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Hands Down – The Most Important Film Book of 2016

Friday, December 30th, 2016

Along with Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph, this is one of the essential film books of 2016.

Robert Bresson is one of the most mysterious, and yet the most accessible of filmmakers – much like his compatriots Yasujirō Ozu and Carl Th. Dreyer (forming writer / director Paul Schrader’s holy trinity of cinema). His classic, epigrammatic text Notes on the Cinematograph, first published in English in 1975 in an edition entitled Notes on Cinematography translated by Jonathan Griffin, has been out of print since its initial publication. I came across the first hardcover edition in a remainder pile at Brentano’s in New York in the early 1980s, going for $2 a copy. I bought five copies on the spot, and it remains on my shelf as one of the key books by any filmmaker on their work, stripped down to the essentials.

Now, New York Review Books has republished Notes on the Cinematograph in a new translation, back in print in a real edition – a very cheaply bound one circulated for a time a few years back – but just as importantly, they’ve gathered together interviews with the director on all of his films from 1943 to 1983, the year of his last film, L’Argent, along with a few supplementary texts written by those who worked with him, and with a selection of exceedingly rare production stills, in an essential text entitled simply Bresson on Bresson – Interviews, 1943–1983.

The result is mesmerizing; Bresson is absolutely modest, serious, and above all patient – my first takeaway from the volume was how extremely tolerant he was of the various interviewers who interrogated him over the years, asking the same questions again and again – how he used actors (or “models,” he called them), how he used as little music as possible, how his camera lingered on an empty space long after the actors had departed. Yet Bresson managed to turn even the most banal questions to his advantage, never passing up an opportunity to offer some fresh thoughts on his work.

Bresson on Bresson – Interviews, 1943–1983, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis, edited by Mylène Bresson, with a preface by Pascal Mérigeau, offers an series of penetrating insights into the director’s work, and serves as a useful model for filmmakers today, in an era where spectacle and special effects have replaced, for the most part, thoughtful cinema.

As the NYRB notes,”Robert Bresson, the director of such cinematic master-pieces as Pickpocket, A Man Escaped, Mouchette, and L’Argent, was one of the most influential directors in the history of French film, as well as one of the most stubbornly individual: He insisted on the use of nonprofessional actors; he shunned the ‘advances’ of Cinerama and CinemaScope (and the work of most of his predecessors and peers); and he minced no words about the damaging influence of capitalism and the studio system on the still-developing—in his view—art of film.

Bresson on Bresson collects the most significant interviews that Bresson gave (carefully editing them before they were released) over the course of his forty-year career to reveal both the internal consistency and the consistently exploratory character of his body of work. Successive chapters are dedicated to each of his fourteen films, as well as to the question of literary adaptation, the nature of the sound track, and to Bresson’s one book, the great aphoristic treatise Notes on the Cinematograph.

Throughout, his close and careful consideration of his own films and of the art of film is punctuated by such telling mantras  as ‘Sound…invented silence in cinema,’ ‘It’s the film that…gives life to the characters—not the characters that give life to the film,’ and (echoing the Bible) ‘Every idle word shall be counted.’

Bresson’s integrity and originality earned him the admiration of younger directors from Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette to Olivier Assayas. And though Bresson’s movies are marked everywhere by an air of intense deliberation, these interviews show that they were no less inspired by a near-religious belief in the value of intuition, not only that of the creator but that of the audience, which he claims to deeply respect: ‘It’s always ready to feel before it understands. And that’s how it should be.’”

Anyone even remotely interested in film should buy this volume immediately, along with the republished text of Notes on the Cinematograph, as a useful tonic to the current ultra-commercial cinematic landscape. As Alan Pavelin wrote in Senses of Cinema long ago, “Robert Bresson’s 13 features over 40 years constitute arguably the most original and brilliant body of work over a long career from a film director in the history of cinema. He is the most idiosyncratic and uncompromising of all major filmmakers.” Or as Martin Scorsese put it, “we are still coming to terms with Robert Bresson, and the peculiar power and beauty of his films.”

This is the essential film book of the year. Pick up a copy now – right now.

Debbie Reynolds Dies

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

Debbie Reynolds, the irrepressible star of stage and screen, has died at age 84.

As Carmel Dagan writes in Variety, “Debbie Reynolds, the Oscar-nominated singer-actress who was the mother of late actress Carrie Fisher, has died at Cedars-Sinai hospital. She was 84. ‘She wanted to be with Carrie,’ her son Todd Fisher told Variety. She was taken to the hospital from Todd Fisher’s Beverly Hills house Wednesday after a suspected stroke, the day after her daughter Carrie Fisher died.

The vivacious blonde, who had a close but sometimes tempestuous relationship with her daughter, was one of MGM’s principal stars of the 1950s and ’60s in such films as the 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain and 1964’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown, for which she received an Oscar nomination as best actress.

Reynolds received the SAG lifetime achievement award in January 2015; in August of that year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voted to present the actress with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Nov. 14 Governors Awards . . . Reynolds had a wholesome girl-next-door look which was coupled with a no-nonsense attitude in her roles. They ranged from sweet vehicles like Tammy to more serious fare such as The Rat Race and  How the West Was Won . . .

In 1955 Reynolds was among the young actors who founded the Thalians, a charitable organization aimed at raising awareness and providing treatment and support for those suffering from mental health issues; Reynolds was elected president of the organization in 1957 and served in that role for more than five decades, and she and actress Ruta Lee alternated as chair of the board.

Through Reynolds’ efforts, the Thalians donated millions of dollars to the Mental Health Center at Cedars-Sinai (closed in 2012) and to UCLA’s Operation Mend, which provides medical and psychological services to wounded veterans and their families.”

Read the entire story here. Debbie Reynolds, 1932 – 2016 – rest in peace.

Carrie Fisher – Actor, Writer, Script Doctor – 1956-2016

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

Carrie Fisher has died December 27th, 2016 at the age of just 60.

As readers of this blog may know, I don’t usually do obituaries here, but the death of Carrie Fisher puts the capper on a truly awful year for the arts, with one death piling up after another to the point where it simply can’t be ignored. Fisher, for example, was much more than just an actor in the Star Wars films. In addition to Fisher’s credits as an actor and author, she was also one of Hollywood’s most sought after script doctors, working on existing screenplays and punching them up to make them just that little bit better – a tough profession, and she was very good at it.

As Wikipedia notes, she worked on the scripts for “Hook (1991), Lethal Weapon 3 and Sister Act (1992), Made in America, Last Action Hero and So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993), My Girl 2, Milk Money, The River Wild and Love Affair (1994), Outbreak (1995), The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), The Wedding Singer (1998), The Out-of-Towners and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), Coyote Ugly and Scream 3 (2000), Kate & Leopold (2001), Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005).” And yet none of these films give her any on-screen credit, and by 2004 she had moved on from script doctoring.

Carrie Fisher thus joins the long, long list of irreplaceable talents who have left us – many, like Fisher, far too soon – in 2016, including (and this is just a partial list) David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Harper Lee, George Kennedy, George Martin, Patty Duke, Lonnie Mack, Prince, Guy Hamilton, John Berry, Alan Young, Billy Paul, Burt Kwouk, Scotty Moore, Kenny Baker, Raoul Coutard, Leonard Cohen, Robert Vaughn, Leon Russell, Florence Henderson, George Michael, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Abe Vigoda, Doris Roberts, Jacques Rivette, Abbas Kiarostami, Lita Baron, Andrzej Wajda, Michael Cimino, Bill Nunn, Gene Wilder, Anton Yelchin – a terrible loss to us all.

So, this day, we take a moment to think about, and thank, all the artists who have contributed so much to the cinema and related arts – many of them crossover artists, such as Prince and David Bowie, and the great directors, like Rivette, Kiarostami and Hamilton – who are now no longer with us. But it is now for us, the living, to continue their work as best we can, and to remember and honor their work, which they gave their lives and talents to, and which will live on through the cinema and its allied disciplines, to continue to inspire, enlighten, and entertain us.

You can see the 2016 “TCM Remembers” video – an excellent tribute – by clicking here.

Everyone Wants To Be A Star!

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

According to an interesting study, everyone wants to be a star – no matter what.

In an intriguing article, “The Rise of Fame: An Historical Content Analysis” by Yalda T. Uhls and Patricia M. Greenfield in Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, the desire for instant fame in teenagers and “tweens” has grown by leaps and bounds since the late 1960s, to the point that notoriety is prized above almost any other value. As the authors write,

“[The] recent proliferation of TV programming for the tween audience is supported on the Internet with advertising, fan clubs, and other online communities. These Internet tools expand TV’s potential influence on human development. Yet little is known about the kinds of values these shows portray. To explore this issue, a new method for conducting content analysis was developed; it used personality indices to measure value priorities and desire for fame in TV programming.

The goal was to document historical change in the values communicated to tween audiences, age 9-11, who are major media consumers and whose values are still being formed. We analyzed the top two tween TV shows in the U.S. once a decade over a time span of 50 years, from 1967 through 2007. Greenfield’s theory of social change and human development served as the theoretical framework; it views technology, as well as urban residence, formal education, and wealth, as promoting individualistic values while diminishing communitarian or familistic ones.

Fame, an individualistic value, was judged the top value in the shows of 2007, up from number fifteen (out of sixteen) in most of the prior decades. In contrast, community feeling was eleventh in 2007, down from first or second place in all prior decades. According to the theory, a variety of sociodemographic shifts, manifest in census data, could be causing these changes; however, because social change in the U.S. between 1997 and 2007 centered on the expansion of communication technologies, we hypothesize that the sudden value shift in this period is technology driven.”

Read the rest of this fascinating article by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Four Just Men – Classic British Television

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

Long before the current era of superheroes, The Four Just Men were way ahead of the curve.

The Marvel and DC Universe films may be ruling the box office right now, but more than half a century ago, The Four Just Men ruled British television, constantly criss-crossing the globe to right wrongs, and mete out justice to those who deserved it, without the benefit of superpowers or enormous wealth – just using their wits, and their skills, in the service of humanity.

As Wikipedia accurately notes, “The Four Just Men was a 1959 Sapphire Films production for ITC Entertainment. It ran for one season of 39 half-hour monochrome episodes. The series, loosely based on a series of novels by Edgar Wallace, presents the adventures of four men who first meet while fighting in Italy during the Second World War. The men later reassemble, and decide to fight for justice and against tyranny, using money set aside for the purpose by their late commanding officer.

They operate from different countries: Jeff Ryder (Richard Conte) is a professor of law at Columbia University in New York, Tim Collier (Dan Dailey) is an American reporter based in Paris, Ben Manfred (Jack Hawkins) is a crusading independent MP who works from London and Ricco Poccari (Vittorio De Sica) is an Italian hotelier based in Rome.

The series is unusual in having the four lead actors appear in turn other than in the first episode; one or occasionally two makes a brief appearance in each other’s episode, usually on the phone. Guest stars included Judi Dench, Alan Bates, Leonard Sachs, Patrick Troughton, Donald Pleasence, Richard Johnson, Ronald Howard, Basil Dignam, Roger Delgado, Charles Gray, and Frank Thornton.

At the time Four Just Men was the most ambitious film series yet made for British TV. It was produced by Sapphire Films at Walton Studios, and on location in Britain, France and Italy. None of its four stars had been cast as regulars in a TV series before. Filming on the 39 episodes, each 25 minutes long, began in January 1959, and lasted for five months, using up to seven units in the studio or on location, and producing two or three episodes simultaneously. [Future director] John Schlesinger was credited as exterior unit or second unit director on a number of episodes.”

This, of course, was back when a season of a television series amounted to something – 39 episodes, in fact. All the actors involved were certifiable stars at the time in their respective countries, particularly Jack Hawkins in England and the esteemed director/actor Vittorio De Sica in Italy, thus giving the series an international commercial appeal. But most central to the series’ success – and its recent release on Region 2 DVD – is the sense that someone was out there, watching out for the everyday person, who had no authority or influence.

Thus, in a way, not only do The Four Just Men prefigure the current craze for superheroes, offering hope in an uncertain world, but they also work their will through the actual channels of government and the law, without taking matters into their own hands, or using extra-terrestrial powers. This makes the series all the more relatable. From the opening title sequence – seen above – to the end of each episode, The Four Just Men act on the side of right against the forces of corruption and evil, winning on a human scale, rather than one of exaggerated influence.

As the series’ announcer intones at the start of each episode, “throughout time, there have been men to whom justice is more important than life itself. From these ranks come four men, prepared to fight valiantly on the side of justice wherever the need may be. Joined together in this cause, they are The Four Just Men.” It’s a nice dream- if only they were with us now.

See the intro to the series, as well as some episodes, by clicking here, or on the image above.

Restoring Sir Laurence Olivier’s “Richard III” (1955)

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

Film restoration is one of the essential tasks for the cinema in the 21st century.

In this brief video, Martin Scorsese takes the viewer through the restoration of Oliver’s classic film Richard III in 2013 for release as a Blu-ray disc from Criterion, one of the masterpieces of cinema, shot in gorgeous Technicolor in the VistaVision process in 1955.

As Scorsese demonstrates in the video, the process to bring the film back to its original splendor was long and painstaking, and not helped by the fact that the film was extensively cut during various re-releases from its original running time. This was all the more problematic since in the film, Olivier used a “long take” strategy that meant that any one shot excised from the film also cut significant sections of Shakespeare’s play.

Then, too, the film was shot on various color stocks, and processed at different labs during its initial production, making the task of restoration all the more difficult, and in the places were segments were cut, whole frames of the original negative were destroyed, and had to be recreated digitally during the scanning process.

One thinks – or at least some people think – that film has a sort of permanence, but nothing could be further from the truth. Without assiduous care and attention, films – even relatively recent films such as this – soon fade and eventually cease to exist.

The task was made easier by the fact that the British Film Institute was involved; as someone who has been to the BFI Film Archive, and had the privilege of seeing some of the classic films of there 20th century in their original 35mm format there, including some shot on nitrate film, I can only applaud both the BFI’s efforts to keep restoring “film forever” – that’s now their official motto – and Martin Scorsese, for having such a significant hand in the process.

You can see the video by clicking here, or on the image above; fascinating viewing.

Vittorio de Sica’s “Two Women” Finally Gets A Real DVD Release

Monday, December 19th, 2016

Vittorio de Sica’s masterpiece Two Women finally gets a worthy DVD release.

As Svet Atanasov writes on the site Blu-ray.com, “winner of Best Actress Award at the Cannes Films Festival, Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women (1960) arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of British distributors Cult Films.

In Rome, Cesira (Sophia Loren) decides to close her shop and relocate to the countryside together with her daughter Rosetta (Eleonora Brown). It is a difficult move for her, but she is convinced that two will be safer there until the war ends. They pack their most precious belongings and then head to the train station.

When the train breaks down long before it reaches Cesira’s home village, the two women vow to finish their journey on foot. They are nearly killed after a German bomber fires at them while they cross an open field not too far away from their final destination.

For a while everything goes according to Cesira’s plan. She and Rosetta settle down and even though occasionally foreign soldiers pass through the area they feel safe. They also befriend the handsome teacher Michele (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who sees the world a lot differently than the rest of villagers. The two women also find themselves attracted to him, but for different reasons.

Eventually, the Allies liberate the southern parts of the country and begin pushing the Germans further north. It is then that Cesira and Rosetta decide to return to Rome and reopen the family store. But on the way back the women are forced to hide from their liberators, who turn out to be just as vile as the enemies they have been trying to evade.

Vittorio De Sica’s La Ciociara a.k.a. Two Women was the film that transformed Loren into an international star. Prior to it Loren had appeared in other films that were received well outside of Italy, but Two Women was the first foreign film to earn Oscar Award for Best Actress and its success had a profound impact on her career.

The raging war is easily felt throughout the entire film, but the focus of attention is very much on the manner in which Cesira and Rosetta do their best to continue living as if their lives were never shattered. Cesira in particular fully understands that her role as a loving mother should not be comprised, which is why she often emerges as a strong and unusually optimistic person. Rosetta unconditionally trusts her but also realizes that there are times when it is necessary that she follows her instincts.

The special bond that exists between the two women is abruptly broken in such brutal fashion that after that it seems impossible that Cesira could do anything as a mother to mend it. And yet, somehow the film finds a way to show that life, as unfair and ugly as it can be at times, is still worth living.

De Sica manages the incredible emotional ups and downs in the only way that actually makes sense – without any safe guards or filters. While this can make the film quite difficult to watch at times, it is certainly the reason why it also remains so profoundly moving.

The film was adapted by De Sica and the great writer Cesare Zavattini from the brilliant novel by Alberto Moravia which chronicles a true event. Moravia’s incredible body of work also inspired such iconic films as The Conformist, Le Mépris, and Time of Indifference.”

This is all true, but most importantly, for some unfathomable reason, Two Women fell into the Public Domain shortly after its release, and has been available only in terrible “pan and scan” prints that cropped the original 1.85:1 ratio into flat screen size, thus wrecking the gorgeous compositions De Sica creates throughout the film.

There’s also a feature length documentary on the life and work of de Sica on the disc, as well as an appreciation of Loren’s career, but the main event here is that finally – finally – we get a good transfer of this superb film in its original aspect ratio. I’ve been waiting for this for years, available both in DVD and Blu-ray, and best of all, it’s region free.

It’s very rare that PD films get rescued; this is a real part of cinema history restored.

Upcoming Conference: “Frankenstein and Popular Culture”

Sunday, December 18th, 2016

Mary Shelley’s creation is always with us – more so today, perhaps, than ever before.

I’ve been invited to deliver a paper at the upcoming conference “Frankenstein and Popular Culture,” celebrating the 200th anniversary of the creation and publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on October 27-29, 2017. I chose as my topic “The Ghost of Frankenstein: What To Do With The Monster in The Digital Age?” – which is a pressing issue not only for scholars, but also for those within the industry as well. As I write in my paper, in part:

“Aside from J. Searle Dawley’s 1910 version of Frankenstein for the Edison Company, and moving through James Whale’s 1931 interpretation which pretty much put the ’stamp’ on the monster, the years have not been kind to Frankenstein’s creation. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939) have some value, especially since Boris Karloff returned to the role that made him famous, but this ‘golden period’ was short lived.

Universal soon relegated the monster to series of inferior sequels, and by 1943 was ‘teaming’ the monster with their creation The Wolf Man to generate flagging audience interest, only to dispose of the monster altogether in 1944’s House of Frankenstein and 1945’s House of Dracula, to say nothing – literally nothing – of 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

With this rather witless burlesque, Universal had seemingly run out of ideas. Yes, in the late 1950s Hammer Films effectively re-imagined the monster with Terence Fisher’s 1957 production of The Curse of Frankenstein, precisely because they were barred by Universal from using any visual, narrative or thematic elements of their version of the monster’s exploits, yet after an initial run of success, the final entries in the Hammer series also fell victim to diminishing returns.

Subsequent interpretations, from numerous other filmmakers, have been even more threadbare. My paper takes its title from the 1942 film The Ghost of Frankenstein, one of the last credible films in the original Universal series, and asks the question, ‘What are we to do with, or make of, the Frankenstein monster in the 21st century?’

Tracing the monster in film from its beginnings to the present, we see a disturbing but not altogether unexpected trend. Newer iterations of the classic tale feature more special effects, but less real content. Universal is right now planning to reboot their classic monsters with yet another version of The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, with new versions of Frankenstein and Dracula to follow. But will any of these versions have lasting impact, or value? [. . .]

Copying the Marvel and DC Universe method of churning out franchise films on a regular basis, Universal is plowing ahead with a similarly designed program of entries in the coming years, with Johnny Depp tentatively attached as the lead in a reboot of The Invisible Man; Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson potentially linked to a reboot of The Wolf Man; a remake of the 2004 film Van Helsing; Scarlett Johansson tagged for a remake of The Creature from The Black Lagoon; and Javier Bardem, perhaps, as the monster in a remake of The Bride of Frankenstein, with Angelia Jolie considered for the role of the Bride, as part of a project to create the Universal Monster universe.

Noted Universal chairperson Donna Langley of this strategy, ‘we have to mine our resources. We don’t have any capes [in our film library]. But what we do have is an incredible legacy and history with the monster characters. We’ve tried over the years to make monster movies — unsuccessfully, actually. So, we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day, bringing these incredibly rich and complex characters into present day and reimagine them and reintroduce them to a contemporary audience.’

But I would argue that it’s not going to work; that it hasn’t worked thus far; and that it won’t work in the future. The Frankenstein legend, and with it The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and Dracula are not material for a ‘Bourne’ or ‘Mission: Impossible’ series – all this will do is degrade the material further. What is needed is a creative force like the Hammer team, which takes the material seriously, and treats each project with the utmost care and attention, placing the emphasis on character, setting, and thematic development, rather than relying on special effects and fleeting star power to put these forthcoming projects across in the marketplace.

Hammer understood Gothic horror; it’s an English tradition. Universal, in the 1930s, had a sort of second hand comprehension of the genre through the lens of German Expressionism and British stage versions of the source materials, as brought to life by British (James Whale) or German émigrés such as Curt Siodmak and Karl Freund. The new Universal films are strictly an attempt to artificially jump start creations that need a firm re-grounding in their source material. In these films and others, we will get only a simulacric vision of these mythic characters, especially Victor Frankenstein and his creation; in short, all we will get is the ghost of Frankenstein.”

So, that’s where this stands at the moment – a few days before Christmas, 2016.

New Article: Don Sharp’s Pyschomania Restored by the BFI

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

Director Don Sharp’s Psychomania has just been restored by the British Film Institute.

As I write in Senses of Cinema 81 (December, 2016), “BFI’s Flipside series continues with another excellent release, a completely restored version of Don Sharp’s ‘zombie biker’ film Psychomania (1973), starring George Sanders in his last role, with capable assists from Beryl Reid and Nicky Henson.

Psychomania concerns Tom Latham (Henson), the leader of a teenage motorcycle gang, The Living Dead, who with the aid of his devil-worshipping mother (Reid) and her obedient butler Shadwell (Sanders) makes a deal with the Devil for his gang’s literal immortality.

Soon the gang members are deliberately killing themselves in a variety of grotesque and spectacular fashions, secure in the knowledge that they will soon be immortal. However, as with all such arrangements, things don’t go precisely as planned. Suffice it to say that business transactions with Satan are a decidedly risky business, for as we all know, the Devil is in the details.

Tom is an impetuous fellow, and he’s suspicious (with good reason) about his parentage and his home life in general. ‘Why did my father die in that locked room?’ he asks Shadwell petulantly. ‘Why do you never get any older? And what is the secret of the living dead?’

Soon enough, Tom’s mother – a curiously distant maternal figure if ever there was one – inducts Tom into the cult. With that accomplished, the rest of the film is a series of violent action set pieces, involving the ritualistic suicide of the gang members and their almost immediate resurrection, in which supermarkets are ransacked, innocent pedestrians are mowed down, and general mayhem ensues.

But that’s just for openers. Like so many motion picture motorcycle gangs before them, Tom has bigger plans, and wants to embark upon a campaign of wholesale violence, murdering policemen, judges, teachers, any authority figure that might hamper the gang’s activities. At this juncture, Tom’s mother and Shadwell intervene to put a halt to Tom’s grandiose scheme, in a manner that’s both bizarre and apparently quite effective.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above; a real cult classic.

The Third Nitrate Picture Show at Eastman House

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016

As Liz Logan writes in the excellent web journal Hyperallergic, nitrate film refuses to die.

As she notes, “many of the most iconic films in cinematic history — Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane — were recorded on nitrate, the earliest form of motion picture film, yet the material has a terrible reputation. Used from the late 1800s through the 1940s, nitrate film was incredibly flammable and caused some major fires in movies theaters.

These tragic chapters in cinematic history have been revisited in films such as Cinema Paradiso, Inglourious Basterds, and The Artist. Later, once nitrate film was phased out, many archives were intentionally burned, simply to destroy the hazardous material.

But film archivists see nitrate in a different, less fiery, light. Aside from being an important ancestor of all the forms of film that came after it, nitrate is lauded for its luminous, high-contrast images, resulting from an emulsion that was rich in silver and the film’s excellent transparency.

And if it’s handled properly, the film is perfectly safe. For all these reasons, the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York is gearing up for the third Nitrate Picture Show, which will take place from May 5–7, 2017. Passes for the weekend go on sale at midnight on Monday, December 12.

‘It’s kind of a mystery how nitrate film has endured, because people are so afraid of it,’ said Deborah Stoiber, technical director of the festival and collections manager in the museum’s Moving Image department, which houses more than 100,000 cans of nitrate in its vaults.

Those cans comprise more than 6,000 titles, many on extended loan from Warner Brothers. The museum’s Dryden Theatre is one of only three theaters in the US with the legal safety measures in place to screen nitrate films, and the only such theater outside of California.

The Nitrate Picture Show is intended not only to give audiences an authentic cinema experience from the past, but also ‘to dispel the myth that all nitrate is scratched, jerky, falling apart or otherwise not worth keeping,’ Stoiber said. The films that are shown at the festival are in pristine condition, and visitors can see and touch such nitrate prints up-close. People are often astounded by the quality, according to Stoiber.”

It’s true – nitrate film is difficult to handle, but the quality is superb – director Jean Cocteau noticed the difference when new, safety film prints were struck of his masterpiece Beauty and The Beast in the early 1950s, and lacked the shimmer and brilliance of the original imagery.

There’s no question that nitrate cinema is, and will remain, a niche technology, something like stone lithography, but for sheer pictorial impact and depth, nitrate remains unmatched as a visual technology. Those who have the chance to see this festival will be able to see the difference for themselves; the result is really stunning.

This festival is a labor of love, and the results should be simply gorgeous.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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