Sunday, May 06, 2018

The Nitrate Picture Show 2018

Until ten years ago we used to screen nitrate regularly in Finland. We even had extended retrospectives mostly based on nitrate prints, such as a retrospective of the director Ilmari Unho, one of the house directors of the Suomi-Filmi company. Also our Valentin Vaala retrospective was largely based on nitrate.

When films are image-driven, based on a painterly vision, "painting with light", to quote the title of the book by John Alton, it is essential to be able to refer to first generation prints to know what they are meant to look like.

The term "aura" used by Paolo Cherchi Usai in this context is of course paradoxical about works of mechanical reproduction. But there is in fact a "first generation" impact which has an affinity with the uniqueness of the "aura", something that can diminish or vanish in duplication. There are films that feel designed for nitrate.

Last year in Rochester was my first nitrate festival visit. (Until ten years ago we screened nitrate in Finland with a mundane approach, not with a festival approach, not making a big deal of it, perhaps out of superstition or because being self-conscious about something makes you nervous and you might make an irreversible mistake).

The Rochester experience proved that deep down this is not about technology. It is about art, the revelation in art. The screening of Yasujiro Ozu’s Bakushu / Early Summer revealed the refined softness of the cinematography, the sense of the ephemeral which is at the core of Ozu in many ways. In Rochester one gets thinking in concepts like "the sublime". I might add stronger words: ”the holy”, ”the sacred”, ”the divine”. Lux aeterna. That is what we are discovering.

Now that we for the moment have no home for nitrate viewing in Finland, a voyage to Rochester is a pilgrimage to the original light.

In the opening show of nitrate shorts we saw first Arne Sucksdorff's masterpiece Människor i stad (1947), a visual poem of Stockholm combining bird's eye views with grass roots observations. Lost Lake (1944, in Cinecolor) and Along the Rainbow Trail (1946, in Technicolor) were genial travelogues. Our Navy (1918) was the miracle of the show: a hundred year old print, a concrete memento of the WWI centenary, revealing a subtle and refined look of tinting and toning in an era when the fashion is for heavy tinting. Let's Go to the Movies (1949), a "movies are your best entertainment" kind of promotion piece from the Motion Picture Academy, was a document from the fatal years of cinemas facing an overwhelming competitor: television. The show climaxed with Len Lye's abstract animation classic Trade Tattoo (1937) screened in a print of breathtaking Technicolor. This is getting close to visual art in the traditional sense due to the handmade (painted on film) quality of Len Lye's work. The nearer you are to the original the stronger the impact.

The first feature film was Sommarlek / Summer Interlude (1951) by Ingmar Bergman, his first fully conceived masterpiece, his first great summer film, a film which promoted the first great Bergman heroine (Maj-Britt Nilsson), a meditation on the interplay of the past and the present – performance and life – art and life – and life and death. The concept is visual: the elusive mystique of the white nights as an expression of the transience of happiness. Fully conveyed in the magic of Gunnar Fischer's cinematography. In Helsinki we screened earlier this year the Bergman 100 DCP of Sommarlek. It is very well made but fails to convey the magic of Fischer's cinematography like this vintage nitrate print from Helsinki.

Of George Cukor's Holiday (1938) we saw a special print from UCLA Film and Television Archive: a print with a refined sepia toning. The shimmering quality of the nitrate added to the elegance of this stylish and wonderful film. We had been warned about streaking on the image, but it was easy to look beyond it and focus on the beauty of Franz Planer's cinematography.

A film which I had never seen before was Edmund Goulding's The Razor's Edge (1946), based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, a long, epic melodrama with an all star Fox cast. Set in the 1920s it is about two "lost generations": of the First World War, and of the stock market crash of 1929. Tyrone Power expands his scope in this study of a man who loses himself and reinvents himself after a journey of meditation to the Himalayas. The cinematography of Arthur C. Miller is stunning with long tracking shots. The gorgeous visual quality of the Academy Film Archive print makes sense of the complex composition in depth essential to follow a large cast of characters.

Another discovery followed: Mlhy na blatech / Mist on the Moors (1943) directed by František Čáp in Czechoslovakia, a drama of social consciousness first published in the beginning of the 20th century. It is also a lyrical account of life on the farms, forests and lakes in rural Czechoslovakia, bringing to mind associations with Gustav Machatý. There is an enchanting luminous quality in this vintage print from Národni filmový archiv of Prague.

Anthony Mann's Winchester '73 (1950) launched the greatest period of his career: his cycle of Westerns starring James Stewart who expanded his register profoundly as an agonized wanderer and anti-hero trying to make sense of his life after a traumatic defeat in the Civil War. A marvellous cast including Dan Duryea at his best. Shot by William H. Daniels in black and white with a film noir ambience including expressive silhouettes and shadows. My first experience of Anthony Mann in nitrate, the full impact of which was conveyed by this Library of Congress print.

The centerpiece of the festival was The Red Shoes (1948) by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger seen as a special presentation combining the vintage prints of George Eastman Museum and the Martin Scorsese Collection (a print reportedly donated by Michael Powell himself). The Red Shoes is often considered the most beautiful Technicolor film. I registered the softness of the image and the subdued quality of the colour palette. We plunge into a dreamspace of warm colour. The image is not sharp and clear. It is oneiric, vibrant, and radiant with warmth.

Cry of the City (1948) was another discovery for me, the only Robert Siodmak film noir that I have never seen before. His films noirs were generally produced by Universal, but this is a 20th Century-Fox production, and a solid one at that, starring Richard Conte and Victor Mature experiencing a dance of death as two childhood friends who as grown-ups find each other on opposite sides of the law, as a criminal and a policeman. The film communicates a genuine feeling of agony. On the other hand it is full of humoristic observation and brilliantly cast characters down to the bit parts. Lloyd Ahern had a short but distinguished career as a director of photography for theatrical films (he soon moved to television). He had learned his craft with masters like Otto Preminger. He can handle darkness and compose a dynamics of light powerfully, and this gorgeous MoMA print does full justice to him.

Vesyolye rebyata / Jolly Fellows (1934) directed by Grigori Aleksandrov was the first Soviet musical. It starred Lyubov Orlova, and the music was composed by Isaak Dunayevsky. The trio would be essential in a cycle of popular musicals made in Russia perhaps as escapism to forget the nightmarish reality of Stalin's terror, or perhaps as a counter-image to preserve a sense of joy, to be able to laugh at the madness of "real existing socialism". The print screened was from Österreichisches Filmmuseum, a 1958 reconstruction by Aleksandrov himself from the battered remains of his hit film.

"The blind date with nitrate" this year was Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran (1934), the final film of his "ethnofiction" trilogy preceded by Nanook and Moana. In his grand poetic vision Flaherty focuses on mythical grandeur and ignores ethnographical validity. In his search of a "paradise lost" he is interested in the humans' primordial relationship with forces of nature, ways of life long since vanished but still just barely possible to reconstruct with peoples living close to the nature. Gloriously disregarding actual practical, social, and religious conditions Flaherty pays tribute to something deeper in us, something ancient, creating a saga of human dignity and nobility beyond social structures. Aesthetically, Man of Aran belongs to the realm of the sublime. The stormy Atlantic Ocean is about to overwhelm the island with waves more magnificent than high-rise buildings. The visual look is based on fine shades of darkness. The vintage George Eastman Museum print deposited by the Flaherty estate reveals the original look from velvet blacks to silky whites.

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