If you're not a cinema history buff, it's entirely possible that you're unfamiliar with nitrate film. If you've heard of it at all, you're probably most aware of the format's notorious tendency to catch fire and burn down movie theaters. And over the years, nitrate's volatile reputation has only grown, thanks to memorable scenes of theatrical destruction in "Cinema Paradiso," "Inglourious Basterds," and "The Artist."
The desire to rectify this reputation has led to the creation of The Nitrate Picture Show, the world's first Festival of Film Conservation. The festival will be held at the George Eastman House on Friday, May 1, through Sunday, May 3. The Nitrate Picture Show will give cinephiles a chance to celebrate a format that existed only for the first 55 years of motion pictures.
Nitrate film base was the first used in the production of motion picture film, but the format's unstable nature led to its eventual discontinuation in 1951, when the industry switched to acetate "safety film." Compared to later techniques, the nitrate process allowed for a more true reproduction of color, and its higher silver content brings a greater contrast in black and white films. Nitrate offers a picture quality that is unparalleled, but beyond the aesthetic properties of the form, the screenings themselves offer a unique experience.
The Dryden is one of only a handful of venues in the world still licensed to screen nitrate film, meaning that few audiences still have the chance to see these movies presented exactly as viewers of the time were able to. The Eastman House has been preserving film for 65 years now, and the museum is renowned for its conservation efforts.
The Nitrate Picture Show will feature nine programs of movies screened on vintage 35mm nitrate film. Though the specific titles are being kept under wraps until the moment the screenings begin, the festival's programmers say the lineup highlights a broad spectrum of films from the era: black and white and color, recognized classics and forgotten masterpieces, features and shorts, each selected as a great representation of the nitrate format.
On one hand, the mystery is obviously meant to build up anticipation, but as Dryden Curator of Film Exhibitions Jurij Meden and Head of Collection Information Jared Case explain, it also functions to encourage viewers to look beyond the content of the movies and focus on the film itself and the sensory experience that it provides.
"You can see pictures of the Eiffel Tower all over the internet," Case says. "But people don't travel all the way to France to see digital images of the Eiffel Tower, they go to see the Eiffel Tower. They go to experience the size and scope of it because that can't be captured in a digital presentation."
The Dryden, on Thursday night, will screen William Wellman's 1937 classic, "A Star is Born." The director's son, William Wellman Jr., will be in attendance to present the film and to talk about his recently published biography of his father, "Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel." In addition to the festival's film screenings, there will be a host of other events — from book signings to panel discussions — providing a crash-course education for attendees.
Throughout Friday, the museum will host several book discussions and signings with film scholars including Roger Smither ("This Film Is Dangerous"), David Bordwell ("On the History of Film Style"), and Kevin Brownlow ("The Parade's Gone By" manifesto of film preservation). That evening brings The Safety Net, a presentation of films about nitrate, including the British short "This Film is Dangerous" (from which Smither's book takes its name), and an amazing-sounding superhero serial pastiche from 1966, called "Captain Celluloid vs. the Film Pirates."
On Saturday evening, senior curator Paolo Cherchi Usai will host the Burning Passions roundtable discussion with an international panel of experts speaking about the history and importance of nitrate. Other festival events include a workshop demonstrating the process behind the creation of nitrate film (sold out at the time of this writing) as well as tours of the Dryden's projection booth. Each night's screenings will be followed by an after-hours gathering at Skylark Lounge (40 South Union Street), giving patrons a great way to wind down after a day spent getting hopped-up on cinema.
"I think one of the reasons why film has always had a hard time being recognized as art is because it was always mechanically reproduced," Meden says. "Now, as we've stepped into the digital era, we are becoming increasingly aware that each film print is not just a replica — a duplicate — of something, but is a unique object with its own inherent qualities and history. We're trying to raise awareness that every time we go to the Dryden and see a film, we are not just watching a picture, we are always witnessing a performance."
Full Weekend Passes for The Nitrate Picture Show are available for $150 ($125 for students and members), and Patron Passes for $250. Tickets for Thursday's "A Star is Born" preview event are $30 ($25 students and members). Individual film tickets are available through the box office on the day of each screening for $20 ($18 for students and members), though as for choosing which program to spring for, my best advice is to pick a random number from one to nine.