A Visit to the Nitrate Picture Show

The Tales of Hoffmann, dirs. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (1951)

Over one glorious weekend in May, the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, revived a theater-going experience otherwise lost to time. This was the second annual incarnation of the Nitrate Picture Show, a festival dedicated to screening a range of movies preserved on nitrate film—the highly flammable material that was replaced by acetate-based safety film in the early 1950s. The museum, which holds one of the world’s most treasured repositories of photography and cinema, continues to maintain a collection of this vintage film stock, and they also have the equipment and expertise to project it—another rarity.

This year, I had the pleasure of returning to attend the festival, once again experiencing the delight of seeing a selection of old favorites projected with new vibrancy in the museum’s Dryden Theatre. Among the films shown this year were Otto Preminger’s noir masterpiece Laura (1944), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves (1948), and David Lean’s drawing-room ghost story Blithe Spirit (1945), all screened from stunning nitrate prints culled from archives around the world.

On Saturday morning, just before a presentation of John Boulting’s 1946 British crime drama Brighton Rock, I sat down with Jared Case, the executive director of the festival and the head of collection information, research, and access in the museum’s Moving Image Department, to talk about his work bringing the Nitrate Picture Show to life, the process of selecting this year’s films, and why nitrate remains a vital film resource.

How did this festival grow from the work already being done at the George Eastman Museum?

Ultimately, this is something that we were created to do. By the time the museum opened in 1949, we already had a film collection, which was owned by James Card, the first director of the Film Department, and of course the 35 mm he had was on nitrate film, because it didn’t change over to safety until 1951. With that collection, knowing that we were a museum of photography and film, we needed an exhibition space for these nitrate films. So that’s when we went to one of George Eastman’s relatives, his niece Ellen Dryden, and she and her husband George gave the money to create the Dryden Theatre. Since we had nitrate film, it needed to be created for nitrate film; it needed to have all of the appropriate safety features in place. We’ve maintained those and kept them up for the last sixty-five years, and we’ve been showing nitrate since we opened.

In 1952, we opened the first privately owned, state-of-the-art film vaults. Keeping things cool and dry makes sure that they live much longer. We started out with a collection we wanted to show and keep for a long time, and then in the ’90s we formalized the idea of passing this knowledge down from generation to generation through the Selznick School of Film Preservation, and we’re celebrating the twentieth year of that this weekend. So when you take all those pieces together to form our history—we have a collection of nitrate film we want to show, we want to keep it safe for a long time, we want to pass this knowledge down—it just made sense to do an entire weekend, so that it’s worth it for people to come to Rochester to experience nitrate in full. It came together really quickly in late 2014; we had pockets of ideas of how to do this throughout the department, and it finally came together and we said let’s do it. Unfortunately, we started the festival backward from the way that normal people usually start festivals.

How so?

The first time you have a festival, you take, like, two years to plan and make sure everything’s in place—we did it in six months. And now that we have a year under our belts and a year of planning, it’s a little bit easier and we’re learning more. We realized this year that it’s not something we can pick up in August, it’s a year-round thing we’re doing, and we need to be in constant communication with everyone, because there are nitrate films out there in places you wouldn’t normally think. There are historical societies, there are films in foreign archives we might be able to use, and the archivists there might not have a place to show nitrate, so they’re not necessarily looking at it from that perspective—they’re not measuring the shrinkage, or looking at the damage on the edges. So it’s also about reeducating out peers and looking at nitrate as a vital resource that still has exhibition potential—to get all of our colleagues around the world to realize that there’s now a regular place where they can go to have these films shown for the first time in years. The film we showed this morning [Annie Get Your Gun], that’s the first time the film has been shown in sixty-five years. It was released in 1950 for a couple of months and the Library of Congress had it on deposit, and it hasn’t been touched.

Blithe Spirit, dir. David Lean (1945)
During the intro for last night’s screening of Laura, the speaker said that it isn’t only the content of these films that is important—it’s also simply a miracle that they still exist and that we can still watch them. Is that how you think about them as well?

I think with any art form you’re sort of amazed that something has existed throughout the years. Motion-picture film has been around for a relatively short period of time, in comparison to Greek sculpture or painting or music, so I think part of your mission is always that conservation aspect and making sure that we have it now so that people can use it in the future. I think specifically with film, and with nitrate film—where the reputation is that it’s very dangerous and people get worried about the liability of keeping it around, but also the cost of maintaining the facilities—it’s a financial decision. It’s also why you see changes even within nitrate film: they’re making the stock thinner, they’re going to use less silver for the black and white, because if you can create an image that’s sufficient, then you’re going to use less material and increase your profit margin.

But even then, the black and white had more silver than the acetate. So I especially find that there’s more difference for me watching black and white on nitrate versus acetate; there’s a greater depth. There are certain shots—especially with directors that shoot well outdoors—always the clouds, they seem so distant, and the vista just opens up behind the screen so much and gives a real perspective to what’s going on in the foreground.

Yes! I was speaking with a friend who also mentioned last year’s screening of Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol and how much depth there was to those street scenes. Do you try to program a mixture of black-and-white and color films to show the variety and range of nitrate?

Absolutely. Picking the films is not just about the content, although that’s there, but it’s also about, as you say, showcasing what the history of film was. There was obviously Technicolor three-strip, which was the predominant form and what we remember most about color films from the ’50s and ’40s, but we had a two-strip Technicolor film yesterday, and there are other color processes from the time that we’re trying to get out there to see the original artifact, as opposed to just seeing the preservations or something on DVD. We’re re-creating what that was like. But you certainly want a balance, and you want to please as many people as possible—giving them a spectacle or musical along with very somber dramas. I would love to have a western.

Brighton Rock, dir. John Boulting (1947)
I’ve enjoyed how the projectionists’ names are announced before each screening, highlighting the skill it takes to present these works.

The projectionists are on staff, so they’re here all the time, and that’s why we feel comfortable having them in the booth handling the material in these machines year round. They know better than any of us what these machines can and can’t do. When we are considering titles of the festival, we prescreen them, and we all watch them together to see how they react on the screens. These are museum artifacts coming from other archives around the world. We take it very seriously, and although we want to exhibit the original artifact, we do not want to be put in a situation where we’re going to compromise the integrity of that object. So we take that very seriously when we’re programming the festival.

How did you and your team go about programming this year’s festival relative to last year’s selection?

Last year there was a definite theme of doomed love—with Portrait of Jennie, Black Narcissus, Leave Her to Heaven—so we knew that we wanted to shift away from that as much as we could. And we knew there were gaps, like musicals—I really wanted to have a musical. We definitely wanted to have a balance of color and black and white. I thought shorts would be a great way to include all of these other genres that we might not be able to see. We don’t have an animated feature, because how many of those were there except for Disney back in the nitrate era? So we have animated shorts, we have an avant-garde film, we have some documentaries, some Hollywood history. I really liked Twenty Years of Academy Awards, because it included a lot of titles, which might be the only way we get to see those on nitrate—things like 7th Heaven and Wings. So we’re looking at shorts as a way to broaden the scope of the program as well.

Also, I don’t know how many people really knew Portrait of Jennie last year, but the presentation of that—with the re-creation of the magniscope effect, and the opening of the proscenium, and the masking in front of the screen—there are certain things you can do with the projectors that you wouldn’t normally see, and it was a discovery having it on the big screen and having an impact like that.

We want to balance the things like Laura and Tales of Hoffmann with smaller things like Enamorada, which is a Mexican film. So to have that, you show the breadth of what’s out there and what’s possible. You give yourself over to the schedule and say that you trust these people to curate something that’s not going to be a Bowery Boys movie just because they could find it and it’s projectable—this is going to be something of quality, and even though I haven’t sought it out, it’s going to be something I want to see.

Road House, dir. Jean Negulesco (1948)
Do you find that the theatrical experience in this kind of festival is more important now that cinema is moving into a totally digital space?

From an archive perspective, it’s been going in that direction for a long, long time. It’s been thirty-five years since home video came out and already you have the possibility of not having to watch a film on somebody else’s time frame. If you don’t have access to a repertory house, you can watch it in your own home and curate it in your own way. But as that became the norm rather than the exception, we’ve been trying to reeducate people about that original cinema experience. We preserve and conserve not only the films but also the experience, that theatrical experience of being overwhelmed by a large screen, and having it be immediate—you can’t pause it, you have to go along with the story, there’s nothing to interrupt you, it’s communal, and it’s immersive, not just for the screen but for the sound. Not everybody has the ability to re-create that at home, so it’s honoring that artifact as close as we can to the original, and that’s what screening nitrate is about. We screen 35 mm safety all the time, but it’s in these special instances that we can really get to that print off the negative. I compare it a lot to the Mona Lisa: strictly the content of it is the same if you’re looking at it on your phone, but being in the same space, breathing the same air as that piece of art and being close enough to where you can explore it in your own way, to search out the details that you’re interested in or that catch your eye, it’s a different experience than just having it disposable somewhere else.

Do you have a favorite nitrate discovery that you’ve made in putting the festival together?

My biggest discovery has not been titles I didn’t know about, but new-found interactions with titles I’ve already seen. There’s one title we prescreened for last year—I’m not going to tell you what it is because we couldn’t use that print—and it was a very small story, but in a very large landscape. I’d seen it on TV, I’d seen a DCP of it, and it’s a big Oscar-winning film—but seeing it on nitrate with that depth, and seeing what the filmmaker was trying to
do . . . it brought out an emotional aspect to it that I’ve never seen before. I’m looking forward to seeking that out next year, fingers crossed.

And Black Narcissus, I knew it was beautiful, but I have a very ambivalent relationship with Powell and Pressburger, I tend to like it when they go big and artistic. I love The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann, I like it when they embrace that artifice; I think the color scheme that they have with their artistry works really well with that. And Black Narcissus is closer to reality, although they’re using that big, melodramatic stuff in a more subtle way. But watching it on nitrate, I suddenly had the revelation that this was a horror film—this is like a haunted house, all these people going to a monastery at the top of a hill, and the isolation and the weird winds are affecting them and psychologically tearing them down. I was like, I get this now, I understand now what the appeal of this is. So it’s rediscovering things that I thought I knew, being open to the nitrate experience, and allowing that to influence my interpretation.

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