Part two, let’s put on a show

That other blog post was getting too long and technical, but you should read it first anyway. Here we cut (mostly) to the review of the Nitrate Picture Show, which I recently attended in Rochester, NY.

Nitrate film prints cannot be shown just anywhere, just as they can’t be stored just anywhere. There are not many qualified projection booths around anymore. Water-cooled gates are needed, as are magazines that enclose the film reels as they are running. Metal plates have to be installed over the booth windows – in case of a fire, they drop down, protecting the theatre (but not the projectionist!). The film is run on reels which requires the operator to switch projectors every 10 minutes.

First, the complaining.

Do  I need to tell you I was OUTRAGED that there were no women projectionists at this event? When I was in Rochester, the projectionist was a woman of color. I was a projectionist. I am also a woman. Many of my projectionist friends are women. This weekend in Rochester, white men only in the booth. Insult to injury, the people who gave lectures & workshops were also all white men! The audience, on the other hand, appeared to be a healthy mix of male and female, admittedly mostly white, but representing many countries. This is a topic for a later posting, but Jeeze, Louise! I complained – they told me they were aware of the problem but…. In this photo, there is one lone woman. She was once the manager of the GEH nitrate vaults, and she helped put on this show. The others are the program curators and projectionists.  Boo!


Another sour note – the balcony has been renovated since I was last there, and the sight lines have been ruined by railings. As a short person, I usually love the balcony – you generally get a better rake – and I spent many evenings in this balcony as a student (5 nights a week?). Disappointing.

Nonetheless, I am happy I went.

The Nitrate Picture Show was / is (see you in May, 2017!) important because it highlights the fact that we film lovers should watch nitrate prints while we still can. To miss out on this opportunity is tragic – they are a lost art form. We don’t need to and should not destroy these films.

All nitrate prints are well over 50 years old by now, and some have really stood the test of time due to care, good storage, and dumb luck. Film, as it ages and decomposes, can become un-projectable due to shrinkage, wear and tear, and decay of the carrier. Like safety prints, nitrate prints in good shape can be safely projected by a good projectionist in a licensed booth.

Nitrate prints do not look the same as their safety stock copies.

Nitrate prints are not replaceable. 

We should show these prints while we can. Many on the program were from the 1940s, making them fairly new for nitrate, but the oldest one, and one of the most luminous, was from 1928!

For people like me who are visually educated about film, the difference between a nitrate print, a safety copy, and a digital copy, are immense. The latter may as well be a mimeograph of a photograph of an oil painting, as far as I’m concerned.

Watching one nitrate print projected maybe doesn’t make much of an impact on the inexperienced viewer. Seeing 10 in a weekend is an education. Sound and silent, B&W and color, all in the perfect aspect ratio of 1.37 (the Academy ratio – I think there was only one exception). Not all of the films were winners, and I skipped out on BICYCLE THIEVES since I’ve seen it numerous time and had record shopping to do, but even the boring movies had their points. And there were some real winners, of course.

Several archives loaned prints for the show. The catalog noted their physical characteristics, from shrinkage to splices to age, highlighting their importance as physical objects. We were not there to see the film; we were there to see the print.

There was surprisingly little said at the podium about the look of nitrate. Films were introduced by representatives of the archives, but people didn’t say things like “look at the clouds in ENAMORADA- you have never seen their like before and never will again,” or “the colors in this print of BLITHE SPIRIT are out of this world.” ROADHOUSE, an Ida Lupino noir I’d seen on VHS back in the video store days, was unreal. ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, an absurd musical that managed to offend a number of people (for obvious reasons), brought tears to my eyes when I realized I’d never seen colors like this onscreen. I can’t tell you how sad I am that I didn’t come last year, when I could have seen an original print of LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, one of my favorite Technicolor melodramas, which won the Oscar for best color cinematography in 1945.

I guess we didn’t need to be told how amazing they looked, but still….of course some of this was because the people introducing had never watched the prints! As I said, this was a rare event. George Willeman, the nitrate vault manager of the Library of Congress lo these 30+ years, the man who pulled out those nitrate cartoons for me in the Dayton bunker, had never seen the stock theatrically projected before. His intro for TALES OF HOFFMAN left nary a dry eye in the house, although the film actually left me a little cold.  It’s a filmed ballet, which isn’t rally my bag. The colors were amazing, but it was long and meandering and I wouldn’t have watched the whole thing in any other format.


Surprise hit: ENAMORADA (1946) – A terrific Mexican Revolution melodrama I’d never heard of but enjoyed almost every moment of it. Such hot stuff, it nearly set itself on fire.

I had seen LAURA for the first time only a month or so ago on 35mm, but decided Clifton Webb is my new favorite, and figured it was my best shot for seeing “that nitrate look,” since I’d recently watched a safety print of it. But it was late in the day, and I kept nodding off, so I guess I didn’t really see the difference, apart from the rich blacks.

ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (1950) is a ridiculous movie, but I really enjoyed the Technicolor and some of the tunes. As I said, the colors brought tears to my eyes. It was a boisterous way to start the day at 9:30am.  “You can’t catch a man with a gun” became the catchphrase of the weekend, of course.

BRIGHTON ROCK (1947) is a cool gangster film that is set at seaside Brighton, a popular spot in England.

The best shorts shown were certainly the Oskar Fischinger films, which I had seen in preservation prints, the color in which lacked the oomph of these nitrate prints.

The  final film of the weekend, the “Blind Date With Nitrate” screening was a film that wasn’t announced in advance. We didn’t know what it was until the title appeared on screen: RAMONA (1928) (cue audible gasp from many in the audience). This was the oldest print we watched, and the only silent feature. I didn’t care for the piano accompaniment, but it was better than silence. Sometimes Philip Carli seems to treat the piano as his nemesis, and he bangs away at the keys with his big hands like a man with revenge on his mind. RAMONA was a pleasure to watch, the print downright glowed onscreen, but it wasn’t really my kind of movie. The story was predictable in that silent movie sort of way, and it could have been shorter. But when don’t I say that about a film? I found the theatricality of its presentation sort of irritating. Paolo gushed that this was a special festival because we were watching prints, not films. I don’t buy that – I was watching the content more than the base, even though I did think about the film itself more than usual at the changeovers and when it jumped in the gate. I mean, we weren’t watching nitrate leader (except for a few projectionist errors).

My friend Andy was disappointed by the lack of fires in the booth, although there were a nice number of fires, sometimes just lighting cigarettes, onscreen.





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