When you talk about nitrate film, it’s hard not to sound like an asshole. Oh, so you saw a film on an obsolete, incredibly rare medium and it just happens to be possessed of an indescribable beauty that can’t be approached by any other format? Congratulations, how wonderful. The culture of fetishism around nitrate film can occasionally feel like a distillation of the most unattractive aspects of cinephilia: an obsession with an obscurantist material purity accessible only to a privileged few, and wielded to imply that people who haven’t seen nitrate haven’t really experienced film. Accordingly, when I set off to the Nitrate Picture Show as one of the nitrate-uninitiate, it was with huge excitement but also some apprehension: what if this was an emperor’s-new-clothes situation? And if I didn’t have a nitrate conversion experience involving swooning or speaking in tongues the second the curtain rose, would that mean I didn’t love film enough, or in the right way?
But, readers: nitrate really is that beautiful, really is that important.
I sat during the first minutes of my first screening—Hitchcock’s 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much—and thought, “I didn’t know it would look like this!” And then: “I didn’t know it could look like this.” Actors appeared on the screen as if molded out of a liquid silver set aflame. In fact, that’s not far from a technical description: one of the unique qualities of nitrate film is its extremely high concentration of silver. I was watching pictures sculpted out of light with precious metal, pictures that turned light into some new, sparkling, uncanny thing. As for the flames, they remained immanent. Nitrocellulose is highly flammable (the same compound is used in explosives), and nitrate film’s mythic tendency to spontaneously burst into flames so vicious they can burn underwater accounts for its eventual abandonment in the 1950s in favour of acetate “safety film.” Nitrate’s aesthetic glories are therefore premised on its extreme volatility. Beyond the threat of combustion, nitrocellulose will decay through various stages of poisonous fuming and bubbling goo into an incendiary dust unless carefully stored under the right conditions; as one scholar puts it, “[b]ecause nitrate film is chemically unstable, it is in a perpetual state of decomposition.” This instability makes still-projectable nitrate film a medium conspicuously arrested in a process of inevitable and spectacular dissolution. What this really means is that watching films on nitrate intensifies the sense of loss and haunting inherent in the experience of watching any film, and especially old ones. But more on that soon.
I saw many (too many) unspeakably gorgeous things during the festival. I saw a Norwegian Gasparcolor cigarette commercial send waves of abstract colour rolling, demented, across the screen; I saw Edna Best’s fingerwaves shining like a tungsten wig; I saw Gene Tierney gripping blue satin shoes that glinted sharper than any knife; I saw showgirls on horseback draped in radioactive tinsel; I saw a hairpin hit a pillow with the impact of an atom bomb. When I watched Black Narcissus I wept through the entire last act of the film, overwhelmed: it was as if the movie I had seen before, on Blu-ray, had been in black and white. Now here was Kathleen Byron wreathed in an orange sunset that became the living flames of hell; here she was with that gash of red at her mouth—an unimaginable red—and a burgundy dress that glowed like sickly embers. There are so many other things I could try to describe without ever coming close—the way each nun’s habit became a universe, the texture of sunlight drifting through a window—but I’ll just say that few things could be more beautiful.
What I want to dwell on instead is something else that brought me to tears: Lillian Gish’s brief appearance in William Dieterle’s 1948 Portrait of Jennie. Jennie is about a failing artist, Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten), who encounters an entrancing girl—Jennie (Jennifer Jones)—one day in Central Park. Jennie drifts in and out of the movie in strange interludes; she is a person out of time, visiting Eben only in brief and unpredictable encounters and in his memory (where she moves him to create works of true beauty, beginning with a portrait of her). Eben, in love with a girl who is always already a ghost, spends the movie grasping to hang on to a past that has already passed into nothing. Lillian Gish is the one who tells him Jennie is dead—long dead. Eben visits the convent where Jennie went to school to learn this merciless truth from Gish’s Sister Mary of Mercy. It is too much. In this film that is so much about film, concerned as it is with a past that haunts the present but vanishes even as it appears, with the ability of art to capture some ghost of that ghost that might remain, in this film that I watch on an archaic strip of celluloid that might snap or jam at any moment (and, in the seconds after it jams, be set aflame by the heat of the light that animates it), it is too much to see Lillian Gish appear to tell Eben about the past and what cannot remain. Here, where everything I see dissolves forever in the same moment, Lillian Gish appears as a ghost of silent film jump-cut, like Jennie, 30 years later; as a resilient spirit materially present before an audience some 67 years after this print was struck, some 60 years after it became an unplayable artifact. It’s enough to make you cry, and I did. It’s enough to make you rush into spectacular destruction, like Eben does at the end of the film, to try to reach whatever remnant of it you can hold. Nitrate burns bright, fades away, or, against all odds, hangs on in cold storage to be resurrected for a brief moment onscreen before an audience. Ashes to ashes. Dust to incendiary dust. We had found beauty together, and we could never lose it.