for Tribune: a report from the 2nd Nitrate Picture Show, Rochester NY
Tottie screamed “Birdie! Let me! Birdie, you are made of celluloid, remember!”
“Celluloid,” said Birdie in her light calm voice, and the lightness of the real candle was in her face… There was a flash, a bright light, a white flame, and where Birdie had been there was no more Birdie, no sign of her at all.
The extreme combustibility of celluloid needs no explaining to fans of Rumer Godden’s 1947 novel for children, The Dolls’ House—from whose shattering climax which the above quotation is taken—or the faithful ten-part 1984 adaptation shown by the BBC in 1984, Tottie: The Story of a Doll’s House.
The sudden, spectacular demise of Birdie—a winsomely flighty creation, constructed of cheap materials, who so heroically sacrifices herself to save her “child”—certainly wasn’t traditional televisual fare for after-school tea-time, and seems to have had lasting effects on most of those who witnessed it.
I was 13 in 1984, and reckoned myself inured to the traumatising effects of moving images after nearly a decade of Doctor Who and countless Friday and Saturday night horror-films; as a bairn, I was more often seen with a Boris Karloff biography than the Beano. Tottie did, however, manage to shake me up—perhaps because it so shockingly revealed that the stuff of which my beloved movies were made was volatile, impermanent, dangerous.
The safety of celluloid film-stock would improve dramatically half a decade after Godden’s novel was published: in 1952, the dominant manufacturer Kodak completed a four-year transition from nitrate to acetate as the base material for the product. As famously depicted at the end of Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), when the image seems to disintegrate before our eyes, acetate-based film melts in a picturesque if alarming manner. Cellulose nitrate contains oxygen, which means that once it starts burning it goes up like billy-o, and thus requires all manner of precautions in the projection-booth and archival store-room alike.
As well as posing particular problems in terms of preservation, the fire-factor severely restricts the projection of nitrate-based films. Most archives around the world which hold nitrate prints seldom, if ever, actually project them. But George Eastman Museum in the upstate New York State city of Rochester, near the placid shores of Lake Ontario, is different, and has been pioneering the revival of nitrate as a paying-public proposition.
Under the banner ‘The Nitrate Picture Show‘—and the slogan ‘Film is cool. Nitrate is hot—a weekend of screenings was held in the spring of 2015, including another Rumer Godden-inspired tale of jealousy and self-destruction, Black Narcissus. The organisers emphasised the crystal-clear qualities of the nitrate image and its depth and richness compared with other, lesser forms of celluloid.
“Imagine only ever seeing the sky filtered through sunglasses—then suddenly taking them off,” enthused critic Farran Nehme. “Movies I thought I knew, movies I’d seen dozens of times, appeared to me reborn, with fresh joys and terrors. And movies I’d never seen rushed at me with a force for which I was entirely unprepared… The silver nitrate hit me like Chartres blue, like Delacroix’s pigments, like the scent of apple blossoms in springtime. It affected me on a level beyond reason.”
I duly made the pilgrimage to Rochester for Nitrate Picture Show II, held in the neo-classical splendour of the Dryden Theatre at the Eastman Museum. The latter was built in 1905 as the palatial residence of Mr Kodak himself, George Eastman, who was one of the world’s richest men until his suicide in 1932. The mansion opened its doors as a museum dedicated to photography and film seventeen years later, and now boasts one of the world’s biggest cinema-archives.
For Nitrate II, however, only two of the seventeen prints shown actually came from GEM’s own extensive nitrate collection—brief footage of Eastman himself greeting a conference in 1930, plus Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves (1948). I’d somehow never seen this cinematic landmark before doing so via 35mm nitrate; and while I found the picture overall easier to admire than fully embrace, I was duly touched by the knockout performance by seven-year-old Enzo Staiola as the cash-strapped protagonist’s feisty offspring.
My highlight of the whole weekend, however, John Boulting’s terrific Graham Greene adaptation Brighton Rock (1947), which I’ve seen numerous times on small and large screens over the years. Doing so via an original 1940s print with a large and appreciative audience was different gravy—many of those present were (as could be discerned by audible reactions) unfamiliar with the sardonic irony and dark humour of the final scenes.
In both of its editions so far, the Nitrate Picture Show has showcased high-profile, oft-shown classics—this year’s list also included Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944)—in among lesser-known titles. Having read so much about the seminal influence of Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel Ramona on the development of California—detailed in Mike Davis’ indispensable Los Angeles survey City of Quartz—I was particularly intrigued to catch the 1928 silent-movie adaptation directed by Edwin Carewe, starring the smouldering Mexican star Dolores del Río.
And while this melodramatic tale of forbidden love hasn’t aged particularly well in terms of narrative and character development, to experience it via a 88-year-old tinted print—dispatched from the Gosfilmofond archive in Moscow—with rousing piano by world-class accompanist Philip Carli had the effect of turning the Dryden into a roomy, cosy kind of TARDIS.
Further Latino-flavoured shenanigans were provided by Emilio Fernández’s raucously lusty Enamorada from 1947, with the irresistible pairing of Mexican screen-icons Maria Felíx and Pedro Armendariz shot by the great Gabriel Figueroa. In terms of cinematography the most magical moments of Nitrate II arguably came during Jean Negulesco’s Road House (1948), a semi-obscure noir starring the flintily alluring Ida Lupino as a sultry, scratchy-voiced chanteuse in a sporty establishment near the Canadian border.
I’d often struggled to find the “nitrate touch” which for many has proven so ecstatically transporting, but did detect the magic silvery glow in Joseph Lashelle’s images of the night sky over a chilly north-country lake. That said, I was even more impressed by what’s surely one of the truly great, rock-the-house bar-brawls in cinema history. The amusingly protracted mano-a-mano, bouncer-v-lumberjack tussle between beefcake lead Cornel Wilde and man-mountain Louis Bacigalupi proved a thuddingly boisterous physical spectacle, delivered to 2016-era posterity on this most perilously fragile of all artistic media.
June 10th 2016
(online July 13th)
written for Tribune magazine