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A Star Is Reborn: Nitrate Film On The Big Screen

Nitrate Picture Show Logo (2) As I write this, I wish I could say I was hopping on a plane to Rochester, New York for The Nitrate Picture Show at George Eastman House—but my schedule wouldn’t allow it. This inaugural three-day festival is a unique celebration of 35mm nitrate prints, which are highly
combustible and subject to decomposition. Thousands of films have been lost due
to fire, the ravages of time, and carelessness…yet thousands survive, some more
than one hundred years old. I learned this years ago when I visited the Library
of Congress’ storage vaults at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton,
Ohio—since relocated to Culpepper, Virginia—and held the camera negative of
Thomas Edison’s The Great Train Robbery
in my hands. Although it was made in 1903, it remained in pristine condition,
while many more recent titles had crumbled to dust.

The attendant
problem is that, because of fire safety regulations, very few theaters or
museums can still show these prints (Remember the projection booth fire in Cinema Paradiso? That wasn’t the product
of a writer’s imagination.)

Fortunately,
the 500-seat Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House is one exception. “At a
time when the future of film is confronted with the reality of digital as a
dominant form of visual expression, there is an emerging need to celebrate the
achievements of cinema as a photochemical medium,” said Paolo Cherchi Usai, Eastman
House’s Senior Curator of Moving Image. “There is an inherent beauty—a true
‘aura’—in moving images made on nitrate stock.”

So what’s the
big deal about watching a nitrate print as opposed to one reprinted on safety film?
If the picture was made in Technicolor during the 1930s and ’40s, nothing can
compare to an original print made in the dye-transfer process. It’s best
described as eye-popping; a safety print may look great, but not quite as vivid.
That’s one reason the opening night attraction in Rochester is A Star is Born (1937) with the
director’s son, William Wellman, Jr., in person.

Roger Corman Serge Bromberg-Nitrate FilmBlack &
white films look just as stunning. I remember the first time I became aware of nitrate:
in the early 1970s, the legendary Henri Langlois brought some treasures from
the Cinémathèque Française to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
When I saw The Big Trail (1930) I
couldn’t get over the razor-sharpness of the images or the “true” black in that
black & white print. I’d never seen anything like it before. (One can only
imagine what such a print would look like projected on an old-fashioned reflective
silver screen.)

In any case, I
envy my many friends and colleagues who will revel in the screening of rare and
one-of-a-kind prints this weekend and get to meet film historians Kevin
Brownlow, David Bordwell and Roger Smither. I’m sure the Eastman House’s key
curators and preservationists will be on hand, as well. Bravo to all of them
for putting on this ambitious show. I hope it’s successful enough to warrant a
second gathering, and that I’ll be able to attend.

If you still want to get in on the fun,
check for ticket availability HERE.

7 comments

  1. Karen Colizzi Noonan says:

    You were missed, Leonard! The selection of films was first rate, the Technicolor ones were, as you say, eye popping. The black and white titles were a revelation to me as this was my first experience with projected nitrate film. A very cozy and intimate way to enjoy this unique experience, the Dryden is the perfect venue. BRAVO to the Eastman staff for great selection and execution. Many happy attendees left Rochester ready for more next year.

  2. Ali Stevenson says:

    In 1994 I saw the Rogue Song nitrate reel at the Prague archive with my good friend Bram Reijnhoudt. The two-strip Technicolor was stunning, like an oil painting come to life. The colors were vivid and the details razor-sharp. Sadly, no one can see this now as the archive no longer has the original footage. The safety print is nowhere near as good.

  3. MM says:

    I remember the rolls of nitrate film that our museum’s librarian/research director stored in a refrigerator. Fortunately, he got a grant to transfer these films to safer stock.
    MM-Santa Barbara

  4. CASTLE MAN says:

    In a twist of irony that sort of rules my life, I just so happened to have watched the amazing documentary "These Amazing Shadows" last night. This is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen on the film restoration process. Nitrate films are discussed in great detail. For anyone who has yet to see this documentary, it’s definitely worth a viewing. Of course, our man Leonard appears in the film with some great insight as well.

  5. C.C. says:

    I just got back from the Eastman house on Sunday, after seeing the last day of the Technicolor Exhibition. I learnt of the Nitrate show that day! Too bad I am going to miss it too!
    Ihave a felling there will be more shows- but I hope they get the word out. People were grumbling that, although they made the announcement of the Nitrate show- they did NOT divulge the actual film they were showing until the eleventh hour. I would have gone anyway- but I see their point. I also learned that Eastman is one of only 3 places liscensed to show nitrate films. I believe UCLA is another…
    I do want to hear about how the screening went, because I don’t know if Eastman did their showing on a silver empregnated movie screen (aka- the ‘Silver Screen’). I hope so- because if Eastman doesn’t do that, who would?!
    Either way, it is VERY exciting that we will have a chance to see the ‘real’ thing at some point!

  6. Nat Segaloff says:

    Wish I were there, too. Many years ago I saw — at an illegal screening, natch — a nitrate print of Carol Reed’s "The Third Man," the film which most people cite when they describe how the images glisten from the screen. It was life-changing — any cynicism I may have had about movies was burned away by the glow of a REAL one. Those of us who have prowled through film archives are indeed fortunate, as you are to have handled "The Great Train Robbery," an actual relic.

  7. Steve in Manhattan says:

    Interesting that there isn’t yet a process for transferring the film to a safe medium that preserves the condition of the original.

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