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Film recap: The 2017 Nitrate Picture Show


The George Eastman Museum last weekend hosted the third Nitrate Picture Show, its annual "festival of film preservation" paying tribute to the medium's notoriously combustible early format. The weekend's events included tours of the Eastman Museum's vaults and projection booths, lectures from film scholars Hisashi Okajima and Alexander Horwath, workshops, and demonstrations, all centered on the festival's main event: 10 feature film screenings projected from beautiful nitrate film.

The event has grown in popularity with every installment, and attendees of this year's festival represented more than 20 different countries. That fact is all the more impressive when you consider that, since the specific films being screened are kept under wraps until the morning the festival begins, all those people made the trip to Rochester without knowing precisely what they were going to see.

In addition, this was the first year of the Nitrate Picture Show not to feature any films from the Eastman Museum's own archives -- the screened nitrate prints were loaned from film institutions both in the US and abroad. That variety gave things a more international flavor than previous years, but it is also indicative of the way in which the event has been quickly embraced by a film community eager to take part in it.

Film highlights were the shorts program, which included the delightful "Movies are Adventure," produced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1948 to advertise the magic and wonder of the movies. That program also featured "In a Roman Garden," a bible-inspired short from 1913, which is the oldest known nitrate print still capable of being projected for public viewing.

I also enjoyed "Early Summer" from YasujirĂ´ Ozu and the fizzy fun of "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer" with Cary Grant and Shirley Temple as well as the thrills of Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Spellbound." But my favorite selection had to be 1950's "Night and the City," a wonderfully atmospheric film noir set in and around London's seedy underbelly.

It's become a tradition for the festival to conclude with "A Blind Date With Nitrate," a final screening of a film whose title is kept secret all the way up until the moment it starts rolling. This year's selection was "Restless Blood," a bonkers 1946 Finnish feature from director Teuvo Tulio (whose work Senior Curator Paolo Cherchi Usai described as making "Douglas Sirk look like Robert Bresson"). The film starts off as melodrama before veering sharply and unexpectedly into twisted noir territory.

Almost every screening at The Nitrate Picture Show played to a nearly packed house, and one of the festival's chief pleasures is being in a theater surrounded by fellow cinephiles --many of whom traveled great distances to come to Rochester just for the event -- all excited to see these films the way they were originally intended.

The 2017 James Card Memorial Lecture came from Austrian film scholar Alexander Horwath, who spoke about the relationship between film and memory; about how film can simultaneously capture our history while having a history all its own. Each film print has a story, and with every bit of wear and tear, that story continues to evolve.

My nitrate weekend began with a tour of the Eastman Museum vaults, and being in that (temperature-controlled) environment, it's hard not to feel a bit awed by that history. Seeing -- and even holding -- the originate nitrate negatives of films like "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz," it's mind-boggling to remember that these cinematic treasures are housed right here in Rochester.

And perhaps that's one of the most important functions of The Nitrate Picture Show. As Rochesterians, we have the ability to enjoy a film at the Dryden almost every day of the week, all year round. As a result, it's sometimes easy to take the George Eastman Museum and the Dryden Theatre for granted. It can take seeing the familiar through someone else's eyes to really appreciate what you've got, and the effect of seeing crowds of people come to our city for a taste of what we can experience just about any time we want certainly has that effect.

Events like The Nitrate Picture Show are wonderful not only for learning a bit more about film history, but as a reminder of Rochester's own essential place within it. It's a reminder to appreciate the treasures contained in our own backyard.

The fourth Nitrate Picture Show will be held May 4 to May 6, 2018.