My Date with Nitrate at The George Eastman House’s first ever “The Nitrate Picture Show”

Upon reading everyone’s (fabulously written) posts about their experience at The Nitrate Picture Show, I became fearful of even writing a post about my own experience with nitrate. Not because of the wonderfully detailed and precise words that evoked how they felt as the colors washed over them and bathed them in complete awe and almost ecstasy, but because what drew my breath away was something much different.

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“Sherlock Jr.” (1924)

After the festival I worried that I did not have the ~correct~ nitrate experience, and, because of that, I must not be a true film lover. After banishing my insecurity aside, I reminded myself there is no such thing as a “right” experience; each viewer brings his or her own thoughts and experiences into the theatre with them, and this was my experience.

Before I go any further, I’d like to briefly digress to one of my favorite films, Sherlock, Jr. About twenty minutes into the film, Buster falls asleep whilst running the film projector at the local movie theatre. While he sleeps his ~dreaming ghost~ self emerges from the real Buster. As his ghost-self watches the movie, he ends up projecting the people from his life onto the characters in the film. On the screen he sees his rival with Buster’s girl. Angered, Buster goes up the film screen and literally walks right into the film. From there perhaps one of greatest special effects ever takes place as the scenery continuously changes on the screen, leaving Buster unable to get into the scene he needs to be in.

I had always found this scene hilarious and quite desirable. I mean, how fun would it be to literally jump into the film of your choice? However I don’t think I completely understood its seeming effortlessness until I saw nitrate projected. Once I saw nitrate, the joke and the basis of the gag made so much sense, as film on this nitrate stock was so lifelike that it felt like you could literally walk right into the screen and be another world! In other words, what was struck me about nitrate was its ability to depict lifelike, realistic images of people, objects, background, basically anything! This connection for me instantly clicked when I saw a deep focus shot of a hallway in Black Narcissus; I felt like if I got up from my seat and decide to pull a Sherlock Jr. moment, the back of the Dryden Theatre would extend into the depths of the deep-focus cinematography and take me into the creepy home of the nuns in the Himalayas.

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“Portrait of Jennie” (1948)

When I say lifelike, I do not mean like the creepy Blu-ray ~real life~ quality, but this tangibility that one feels in real life but providing a luminosity that only the magic of the movies (or more appropriately nitrate) can offer. It seems so simplistic and ridiculous to pinpoint nitrate’s close depiction of life because we have blu-ray and 8K; but believe what you have read, it is quite true that there are hardly words to accurately describe nitrate. So many times during Portrait of Jennie I wanted to reach out and touch Joseph Cotten’s gorgeous face because it felt genuinely possible. So much so that just imagining doing so would release the feelings of physical touch. It’s quite amazing, actually. (Here is where I will admit that I was having quite a love affair with Joseph Cotten throughout that entire film. Be warned now: Joseph Cotten on nitrate is quite dangerous).

There were so many moments like this where I would see objects and I could imagine reaching out and feeling its texture: the scratchiness of Samson’s wool coat in Samson & Delilah, the cool slickness of Gene Tierney’s blue satin shoes in Leave Her to Heaven, the tiny dip in Carole Lombard’s scar in Nothing Sacred. These touch-sensory objects gravitated me into the film in a way I’ve never been before.

I found myself questioning my observations and awes with each film I saw, questioning if I am a true film lover because I’m NOT obsessing and talking about the range of the colors and hues. Rather I’m so focused on its real life quality! I mean all I had read before was about nitrate’s tonal quality and its ability to bring the colors to life. Was I missing the point of nitrate and mixing it with watching film prints in general? Yet I didn’t remember ever stopping for a moment during a 35mm film to think about how lifelike the image was, how I could easily reach in and wipe the sweat off of an actor’s face if I wanted. Just with that alone, I would think that it means I am seeing a difference between nitrate and safety stock!

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“Portrait of Jennie” (1948)

Whatever the case, and whatever this means about my experience as a film viewer and lover, all I know is that I was sucked in. I was sucked in and became a believer in the difference of nitrate. I think the film that affected me the most in this way was Portrait of Jennie. I don’t know if my words could ever eloquently evoke the emotion like Nitrate Diva did in her beautiful post, but it was very much along those lines. While I never cried myself, there were so many shots that just moved me beyond words, images that became ingrained in my mind that I do not think they will ever leave me.

Sometimes before I go to sleep at night, I search through my imaginary knapsack of images I collected from the nitrate prints I saw in Rochester. I marvel and relish them because I’m not sure the next time I’ll see a nitrate film. Once I finish with them, I become more ambitious and dream about images from films I’ve seen that I know would look exceptionally beautiful on nitrate: Kim Novak’s Madeline profile shot in Vertigo, Rita Hayworth’s “Put the Blame on Mame” dance number in Gilda (or just Rita Hayworth in general), Scarlett promising herself she will never go hungry again in Gone With the Wind, Buster Keaton’s wild and unruly hair in The General, Laura and Alec on the rowboat in Brief Encounter, the medium close-up of Joan Crawford in the beginning of Mildred Pierce, Barbara Stanwyck lightly tugging on her handkerchief and crying at the end of Stella Dallas; so many shots from films that I find I need to stop myself or I’ll burst. I cannot believe this is what the typical moving going audience saw when they went to the movies. How lucky they were to see films in such a glorious, stunning, and lifelike medium.

If there is only one thing I can say about nitrate, it is that it brings the movies to life.