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Jeff Spevak looks at the 4th Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum

May 4, 2018

The George Eastman Museum on Friday revealed the titles of the films being screened at the Dryden Theatre this weekend as part of the 4th annual Nitrate Picture Show

WXXI's arts & cultural contributor, Jeff Spevak has this overview of what to expect:

Credit George Eastman Museum

Paolo Cherchi Usai, head film curator at the George Eastman Museum and the festival programmer, says he is proud of the subtitle accompanying the fourth annual Nitrate Picture Show. It is a “Festival of Film Conservation.”

Yes, it is an exploration of artifacts, and all of the history and dust that comes with it. Yet, Usai adds, this weekend’s three days of screenings of films offering nitrate’s explosively colorful and detailed imagery at the George Eastman Museum’s Dryden Theatre is “not just a festival of objects,” he said at Friday morning’s reveal of the program. “A screening of a nitrate print is by all means a live performance.”

We do not use the word “explosive” lightly. The prints are all original, shown on original equipment. And all still chemically volatile, prone to bursting into flame if not stored or shown properly. As such, Usai has estimated that there are only five theaters in the world properly equipped to show nitrate film. He compares the projectionists to musicians, “people who know how to play these instruments.”

A prime example is the 7 p.m. Saturday showing of The Red Shoes, an innovative 1948 film ballet shot in technicolor. Because of sound quality issues with the print owned by the Eastman, the final two reels are from the collection of director Martin Scorsese, whose collection is housed at the Eastman. So this screening of The Red Shoes will be, as Eastman Curator of Film Exhibitions Jurij Meden called it, “a Frankenprint.”

Scene from the movie, 'Holiday'
Credit George Eastman Museum

Print quality is a part of the charm of this cinema archaeology. The festival program notes the flaws of each film. “This print displays light, recurrent vertical base scratching,” it says of Winchester ’73. With some warpage, “making the projectionists’ job even more difficult.” 

Keeping the program secret until the day of the festival is a tradition dating back to Eastman founding curator James Card and the Telluride Film Festival. But as of 9 a.m. Friday, the film enthusiasts here from 15 countries got a look at their blind dates for the weekend:

“Nitrate Shorts,” 4:30 p.m. Friday. Ranging from six to 11 minutes, the six shorts include the 1947 Swedish Symphony of a City, an Academy Award winner depicting one day in Stockholm, to the abstract technicolor animation Trade Tattoo.

Sommarlek, 7:30 p.m. Friday. Translated as “Illicit Interlude,” this 1951 Ingmar Bergman film is a love story considered quite daring for its day.

Holiday, 10 p.m. Friday. A 1938 George Cukor film, in sepia tone, stars Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

The Razor’s Edge, 9:30 a.m. Saturday. A black and white 1948 film from the Somerset Maugham novel starring Tyrone Power.

Mlhy Na Blatech, 1:30 p.m. Saturday. The 1948 Czech drama is translated as “Mist on the Moors.”

Winchester ’73, 4 p.m. Saturday. James Stewart stars in the story of the famous repeating rifle.

The Red Shoes, 7 p.m. Saturday.

Cry of the City, 10 a.m. Sunday. A classic 1948 film noir with a great performance by Victor Mature, an actor previously viewed, according to The New York Times review, as “an actor once suspected of limited talents.”

Vesyolye Rebyata, 1:30 p.m. Sunday. Translated as “Moscow Laughs,” this 1934 film was so popular in the Soviet Union that nitrate prints were recreated of it in 1958, long after nitrate had fallen out of favor. 

“Blind Date With Nitrate,” 3:30 p.m. Sunday. The title of the film will not be revealed until it appears on the screen.

The George Eastman Museum, 900 East Ave., is home to one of the world’s largest collection of nitrate prints, which it stores in Chili, although many of the films shown this weekend come from other collections. All workshops and tours are already sold out, including the tour of the Eastman Museum’s vault. The festival does offer a list of coffee shops and bars where nitrate enthusiasts can meet to discuss the films, or whatever it is that film nerds do. As Usai says, there must be “time to reflect on their viewing experience.”

Festival passes (ranging from $125 to $250) are at eastman.org and the box office, and include admission to the museum and the entire film program. Single-screening tickets are $20, $18 for students and $5 for children.

Jeff Spevak is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com.