297: Nitrate Film Fest

Archival Spaces 297

Nitrate Picture Show at George Eastman Museum

Uploaded 10 June 2022

After a two-year hiatus, due to the COVID Pandemic, the 6th Nitrate Picture Show was held in Rochester, N.Y. between 2 – 5 June 2022 at George Eastman Museum. Organized by the GEM Film Department’s relatively new curator, Peter Bagrov, the festival included twelve feature films from five countries and a host of shorts. The prints came from as far away as Tokyo and Paris and as close as GEM’s own nitrate vaults, but also from the Museum of Modern Art, the Academy Film Archive, the Library of Congress, and UCLA. Given the severe restrictions on the shipment of nitrate anywhere, one must applaud the very real ingenuity and perseverance necessary for the task. At the opening, Bagrov noted that this film festival had a limited life span because it was becoming increasingly difficult to find projectable nitrate prints, but he hoped to continue the Nitrate Picture Show for at least another ten years, which may or may not be optimistic.

Pat Loughney, Paolo Cherchi Usai, Peter Bagrov, Chris Horak, four George EastmanMuseum film curators at the Nitrate Picture Show.

In 1889, Eastman Kodak began commercial production of nitrate base film, which was delivered to Thomas Edison in 1892 as cellulose nitrate. It was a pyroxylin plastic, made up of organic material. Cotton or wood fiber was treated with a mixture of nitric and sulfuric acids. It was then processed with the addition of solvents, plasticizers, and flame retardants. The result in chemical terms was a nitrate ester of cellulose with the following chemical formula: [C6H9O5(NO2) ] n. This base material is then mixed into a viscous solution with solvent and a plasticizer and spread on a slow-moving, heated, chromium-plated drum. The solvent then evaporates through the influence of heat, leaving a thin layer of film. The technique of solvent casting had to be very precise so that the film had a uniform thickness. Unfortunately, the solvent can’t be completely removed, leading the film to shrink as the solvent continues to evaporate over a period of years. However, this first motion picture base met all the criteria needed for projecting moving images. It was strong, flexible, maintained its shape under varying conditions, and was virtually transparent. Only material of superior strength could hold up in the film projector, given the millimeter separations between perforations. Eastman originally delivered the film in 70mm rolls, which were then sliced into 35mm rolls, creating a standard that lasted over one hundred years.

Decaying and combusting nitrate film

The problem with nitrate base motion picture film was that it was chemically unstable. In particular, it was highly flammable, having a very low flash point. According to A.S.A. testing, nitrate film can self-ignite at a temperature of 300 degrees F., and decomposing nitrate in unventilated conditions has been known to ignite at temperatures as low as 125 degrees F. The base will invariably shrink with age. The degree of shrinkage is measured with a micrometer gauge, which can then be translated into percentages. If a film’s base shrinks more than 2%, the film will no longer run smoothly through a projector, since the distance between perforations has changed too much, causing the pulldown mechanism in the projector to tear the film. Finding nitrate prints with an acceptable shrinkage becomes more difficult with each passing year.

Due to a late-arriving flight and other commitments, I missed a number of films, including William Dieterle’s The Portrait of Jennie (1948), Western Approaches (1944, Pat Jackson), a Technicolor documentary drama of merchant seaman, the newly discovered Trail of the Hawk (1935-50, Edward Dmytryk), a rereleased B-Western with additional footage, Marcel Carne’s Le Jour se léve (1939), and this year’s final “blind date,” Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (1940). Other films I had previously seen included Schlussakkord (1937, Douglas Sirk), The Unholy Three (1927, Jack Conway), and G.PW. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925). Indeed, I had used the very same extremely abridged print of the latter – bought by James Card from a Cleveland junk dealer – to complete my 1998 Munich Film Museum restoration of Die freudlose Gasse.

For me, the biggest discovery was Mikio Naruse’s Meshi / Repast (1951), which was not only the most immaculate nitrate print I have ever seen but also close to a masterpiece. After seeing Apart From You (1933) at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (see https://archivalspaces.com/2022/05/13/295-sfsff/), and Naruse’s first surviving film, No Blood Relation (1932) on TCM last month, I now consider Naruse equal to Kenji Mizoguchi as a director of women. Setsuko Hara – one of Ozu’s favorite actresses – plays a housewife who has moved to Osaka from Tokyo with her husband, but now finds her life has been reduced to the endless drudgery of housework, while her husband becomes insensitive to her emotional needs; she wants to return to work, but there are no jobs. Utilizing a minimum of dialogue, Naruse employs closely framed shots and associative editing to construct a feminist narrative that despite its over-determined happy ending articulates numerous questions about women and gender in post-war Japan. It also made me realize that Naruse’s pre and postwar films are all of a piece in their concerns over gender relations and female desire.

Shockingly, I had never seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), a Technicolor feature famous for the director’s attempt to film the whole story in a single take by shooting ten-minute takes on a single set that are invisibly edited.  Based on the infamous Leopold-Loeb murder, two wealthy friends murder a mutual friend, store the corpse in a trunk and then invite family and friends to a dinner party, staged on the trunk. Like Meshi, the 35mm nitrate print of Rope was flawless, except for the change-over marks which most people don’t even see. It is clear that Hitchcock’s intricate camera movement took significant planning and rehearsal, but also forces the viewer to contemplate the characters’ every action as if a participant in the room. Made three years after the defeat of Adolf Hitler, the film is Hitchcock’s meditation on the Nazi’s belief in the Arayan superman to justify the immorality of murder and genocide. Not three years before, Hitchcock had directed a documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey (1945/2014), after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen KZ, released only decades later as Memory of the Camps (1945/2014).

I also had never viewed Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown 1946), maybe the only surviving Lubitsch I had not seen in my 49 years of research on Lubitsch. It is out on video, but I’m so happy I waited for this near-perfect nitrate print. I’ve always thought that nitrate shined most in black and white, the silver nitrate shimmering with a luminosity that acetate film never duplicated. Kodak chemists told me it was all in my head.

The romantic comedy takes place in pre-war London and concerns Cluny Brown’s young female domestic who is continuously criticized for not knowing her place but is also mentored by a free-spirited European refugee who seemingly actively undermines the rigid British class system. While Peter Bagrov argued that the film was an under-rated masterpiece, I found it a sweet comedy, but certainly not in the same class as Ninotchka  (1939) and The Shop Around the Corner (1940), maybe because the December-May romance between Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones stretches credulity, especially in our “Me, Too” era.   

One can only hope that Peter’s prediction about the longevity of the nitrate viewing experience will come to pass, but even then, seeing original first-generation film prints in all their visual glory is now officially a once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially for those of us who mourne the end of the analog era.

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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