My Photochemical Romance: The Nitrate Picture Show 2015

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“Love is a time machine up on the silver screen.”
—Noel Gallagher, “The Shock of the Lightning”

All the important things in life come down to questions of chemistry. 

What is love, in the end, but a felicitous cocktail of neurotransmitters? And what is classic cinema if not molecules rearranged by the kiss of light from bygone days—and conveyed on a strip of nitrocellulose, a substance so unstable and volatile that it can burn underwater? 

Our perceptions, no matter how lofty or spiritual, arise from chemical reactions, from formulae. The ethereal depends upon, and cannot be separated from, the material. There can be no mind without matter. Some people might recoil from that idea. Call it vulgar materialism if you’d like. Go right ahead. I call it transcendence. 

Last weekend, the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show stitched together dreams and reality, art and chemistry to produce a transcendent experience. Returned to the land of the living from their climate-controlled vaults, glorious 35mm nitrate prints, all struck between 1937 and 1949, conjured up the sights and sounds of classic films as audiences saw and heard them all those years ago.

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Unlike the dupes and digitizations of dupes that constitute just about everybody’s introduction to old movies, the cinema that blazed forth from the screen of the Dryden Theater returned to us in a startlingly undiluted form.

As my personal hero Kevin Brownlow pointed out, in studio-era Hollywood, “all those big cameramen had somebody in the lab who could do what they wanted… It’s very difficult for labs [today] to produce, even digitally, the effect of those original prints.” 

In other words, a nitrate original transmits the cinematographer’s vision—his actual intent—in a way that even an exquisite 35mm dupe or a pristine 8k restoration usually cannot replicate. Only a few venues in the world can project those visions caught on celluloid, and the Dryden Theater is one of them.

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“You’re going to have a unique experience,” Dr. Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator of motion pictures at the George Eastman House, told the intimate group of spectators. “You’re going to see very famous, iconic films in a way that most people in the world have never seen. And we hope that you will notice a difference, because there is a difference.”

Let me testify: yes, there is.

Imagine only ever seeing the sky filtered through sunglasses—then suddenly taking them off.

Movies I thought I knew, movies I’d seen dozens of times, appeared to me reborn, with fresh joys and terrors. And movies I’d never seen rushed at me with a force for which I was entirely unprepared. Nitrate is a fierce catalyst. Why, it can even turn back time. It can even raise the dead.

Nitrate Moments

They don’t make words vast enough to evoke nitrate black. There’s something eternal about it.

In Casablanca, Rick’s black bow-tie, gaping against the white of his crisp tropical tux, resembles a butterfly-shaped hole in his chest, a lyrical little void elegizing the man he once was, before his insides got kicked out. Similarly, as Ugarte begs him for help, a lattice of shadows crisscrosses the immaculate back of his dinner jacket—a detail that never caught my attention before—as though a net were holding him in the same trap as the sniveling parasite. 

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The surreal depth of nitrate noir chose some worthy objects of affection (worthy because I fancy them, too, that is). Pierre Fresnay’s sleek obsidian hair in The Man Who Knew Too Much crowns the secret agent with a dark halo as he wilts and gracefully expires on a dance floor, felled by a single bullet. In The Fallen Idol, Ralph Richardson’s onyx eyes glint with catch-light, sparkling like dying stars.

Movies invite viewers to collect moments and take souvenirs: an expression here, a movement there, a precious shot to hold on to like a rose pressed between book pages. The clarity of nitrate strengthened this mechanism of memory, searing certain images, certain touches of photogénie into my brain. The daisy in Rick’s buttonhole on that last day in Paris in Casablanca, the single man-tear of Wally’s that falls on Hazel’s hand in Nothing Sacred, or Ellen Berent’s cold teal eyes behind her tinted shades in Leave Her to Heaven. I’d never seen these things before, although they were there. Nitrate brought them out of hiding.

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Celluloid particularly seems to favor bodies of water, almost endowing them with personalities. The murky, acid-bath waves stretching for miles around a U-boat in Les Maudits churned and bubbled with malice. The dreamlike fishing spot that Sister Clodagh of Black Narcissus revisits in spirit blissfully glints—that’s Cardiff and the Archers reminding us, as they would do elsewhere, that heaven can be here on earth. 

The coppery sunset breakers, among which Norman Maine finds peace at last in A Star is Born, shimmered like the heat haze above a crucible. The crystalline surface of the lake at Back of the Moon in Leave Her to Heaven, a sunny witness to an unspeakable deed, sparkled like a sociopath’s smile.

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The Shock of the Lightning

At its best, cinema can fuse you into its fictions and unleash a torrent of emotions, so that you sit there in the dark and piously weep for strangers as you would for your own lost loves. Cinema can destroy you, as Portrait of Jennie destroyed me.

I cried three times, enough to erase my eyeliner and leave a permanent mark on my soul. Plenty of films have moved me to tears, but no movie has ever provoked the reaction Portrait did as I quietly sobbed in the third row of the Dryden Theater.

The silver nitrate hit me like Chartres blue, like Delacroix’s pigments, like the scent of apple blossoms in springtime. It affected me on a level beyond reason.

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As a matter of fact, in 1935, more than a decade before William Dieterle directed Jennie, he wrote, “What I have to say as a motion picture director, you can best read from the screen. There you find all that the subconscious force (the only real creator, in my opinion) has to tell.”

In the white-gloved hands of Herr Dieterle, fragile compounds formed into poetry. He tapped into that “subconscious force” as few others have. Dieterle inscribed a sense of melancholy and yearning into every shot of Jennie, whether she’s running out of the mist or skating towards the camera between silent sentinel skyscrapers or merely sitting curled up in Eben’s studio, her delicate features defined as a silhouette. 

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Even more impressive, during the film’s climactic tempest, the screen unfurled at both sides, widening into Magnascope. Toned an eerie shade of green, the silver-lined storm clouds suddenly swelled and expanded. The sky became a firmament. Images became incantations.

However, you have to open yourself up to a film before it opens up to you. The two young gentlemen (and I do use the term loosely) who sat a few seats down from me during Portrait of Jennie guffawed repeatedly. Sincerity spooks the insincere, I suppose, hence the nervous laughter. Like nonbelievers at a séance, they couldn’t feel the presence of the divine. They dammed themselves up against sentiment and, in so doing, perhaps damned themselves in another way. I pity them and were I the praying kind I’d pray for their enlightenment.

Many (most?) masterpieces flirt with silliness. Big ideas, artistic ambitions, and romantic gestures are all vaguely ridiculous. That absurdity is the price you pay for living in a world replete with marvels, not just snickering from the sidelines.

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David O. Selznick—no callow idealist by a long shot—prophetically gave himself over to sincerity and built a celluloid shrine to his future wife Jennifer Jones, keeping her forever young and enchanting as Jennie the struggling artist’s ghostly muse, forever vibrant and timeless as the Technicolor portrait that closes the film. The painter’s obsession parallels the producer’s adoration in a heady intermingling of art and life. 

Most of all, however, Portrait of Jennie is a ruminative, metaphysical valentine to cinema. Love and art alike can bestow immortality on mere mortals, but only film of all the arts sculpts time and space in their likeness. Only film preserves its beloved through what Bazin called “the mummification of change,” elevating certain chosen ones to surreal black-and-white demigods, photochemical archangels.

In the silvery shock of Jennie’s lightning, the triumphant power of the medium roars like thunder.

Time Without End

A book blocks the woman’s face.

Its title? Time Without End. Then she drops it, and the most beautiful creature in the world emerges from behind the drab book jacket. Her head droops onto her shoulder as the arid landscape continues to roll by outside the train compartment (which happens to be painted the exact same color as Gene Tierney’s eyes). 

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Like many apparently inconsequential details in Leave Her to Heaven, the book’s title subtly foreshadows the violent neurosis of the film’s protagonist. No boundaries, temporal or otherwise, exist for the morbidly jealous Ellen Berent. “I’ll never let you go, never, never, never,” she whispers from her deathbed. She wants to possess her beloved forever and fully expects to get whatever she wants.

However, as I sat in the Dryden, that title, Time Without End, took on another layer of significance. In a way, the nitrate had restored times past to those of us basking in its glow.

Reflecting on the festival, Dr. Cherchi Usai stressed the historical point of reference that nitrate brought to each screening. “I constantly had to remind myself: this is a nitrate print. This print has been screened many, many times since 1937, since 1945, and still is in such glorious shape.” 

So, when my eyes locked onto that screen, hungrily scrutinizing every frame of Leave Her to Heaven for the essence of nitrate, I saw what movie theater audiences saw in 1945—or as close as anyone will ever get to what they saw. I got to share the light, so to speak, that had washed over them.

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Every film viewing (or movie event, if I’m being pretentious) activates two levels of memory, one mechanical, one personal. First, even on a digital format, the “time machine” of cinema can transport us back to the era when a certain film was made. Second, each time I watch a movie, I watch with the memory of having watched it before; the effect is cumulative and subjective. The rhythm and flow of the film activates remembrance. It cannot be helped.

A vintage nitrate print, struck decades ago, endows the viewing experience with another stratum of time, a kind of phantom memory.

As I watch, I can say to myself, “I see now what they saw then.” That scratch, that hair, that grain. The original audiences must’ve seen it too. Some of them, at least. The print remembers.

Moreover, what they saw then harkened back to another then, both closer in relation to them (more recent) and just as faraway (fictional), a manipulated reality imprisoned on nitrate. Their then, what the film recorded, is years further from me than it was to them, yet it is paradoxically every bit as close: we are the same distance away from Gene Tierney, if you measure that distance by prints. 

All the thens stack up and overlap. Then is now, and now is then. The whole of time twists and coils upon itself, like a tangle of melting film stock.

Time without end indeed. 

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Flowers of Evil

On the final morning of the festival, Jared Case, head of motion picture collection information and access at the George Eastman House, remarked on an unintentional pattern in the programming. “There seems to be a theme throughout the weekend of twisted love,” he noted. “I don’t know what it says about us, hopefully nothing!” 

In particular, unhinged anti-heroines, from the eponymous temptress of Samson and Delilah to Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus to Mrs. Bains in The Fallen Idol, ruled the weekend. 

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The cataclysmic mix of rage and lust emanating from these she-devils hints at a quality inherent in the medium that conjured them. Danger and the thirst for danger. As Orson Welles once said, “Film has a personality, and that personality is self-destructive.”

On nitrate, cinema is a femme fatale. It is reality’s evil twin, beckoning to us with worldly beauty made otherworldly. It seduces us with lies and threatens to pull us into its self-destruction, its threatened immolation. It fools and taunts us with fragments of an exotic, unnatural past, a playlist of invented memories. It slays you. Gorgeously. 

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At the Nitrate Picture Show, Black Narcissus tormented me that way. I didn’t want it to end. Every cut, every dissolve filled me with despair. “Don’t take that shot away,” I wanted to cry out. “I wasn’t done looking at that!”

My mind tries in vain to recall the unholy intensity of the images, to summon the luminosity and saturation of the colors as I’d never seen them before. The giddy, vertiginous blues and greens of the cliff-sides. The countless shadings of Sister Clodagh’s habit. The enfolding darkness of the Christmas flashback. The baleful amber of Ruth’s jealousy. Her lipstick-daubed mouth, red as a raw nerve, confessing a lethal love.

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The Archers and Jack Cardiff managed to put Tantalus’s punishment on celluloid. Black Narcissus hurts even on DVD. On 35mm nitrate, it aches, it blisters, it writhes with light and shadow. It bleeds with hue.

The word “intoxicating” comes to mind, the root of course being “toxic.” Black Narcissus overwhelms me with a poisonous, venomous beauty. It allows the viewer to sympathize with the distraction of its characters, a distraction veering into madness. Who could bear such constant splendor? Who could endure a world so alive with pleasure and sensation and ephemeral joys and not lose her mind?

Dear reader, I came close.

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Coda: Diva Gone Nitrate

When I chose the name for this blog almost 3 years ago, I lighted upon “nitrate” because it held a faraway, almost mythic resonance for me. The very thought of the strange, combustible alchemy that once sustained motion pictures filled me with a sense of wonder.

Somehow it never occurred to me that I’d get to see a film projected from the storied substance. I didn’t think it was even done these days. 

I dreamt of nitrate. I wanted to fetishize and mystify it. In the end, however, the material truth, the photochemical reality turned out to be more mystical than anything I could have dreamed of.

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Free Friday Film: The Death Kiss (1932)

posterEver wish you could take a tour of a Hollywood studio—in the 1930s? I sure do.

Think about how fascinating it would be to stare at those huge early talkie cameras, to observe the complicated sound recording apparatus, to gape at the actors getting ready for their close-ups, or to sit in and get a sneak preview of the rushes. Hell, I don’t know about you, but I’d even be willing to take my chances sitting next to Darryl Zanuck in a dark studio screening room if I could turn back time and go there.

Unless you’ve got a time machine, perhaps the next best thing to a backstage tour through that bygone era is watching The Death Kiss, a standard whodunit set at a movie studio. Despite a workmanlike overall style, this standard genre flick deserves watching for its sheer documentary value alone. Debut director Edwin L. Marin shot on location at Tiffany Studios, the once-prestigious production company behind Journey’s End and Mamba which went defunct, rather appropriately, soon after the release of The Death Kiss.

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Not only are the soundstages real soundstages, but the maze of delivery doors, gates, pathways, and buildings that we see in the film give us a rare travelling “street view” of the old Hollywood experience.

Of course, architectural maps and photographs of studio lots exist. Yet, there’s something truly magical about a camera scanning through and capturing the dimensionality those long-lost spaces, those sprawling miniature kingdoms, or “duchies” as Joseph Mankiewicz called the studios.

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Back to the mystery: the plot follows Franklyn Drew, a wisecracking screenwriter at Toneart Studio who’s trying to save the woman he loves, Marcia Lane, a leading actress, from a murder charge. (And in case you never noticed, when screenwriters write about screenwriters, those parts almost invariably turn out to be smartasses.)

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In this case, I enjoyed the opportunity to watch David Manners—a pretty juvenile lead whom you probably know best from his startlingly dull performance in Dracula—play a character who doesn’t seem like he’s been cut out from a book of paper dolls.

Speaking of Dracula, this film reunites three male stars from that film: Bela Lugosi, Edward Van Sloan, and Manners. Classic movie buffs like me will certainly relish the chance to watch this trio appear in the same scene without trying to drive a stake through anybody’s heart. Lugosi’s mesmerizing potential as an actor languishes untapped in The Death Kiss—he’s fobbed off on a dull role as the studio manager. The solution to the murder, however, did keep me guessing until the last reel. Quite impressive, since these early talkie whodunnits often pack as few surprises as Hardy Boys novels.

I also strongly encourage you to watch at least the opening sequence of The Death Kiss. It goes like this: a gangland moll is sitting in a car, telling her two goons that she’s going to kiss a guy as the signal to shoot him. Swaying in a glittering gown of sequins and ruff of ostrich feather, she alights from the vehicle and duly smooches the poor sap. Rat-a-tat-tat! He writhes and falls to the ground in a hail of machine gun bullets. A shocked crowd gathers around… as the camera pans 180-degrees to reveal the director and movie crew filming the scene.

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All this elapses in one long take, binding together the illusion of film and the revelation of the mechanism that makes cinema possible.

Of course, the studio within the film is itself an illusion, it’s Hollywood as we’d like to imagine it. Nevertheless, that first shot impressed me with the litheness of its camerawork and how it challenges the audience, from the beginning, to see movies as movies, as carefully choreographed ballets of light and movement, as products, as creations.

More interesting still, the man who dies in the movie (within a movie) is actually the murder victim—he died in that opening shot. He wasn’t playing dead. He was dead. So, later on, the characters project the rushes of this scene in studio screening room to scour the print for evidence. Here’s the weird part: when they project it, we get a different perspective of the action from what we saw in the opening shot. There’s no fluid camera movement. Just a boring straight-on take. And it’s really boring—there’s none of the sophisticated jazz in the background and the business around the kiss plays out stilted and stagey. It’s almost as though The Death Kiss were trying to give us a little lesson on film: good talkies versus bad talkies, an interesting use of space versus a boring one. It’s a movie that makes you a little bit more aware of the nuts and bolts of cinema.

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Then suddenly a blotch of red, like blood, consumes the screen within the screen! Somebody infiltrated the projection room and burned up the negative, to destroy the murder clue caught on celluloid. The flare of red in a black-and-white film startles you, and it was clearly meant to—somebody went through the trouble of tinting those few frames for a trippy effect. I won’t list the films that have copied this burning nitrate shock effect. I’m not sure about this, but do I believe that The Death Kiss is the first movie to use the plot point of footage being destroyed—and to show it with a theatrically melting strip of film. Film, destruction, the fragility of human life just seem to go together.

For a standard 1930s mystery programmer, The Death Kiss uniquely pulls us into the world of movies and movie making.

So, give it a watch over the weekend. And please leave a comment to tell me what you think of this Public Domain film!