The Death of the Past: On the 2019 Nitrate Picture Show

By Mark Cutler

In the first weekend of May, after some late snowfall had cleared, the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York held the fifth annual Nitrate Picture Show. Nitrate film stock, manufactured until 1952, was the dominant medium on which all kinds of films were shot and projected for roughly the first sixty years of cinema’s lifespan. Now, it is scarcely projected. Devotees of the medium insist on its unparalleled beauty, its depth of colour, its dark blacks and brilliant whites. They will tell you you’ve never really seen a classic film—Casablanca, Black Narcissus—until you’ve seen it on nitrate. They compare it to a religious experience.

The lineup of the Picture Show comprises ten screenings over three days, and the films are kept secret until the morning of the first day. Despite this, people travel from across the US, and even internationally, to attend. Roughly half of these travellers are ‘in conservation’—in the industry of preserving and restoring film. The world of conservation is tight-knit but widely dispersed. The archives where people end up working tend to be small and out of the way—New York’s Museum of Modern Art, for instance, stores its illustrious collection at a site in Hamlin, Pennsylvania. For these professionals, then, the Picture Show functions like a conference. Former classmates and coworkers update one another on their latest job and latest city of residence, talk shop, and gossip.

The rest in attendance are mostly slightly older and slightly more affluent movie lovers, for whom the Picture Show is often just a stop on a national (and sometimes international) tour of similar film revival events. Many of them are drawn more by the nostalgia of a bygone era of film, than by a technical interest in the medium on which that film was shot and projected. When talking to me about the Picture Show, several liken it, favorably, to the experience of watching Turner Classic Movies.

For a long time, media had a reliably greater longevity than the typical human life. Clay tablets and carved stone slabs have lasted millennia; books can survive multiple centuries and still be read. Most nitrate stock, by contrast, has struggled to reach retirement age. It is highly inflammable—so much so that it can spontaneously combust at sufficient temperatures; so much so that it can burn underwater. Once it is alight, it provides itself with the oxygen it needs to keep burning. This chemical propensity for self-immolation, combined with the economic necessity of archiving film in relatively confined spaces, accounts for nitrate’s present scarcity. Thousands of silent films and hundreds of thousands of hours of newsreels, documentary footage and other irreplaceable records of our world and culture have been lost, in catastrophic fires, including major ones in 1897, 1914, 1915, 1920, 1928, 1929, 1937, 1965, and 1978.


One of the Nitrate Picture Show’s branded items


All of the Nitrate Picture Show’s branding emphasises this famous tendency to explode. It is this propensity which, in part, makes the festival such a rare event. The Eastman Museum is one of only three venues in the United States which is legally licensed to project nitrate films. The festival’s tagline—Film is Cool. Nitrate is Hot.—is everywhere, on posters, flyers, badges and enamel pins. The tote bags we receive come with a branded box of matches, along with the usual lanyard, notebook and dozen loose PR leaflets. The matchbox says “Do not strike near nitrate.”

So yes, nitrate sometimes catches fire. Arguably, however, the real problem for preservationists is that it is always shrinking. No matter where or how it is stored, the film stock is always off-gassing, perpetually losing matter in one long, unstoppable and irreversible chemical reaction. Consequently, a reel of film is always getting physically smaller and more brittle, shrivelling in the can. It is this shrinking above all else which determines whether or not a given reel is in screening condition. In our festival programs, every film lists a shrinkage percentage in addition to the usual director, date and duration. These films can be screened because they have only shrunk by around 0.7% on average, though one has shrunk by just over 1%. After that, the distance between perforations—called the pitch—becomes too small. Once the perforations are too close together, the film cannot be projected without risk of misaligning, jamming or simply tearing apart.

This process of shrinkage is, moreover, unpredictable, even for the experts. The very act of projection introduces variables which can rapidly change the properties of a reel. One screening can take a reel permanently out of commission. We are told on the first day that a reel from the Eastman’s copy of The Red Shoes which they last screened four months ago, has now shrunk too much to be safely projected. It is the reel containing the famous dance sequence, one of the most beautiful in film history.

On the first morning, we bus out to the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Centre. It is a shockingly small building, comprising just one office space, a few workstations, and the near-freezing vaults where 24,000 reels of film are stacked on shelves that number nearly thirty-high. Side by side, on a bench outside the vaults, sit a reel of camera negatives from the filming of Gone With The Wind, as well as a reel from a 1914, eight-hour Christian epic called The Photo-Drama of Creation. Nearby is a bin where preservationists dispose of too far gone film. I open the lid of the bin and lean down; it smells surprisingly like severe body odour.

The vaults themselves are long, dark, and roughly wide enough for two skinny people to squeeze past each other. Deborah Stoiber, the collection manager and co-director of the Picture Show, explains to us that they are designed so that a fire in one cannot spread to another. Nitrate stock can ignite from as little as hot air through a vent. Consequently, each vault has its own, isolated ventilation system, so that a total inferno in one vault would not pose a threat to its immediate neighbours.

“They’re almost like little tombs,” she says.

At one point, it was thought that most surviving nitrate film would have degraded by the year 2000. This ducted-off, cold-storage method apparently buys the films another five hundred years before they shrivel and finally melt into an acrid goo.

“But none of the nitrate films would be in screening condition for that long,” I ask.

“Oh, no,” she says, stretching the final o into a long, falling glissando. I ask how many years she thinks it will be before the last nitrate film is screenable for the last time. She is reluctant to state a number, reeling off a list of confounding factors and unknowable variables—“but,” she says, “it’s only a matter of time.”

Back at the Eastman, volunteers sit at light-box desks with reels of nitrate. Visitors can inspect and even touch them, provided they don a pair of white cotton gloves. I walk up to one volunteer, who pulls a length of the reel taut between her hands. She tells me that it is footage—‘test’ footage—of the atomic blast at Nagasaki, taken from the plane that dropped the bomb. This particular stretch of the film, however, does not look like the killing of more than forty-thousand civilians. In fact, I cannot make out what’s happening at all. Pale, fleshy bubbles seem to bloom out of a rippling, bluish-green sea. Frankly, it looks like a petri dish.


Nagasaki bombing film reel


“This reel is in excellent condition,” the volunteer explains. “As far as we can tell, it’s only ever been projected one time. It’s a testament to Technicolor’s color stability that it hasn’t faded at all.” I ask if this footage, being in such good condition, will ever be projected again. It will probably not. Although it is just a copy of the footage, it’s the only copy in the museum’s collection. To project it would only speed its decay.

The lineup of the Nitrate Picture Show ranges from the acclaimed to the obscure to the truly obscure. This is, I think, by necessity as much as choice. It is true of course that the more canonical or popular a film is, the more likely that all nitrate prints of it were worn out decades ago. The more acclaimed films in the history of the Picture Show have, for this reason, generally been secured from personal collections of the directors or producers who made them—and even these are often quite scratched and heavily shrunk.

Yet the Picture Show itself serves as a kind of argument against the critical canon. In total, the co-directors offered what seem to be three distinct aims in their curation:

  1. To screen great films in the format in which they were originally shot and first seen by audiences—to recreate as faithfully as possible the experience of seeing Black Narcissus or Spellbound when those films first premiered.

  2. To screen the most beautiful nitrate prints that they can find—to show off what the medium was capable of on a purely technical level, irrespective of the artistic or dramatic strengths of the films being shown.

  3. To screen a representative sample of the nitrate films in existence—including historically and artistically overlooked forms of filmmaking (newsreels and travelogues, for instance) as well as genre films that have never been revived or critically reappraised.

It is probably the first category of film which compels people to trek to Rochester for this festival. Younger cineastes fill out the Dryden theatre’s five-hundred-seat capacity for famous classics like Buñuel’s L’age d’Or and Hitchcock’s Rebecca. (For the latter, the entry line formed almost ninety minutes before the screening was scheduled to begin.) Many of the older attendees, meanwhile, have little interest in the films they disparage as ‘European’. They most enjoy the obscure comedies, westerns and noirs which have otherwise been relegated to obscurity by decades of critical consensus.

The programmers of the Picture Show make no pretense of every film on the lineup being an unequivocal classic. Because most attendees buy weekend passes without even knowing the lineup, the organisers are happily under little pressure to ‘sell’ the films to prospective audiences. Accordingly, the festival program includes not the most glowing pull-quotes, but the liveliest—including some which border on scathing. On Preston Sturges’s The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend, one quote remarks that “strident noise mercifully makes most of the dialogue inaudible.”

In this way, the Picture Show leans in to the inherent camp of watching a B-western, in a grape-purple theatre, in the largest, grandest mansion on a street of very grand mansions in upstate New York. The weekend does not have the stolid air of a retrospective, but rather feels like a cinematic potluck, where a few bad dishes are part of the fun.

It is the films in the second and third of the above categories which sustain this feeling, and which, for me, proved to be the most compelling reason to attend the Picture Show itself. Among them were Counsellor-at-Law (William Wyler, 1933), a nervy adaptation of a Manhattan-set stage play. The fairly simple film produces a dizzying sensation, by following its characters between the set’s five or so rooms with more frequent and abrupt cuts than Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman.

Dead Reckoning (John Cromwell, 1947) is a hard-boiled, by-the-numbers Humphrey Bogart vehicle which I might otherwise never have heard of, let alone seen. Yet it left me with one of my favourite images of the weekend: Bogart, on the balcony or by the window of his hotel room, in front of what is obviously a grey screen on which are projected the night lights of a vast cityscape. It is a striking visual, perfectly typical of film noir’s ability, at its best, to exaggerate cinematic artifice to a point of haunting beauty.

Touches like these cannot elevate a mediocre film to greatness, but they are small, cinematic revelations which it is hard to imagine having anywhere but at the Picture Show. These are films unlikely to be restored or re-released, let alone projected in a theatre. Yet every one is full of cinematic choices which are sometimes idiosyncratic and and sometimes sublimely beautiful. Of the more well-known films, John Ford’s 1942 footage of the battle of Midway was another unexpected highlight. Shooting under the extreme duress of an aerial ambush, Ford never loses his talent for framing the action in breathtaking landscapes. Almost every shot of the short documentary is slathered with vast planes of rich color: the hot whitish-yellow of Midway’s sand dunes, a cyan sky, an ocean which seems now silver, now sapphire, now black as it mirrors a thick column of rising smoke.

Nitrate film is, as promised, extremely vivid—but this vividness had effects I did not anticipate. Through many of the features, I was unusually and keenly aware that I was watching actors on sets. Such was the case for Hitchcock’s Rebecca. It is a film I’ve seen many times, which had always retained for me an otherworldly quality, as though Hitchcock did not film it but conjured it, fully formed, from a fairy tale. In those viewings, Judith Anderson’s brilliant performance as Mrs. Danvers—so often described as ghostly—only reinforced this sense. Yet here, for the first time, Anderson struck me as too young for the role, too alive. I saw more clearly a beautiful actress working her ass off to play this supposedly ancient, bitter, woman. This distinct presence of the actors, the awareness that I was seeing actual people move about in rooms, cut right through the dream-logic of the film. I found myself most often thinking: these people are completely insane.

I can’t quite count myself among the many devotees for whom nitrate, as a physical medium, strictly improves whatever is projected off of it. It is, for me simply a different experience, with its own textures, qualities and quirks. Of course, for the cinema-obsessed, this difference alone makes suffices to make the the Picture Show an essential trip. There is, too, an undeniable advantage in seeing a copy of a film which hasn’t undergone several cross-media transfers, and which therefore suffers none of the distortions introduced at each step.

However, once we arrive, it’s the films, and not the film stock, which capture our attention. Eventually, a memory of the physical sensation of seeing begins to blur, and fade. Much as we may admire it in the moment, we cannot hold on to the quale of a particular shade of scarlet or cobalt, of a particular glimmer, or shadow, or silvery sheen. Rather, what remains in memory are moments, performances, costumes, choreographies—in short, the decisions, all made by people, in brightly-lit rooms, almost a century ago. These decisions compose the essence of cinema, and nitrate ultimately succeeds as a medium only insofar as it brings us closer to them.

What makes the Nitrate Picture Show worth going to, year after year, is its celebration of these decisions, of the work of making cinema—as well as the subsequent decades of work, done by countless archivists around the world, to preserve those decisions for our eyes. Yet beneath the celebration, beneath all the winking quips about fire, it is hard not to feel a sense of immense loss. So much history has already disappeared, and—despite enormous investments of time, talent and money—more disappears every month. Soon, many of these films won’t be capable of projection—and those that are, still won’t be projected. Those who truly love nitrate as a medium face a dilemma with two unhappy outcomes: whether to screen the films as they were always intended to be screened and risk destroying them, or to preserve them, unseen and untouched, in a cold, dark room, in a building just outside the city limits of Rochester, New York?

The last screening is another Archers film, Gone To Earth. Its end is something of an anticlimax. There are no final speeches, or lingering conversations. People squeeze through the exits and fan out to cars and taxis. As with a conference, people have arranged for transport for as soon as possible after the end of the Show. Many—myself included—have brought their luggage. My overnight bus back to New York City is late, and takes hours longer than I expected. I arrive, sleepless, in New York City on Monday morning. I shower and climb in to bed. On my laptop I watch the dance sequence from The Red Shoes. If I’m being honest, I start to cry.