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: Nothing Sacred (1937)

posterFredric March was a ladies’ man. Really.

We’re not talking a fellow with a dalliance here and there—we’re talking a full-time, notorious skirt-chaser of Don Draper magnitude. And March, whose shapely thighs seemed to make a supporting appearance in every esteemed period drama of the early 1930s, encountered a fair amount of success in his extracurricular adventures.

However, when he put the moves on co-star Carole Lombard during the filming of Nothing Sacred, she was anything but amused. Deeply in love with Clark Gable, our Carole wanted to send the message to Freddie: go prowl somewhere else.

And, being the master prankster of Hollywood, she dreamed up a wonderfully gross way to tell him to scram.

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Feigning a sudden amorous interest in her co-star, she invited him to come up and see her sometime. In her dressing room. Wink, wink. He didn’t have to be told twice. Boy, was he in for a surprise!

According to Warren G. Harris in Gable and Lombard, “as March’s hand started up under Lombard’s dress, he suddenly let out an astonished oath. He had grabbed a rubber dildo, which Lombard had strapped on herself before his arrival. The shock was too much for March. He never bothered Lombard again.” (83)

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Notice the expression of general unease on ol’ Freddie’s face…

I hope you realize that I’m sharing that delightfully obscene anecdote at the peril of getting some very questionable search term hits on this blog. Yet, I went ahead and included it anyway to illustrate the fact that the sorrows—and embarrassments—of life are the joys of art. Because the real-life hostile energy between March and Lombard translates into a match made in screwball heaven onscreen.

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In this blithely offensive Ben Hecht concoction, directed by William Wellman, a disgraced New York star reporter, Wally, longs to win his way back into the spotlight. He intends to do exactly that by creating a media circus around Hazel Flagg, a young woman who’s dying of radium poisoning. The only problem is, her hick doctor made a mistake. She’s not really dying… but she can’t pass up the chance to escape her little Podunk town in Vermont.

So, as New York City pours out its sappy, self-congratulatory love for the beautiful doomed girl, she’s drinking in the attention—and looking for a way out. Meanwhile, Wally, the fast-talking, hard-boiled reporter, has fallen hard for the girl he thinks has a few weeks to live.

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On a stylistic level, I love William Wellman’s flamboyant habit of obstructing what we most want to see with weird, incongruous objects. A big vase of funereal flowers makes a conversation impossible. A scary old woman’s whimple-like mourning hat blocks out most of Lombard’s lovely face. The most romantic kiss in Nothing Sacred takes place out of our sight, hidden behind a bunch of crates on the New York docks! This off-kilter visual sense imbues the film with a wacky, cartoonish quality that perfectly suits the plot contrivances and broadly comic premise.

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Nothing Sacred gives us a world of awkward silliness, a world so jam-packed with obstacles and ill-conceived objects that it would be sad if it weren’t so ridiculous. Even New York strikes us as a somewhat gaudy intrusion, with its jutting skyscrapers and its huge girders that serve as perches for burly workers eating their lunches.

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I’ve already mentioned that this movie is less than politically correct, but if it’s offensive, it’s offensive to almost everyone, as the title implies. No character escapes a good skewering by Ben Hecht. The prudish, monosyllabic denizens of the town of Warsaw, Vermont (very much like where I grew up) seem just as ludicrous as the hypocritical sinners in New York City.

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Carole Lombard absolutely glows in Technicolor—and I could start weeping when I think that fate never allowed her to make another feature in color. Her sweetly conniving small-town girl wins our hearts from the moment she shambles glumly across the screen, thinking she has weeks to live. Even more amusing, when she finds out she’s not going to die, she breaks into tears. As she sniffles, “It’s kind of startling to be brought to life twice—and each time in Warsaw!”

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We adore Hazel Flagg because, in spite of her charade, she’s actually the most honest person in the film—or perhaps the least dishonest. The people heaping goopy, sugary outpourings of pity on Hazel don’t really give a damn about her. She merely serves as a stimulus that enables them to feel like better human beings. They imagine that they’re moved by her misfortune, so they can all think, “Gee, I’m a real swell person, because of my empathy for that gorgeous dying girl.” At least Hazel never lies to herself, unlike her many phony admirers.

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As Ben Hecht explained in his autobiography, he had a real beef with what he saw as the public’s need to live their lives through others, instead of seizing on any kind of private, first-hand pleasure. With this in mind, Nothing Sacred still levels a relevant criticism at today’s society—it’s easy to get so involved in hyper-publicized feuds, drippy human interest stories, and celebrity trivia that I forget who I am and what I believe as an individual.

The desire to be distracted by someone else’s problems and the craving for undeserved fame feed on each other, fueled by mercenary media moguls. Sound familiar? Nowadays, you can find a zillion neo-Hazel Flaggs—people trying to get famous for their plights and sob stories—with a Google search. And that’s why Nothing Sacred remains fresh and droll more than 75 years after it was made.

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But, back to the story and our squabbling stars. In spite of the fact that Freddie and Carole disliked each other, many of their scenes together exude a charming tenderness. We watch this cynical journalist melt in the presence of the outwardly naïve girl whom he brought to New York, basically as a freak show. I adore a little scene where he takes her away from the ugly publicity, on a sailboat up the Hudson.

Even better, we get to savor Wally’s mixture of outrage and relief when he finds out that she’s not dying—and has been fooling him all along. Love, in my mind at least, is an unmasking. It’s when you discover the worst about a person and realize that it’s all the same things you feel guilty about yourself. In this case, Wally discovers Hazel as a brilliant, brazen, sensational faker. Just like him.

The most famous scene in the movie, the “boxing match” between Lombard and March always cracked me up—and does so even more now that I recognize that it seethes with genuine antipathy.

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Leave it to Ben Hecht to depict the battle between the sexes literally—a fistfight that proves the congruence of love and hate. Does it hurt to watch a woman getting socked in the jaw by a man? Um, yes. But it is completely worth it to watch Wally getting knocked out cold by Hazel.

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Oddly enough, only when Hazel and Wally have knocked each other out (at different times) do they run to the other’s side with a remorseful kiss. In other words, love implies an oscillation between snuggliness and rage, with very little middle ground.

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“God, how I love you when you’re totally unconscious!”

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If this film has one fault, it’s that Carole Lombard doesn’t get enough to do. In the role of an invalid, she lacks the opportunity to rip into her usual slapstick antics until the very end of the film, but she compensates with some of the most splendid facial expressions in cinema history. My personal favorite is the grimace she makes when she receives the key to New York, has no place to put it, stuffs it down her shirt—and gets caught in the glare of a cameraman’s flashbulb. Priceless.

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 More great facial expressions, brought to you by the inimitable Carole…

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I also chuckle to myself watching her rubber face react to all the goofy ways New York chose to “honor” her: forcing her to play muse to a brooding poet, treating her to ten seconds of mopey silence at a boxing match, and, most egregiously, calling her up on a stage of showgirls to complete a flashy line-up of famous historical women.

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Nothing Sacred also features Walter Connolly chewing scenes as an apoplectic newspaper owner, prone to making threats like, “I am sitting here, Mr.Cook, toying with the idea of cutting out your heart, and stuffing it, like an olive!”

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Tough-guy Maxie Rosenbloom also makes a memorable appearance and adds his dummy charisma to the mix. If you dig burlesque, stay tuned for a nightclub show featuring half-naked “Heroines of History” from Lady Godiva to Hazel Flagg—hosted by the spectacularly unfunny Frank Fay, Barbara Stanwyck’s ex.

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Best of all, I encourage you to bask in Ben Hecht’s and William Wellman’s iconoclastic disdain for everything usually considered comic taboo: schoolchildren, kindness, charity, romantic love, and death. Indeed, absolutely nothing is safe and nothing is sacred.

So, check this one out. If you haven’t totally sold your soul to the doctrine of political correctness and good taste (whatever that is), you will laugh. And if you don’t, this is my response to you:

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Walt Disney Company, Hollywood’s Pacific Title & Art Studio, and the restoration laboratory Cinetech of Valencia restored Nothing Sacred so that it looks absolutely beautiful, compared to the blotchy DVD copy I first watched. You can read about the restoration by clicking here. It’s one of the earliest feature films made in three-strip Technicolor which offered a much broader range than two-strip. In this movie, the hues add to the comedic impact of scenes with their startling, exaggerated intensity.

You can watch this YouTube version (also below) in 720p HD, which I definitely recommend.

Since the film has fallen into the Public Domain, you can also download it at the Internet Archive, although the quality is inferior to that of the version embedded here.

When you’re done, please leave a comment and tell me what you think of the movie!