Saturday, May 06, 2017

Watching nitrate in Rochester: The Nitrate Picture Show (2017)

After the FIAF Congress in Los Angeles I returned to Helsinki via Rochester to participate for two days in the already legendary The Nitrate Picture Show, now in its third edition at the George Eastman Museum. The organization runs smoothly, the staff creates an atmosphere of professionalism and hospitality, and the knowledgeable audience comes from all over the United States, Canada* and the world to see nitrate. (*We are not far from the border located as we are by Lake Ontario, near the Niagara Falls).

I have seen and/or programmed more than a thousand nitrate screenings myself, but that does not make me blasé about a festival like this. Rather it enhances my appreciation and admiration to see things this well done. The dynamics and the balance of the programme is electrifying: from velvety black and white to glorious Technicolor, from the unworldly escapism of a Hollywood musical to classic documentaries of concentration camps and slaughterhouses. I regret having to leave early and missing the last day of the festival to face an ultra busy week at the office in Helsinki.

Some titles are well-known such as Early Summer or Anchors Aweigh. In the age of perfect digital home formats and brilliant DCP's such titles are easily available. But increasingly even digital natives, young cinephiles, notice the difference between film and digital.

The digital experience is impeccable, but somehow the visual impact remains more on a surface level. Visually, the film experience remains definitive perhaps since the cinema has much to do with the unconscious, and in a way that many cinephiles recognize but find hard to explain a film viewing is more profoundly engrossing, more gripping, more unsettling, and more subtle. My theory is that it has something to do with the organic quality of the film material.

For me the main distinction is not nitrate itself but seeing a vintage print, to see how the film was originally meant to look. In the nitrate era most prints were struck directly from the negative, without internegatives. That was at least the case in Nordic countries. It is breathtaking to watch the naked original image without the veil and distance that inevitably emerges with internegatives and duplication. Also a digital file we now can produce directly from the original negative, but the image is computerized into ones and zeros and transformed into something different, certainly in many ways better ‒ sharper, brighter ‒ yet no longer giving us the original, but a reinterpretation.

We must be increasingly grateful for opportunities such as The Nitrate Picture Show showing us the original vision. The refined soft watercolour imagery in Early Summer. The boldly fantastic warm Technicolor of Anchors Aweigh. The primal experience in Le Sang des bêtes.

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