This, of course, is a subject I have been hammering home for years, writing in The Moving Image Archive News, on this blog, and elsewhere, that as the saying goes “nitrate won’t wait.” All films before 1950 were shot on cellulose nitrate film, which is highly, even eagerly flammable (as the image below of a nitrate projection booth from the 1920s in Great Britain aptly demonstrates), and if not properly stored, nitrate film rapidly begins to decompose into a sticky, gelatinous goo in a process which is impossible – or nearly impossible – to reverse. Today, nearly all motion pictures are shown digitally, and film itself has disappeared.
I have had the great privilege of screening a nitrate print of Terence Fisher’s sharply observed matrimonial comedy Marry Me! (1949) at the British Film Institute in London, and I remember vividly how the Steenbeck flatbed viewing machine was situated in a separate room on the roof the the archive’s building in a small, somewhat claustrophobic room, with fire extinguishers and buckets of sand regularly placed around the room at strategic intervals.
Only one reel at a time was brought up to me for screening; that way, if one reel caught fire, at least the rest of the film might be saved, the archivist told me. I was not to stop the film in the Steenbeck once it started running, for fear that the projector bulb might ignite a frame of the film, which would then instantaneously spread to the rest of the reel. And as each reel was finished, I was told to press a bell. An attendant would appear, take the finished reel of film with him, and appear with the next reel, in 1000 ft. (10 minute) chunks, until I had seen the entire film.
Visually, the experience was dazzling; I remember reading that Jean Cocteau complained that safety film prints (which replaced nitrate prints entirely in theaters around the world) of his film Beauty and The Beast (1946) in no way matched the luminous, silvery sheen of the original nitrate prints, but recognized the dangers and inherently instability of the nitrate medium, and so acquiesced to safety film screenings of one of his most sensual and visually lavish works, with remarkable cinematography by Henri Alekan.
Ms. Dargis also relates some truly appalling horror stories from the long period in cinema history when the studios simply didn’t value the films they made, including this shocker from the history of Universal Pictures,
“In 2011, the historian David Pierce gave a talk on silent films at an annual event in Los Angeles called the Reel Thing. At one point, he showed a 1925 photo of a few dozen Universal Pictures stars next to a stack of crates holding that season’s negatives. He asked if anyone recognized these stars and was met with mostly bafflement. We soon found out why.
Twenty years after this photo was taken, Universal sent a letter to its East Coast lab ordering the destruction of all but 17 of its silent-film negatives. The studio had already lost numerous older titles in fires, and now it was junking the rest of its silent features — hundreds — having decided that most were not worth keeping. It’s no wonder that those stars were unfamiliar: Their own studio destroyed their legacy.”
That said, most of the article deals with the restoration of several classic films, even going to the extent of replacing lost dialogue by hiring actors to mime the voices of the performers in one film where the soundtrack has been destroyed, and points out that while 99.9% of all “movies” today are actually projected digitally – something I’ve discussed in this blog time and time again – a few film booths, and even one nitrate booth at The Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, still survive. Films aren’t really films unless they’re shown on film; it’s that simple.
And it’s also worth nothing, as Dargis does, that “even as major studios have stopped distributing film prints, they make film copies of the elements of their new releases, including those shot on digital. Studios like 20th Century Fox may maintain digital archives of their current releases, but the ‘analog solution,’ in the words of Schawn Belston, its executive vice president, media and library services, ‘is still the most trusted and has well-established archival longevity.’”
With so many films already lost and beyond recall, all we can do is desperately try to save those that still exist. And the film medium, whether on nitrate or safety film, remains one of the most evanescent artistic mediums in human history. If I take a book, throw it on the floor, deface it, mark it up, even tear up pages, just as long as the book can be reconstituted so that it’s legible, new copies can be created be re-setting the type, and reprinting the book. Not so with film; there’s just one negative, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.