruction, it constitutes something of an endangered species today. Most projectable nitrate prints are on their last legs and they are only further degraded by each screening, subsequently decreasing their chances of being shown again. As festival director Peter Bagrov mentioned, an event like the Nitrate Picture Show may not be able to exist in twenty years’ time. For this particular print, the film’s edges are particularly brittle, nearly every frame has cracked or torn perforations, and shrinkage is at 1.15 percent (nitrate prints normally aren’t run if they shrink more than 1–1.5 percent because of the increased risk of the film getting caught in the projector gate and starting a fire). It was something of a Herculean task from the Eastman Museum to even make this screening happen, and after the lights go up, likely no one will ever see this movie the same way again.
What gets lost when these images disappear? While the nitrate difference is slight and hard to discern except for the most dedicated of connoisseurs, it is certainly more than just a fetish-object for purists. There is a specific quality and subtlety to the grays and silvers that will never be seen again once this print is retired. And Le jour se lève is a movie that truly comes to life through the subtleties of its richly drawn textures. Contrasted against the histrionics of its proto-noir framing device—Gabin’s desperate pleas for sympathy from the gathering crowd outside as well as his frustrated assault on his own furniture, have the emotional force of watching a desperate, wounded animal—the flashbacks that make up the majority of the film are pitched at an achingly tender and low register. Scene follows scene of meandering conversations filled with weary whispers and long silences—even in a busy cafe there seems to be nothing but emptiness surrounding the characters—all of it suffused in ashy grays which contrast against the odd sharp black or the bitter tones of beautiful, silvery sunlight poking through the window. It is precisely these specific textures and tones that may have been lost forever after this screening, quietly passing away with Jean Gabin’s deadly, suicidal pull of the trigger which closes out the film.
There is much more on display at the festival, however, than just the novelty and intrigue of experiencing nitrate itself—equally important is the history and diversity of cinema as an art form. Nitrate is, more than anything, a jumping-off point for the curation; allowing for some truly inspired programming to arise out of the natural challenges of organizing a festival around rare prints dating from before the year 1952. While you do get your requisite set of canonical hits—Rope, Cluny Brown, Pinocchio—many of this year's titles came with a feeling of fresh discovery and surprise. Refusing to announce the program in advance—the slate is revealed on the first day—the festival can make its program as eclectic and esoteric as it sees fit without losing any of its dedicated audience. This makes for a lineup that runs the gamut from hard-to-find movies by known masters to incredibly obscure curios from marginal figures without for a moment suffering in quality.
One of the early highlights of the festival was a double feature of melodrama that showcased the diversity and dynamism of classical cinema—Douglas Sirk’s Final Chord (1936) followed by Miki Naruse’s Repast (1951). Made in Nazi Germany when Sirk’s first name was still billed as Detlef, Final Chord is the director’s first melodrama and major success. It is a grandly baroque film about a love pentagon between a famous conductor, his wife, the wife’s blackmailing ex-lover, the conductor’s adopted child, and the adopted child’s long-absent mother who has snuck into the family under the guise of being a nanny. With an operatic visual style heavy on unmotivated whooshing crane-shots and smash-cuts, Sirk flaunts the film’s artificiality with pride. Naruse’s Repast, on the other hand, is a quiet paean to the simple suffering of ordinary people that traces the daily ordeals of a housewife (Setsuko Hara) in Osaka with little recourse to dramatic conflict. Filled with static camerawork that subtly emphasizes the depth and detail of the setting without embellishing the film’s emotions, the contrast between the two films was striking. Parsing the wildly different ways Sirk and Naruse approached the same genre felt like attending a masterclass in cinematic technique, albeit one you would want to bring a box of tissues to.
Trail of the Hawk (1935/50).
Sitting comfortably on the opposite side of the genre spectrum was another festival highlight, the delirious musical Western Trail of the Hawk. Made in 1935 by first-time director Edward Dmytryk, Trail of the Hawk is a 1935 B-film that’s sluggishly paced, largely uninteresting, and currently watchable on YouTube at 240p, a stark opposite to the nitrate experience. There would be very little reason for anyone but the most ardent of Western devotees to watch Trail of the Hawk if Ramblin’ Tommy Scott hadn’t gotten his hands on it. Luckily for us, this rockabilly singer and mediocre ventriloquist bought the picture for $1,000 and, seeking to launch his own film career, shot a handful of new scenes starring him and his dummy, Luke McLuke, so he could re-release it in 1950 as a Tommy Scott movie. The result is a delirious mash-up of two bad movies that miraculously elevate one another into a hokey sublimity that feels apace with the nerdy prankishness of Joe Dante’s The Movie Orgy.
Opening with a stock Oedipal set-up—the cowboy, Jack King (Bruce Lane), returns home to the ranch to find his mother hamming it up on her deathbed, telling him to find his long lost father—the film lands its first bad-movie grace note when it smash-cuts from mom’s dying words to Tommy Scott wearing cheesy cowboy garb and singing “Home on the Range” while fake tears roll down his cheeks. From there the hits keep rolling—during one scene Tommy Scott inserts corny reaction shots of himself into a scared cattle baron’s somber speech; the original film’s ending is hysterically undercut by an added clip of Tommy Scott asking his dummy what he thought of the end, only to have Luke McLuke respond with a asinine and clichéd bit of sexism (“What a tragedy,” Luke says, “now he’s got a wife, that means trouble all his life!”) which makes the sudden jump to the end title card marvelously delirious. “A supremely bad movie—an anti-masterpiece—projects a stupidity as awesome as genius,” Jim Hoberman wrote in his essay, “Bad Movies..” Trail of the Hawk delivers this awesome stupidity in spades.
There is much that makes the Nitrate Picture Show a wholly unique festival and filmgoing experience. The ideal, up-for-anything enthusiasm atmosphere of the audience, the specific mission of its curatorial staff, and its relative uniqueness in the film festival landscape all may even make a worthwhile argument for the festival as something of a countercultural event. The viewpoint of the festival may be wholly backwards-looking, ignoring any notion of progress in favor of conservation and reverence for history, but in a media landscape that places almost all emphasis on the new, these can be quietly transgressive values.
So it was apt that the most charming and crowd-pleasing film of the festival was Ernst Lubitsch’s testament to free-spiritedness, Cluny Brown (1946). In the film’s opening, Charles Boyer’s Professor Belinski offers some sage advice to Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones), a wannabe plumber stifled by the stuffy class system of Britain. “In Hyde Park some people like to feed nuts to the squirrels,” Belinski tells her, “but if you like to feed squirrels to the nuts—who am I to say nuts to the squirrels?” This paean to the individual spirit, which Lubitsch repeats throughout the movie with increasing levels of delightful absurdity, could also be a rallying cry for the festival itself and the myriad ways in which it flips the script of the current cinematic landscape on its head. While many festivals say it's a privilege and honor to be the first audience to see overly-hyped star-studded arthouse blockbusters with medium to wide releases in theaters, the Nitrate Picture Show says it’s an honor to see the last screening of a long-forgotten rarity in a semi-canonical director’s oeuvre. While repertory cinemas are increasingly building their programming around digital restorations that no one is enthusiastic about and which often take the original prints out of circulation, the Nitrate Picture Show remains firmly rooted in its adherence to films being shown as films. While many may say a good movie is a good movie no matter what format you watch it on, for one weekend a year at the Dryden Theatre you’re more likely to hear that a good print is a good print no matter what movie is on it. Squirrels to the nuts!


Festival CoverageState of the FestivalNitrate Picture ShowNitrate Picture Show 2022William DieterleMarcel CarnéDouglas SirkMikio NaruseEdward DmytrykRamblin’ Tommy ScottErnst Lubitsch
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.