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The Nitrate Picture Show 2017

Posted by keith1942 on May 28, 2017

May 5th to 7th 2017 saw the third Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum in New York State. Around 500 enthusiasts from all round the world turned up to see and enjoy early films in their original format. Rarely seen now because of the safety hazards, nitrate has a distinctive palette, a luminosity when light falls on objects, a distinctive contrast with chiaroscuro and a vibrancy in Technicolor. As before we enjoyed ten programmes, nine of them features. The films were introduced, mainly by the archives supplying the prints. And the George Eastman staff and projection team worked tirelessly round the clock so that the Festival ran fairly smoothly. All the films were projected in the Dryden Theatre, spacious, good sightlines, an impressive front curtain and Century projectors with safety fittings in the booth.

As in previous years the titles in the Picture Show were only released on the Friday morning. I am not sympathetic to this approach. Paolo Cherchi Usai, the director, explained that the purpose of the Festival is to watch nitrate film rather than particular titles. However, I have several friends who find this problematic; partly because they may already have seen some films and seen them in nitrate prints. In addition the quality of the prints varies, not surprisingly, since the age of these ranges from 70 years to over a 100. Apart from the wear and tear of exhibition the film suffer shrinkage; and the rate is provided in the Picture Show brochure. Still this year’s programme was worth the trip.

The opening programme on Friday afternoon offered seven short films. The earliest was a silent with piano accompaniment by Philip Carli: sadly the only silent in the programme.

In a Roman Garden    Donald MacDonald, US 1913. Museum of Modern Art, New York    Running time: 12 minutes. “This copy has 38 splices. As customary for films of the early era, each projection print was assembled by splicing together different shots. Shrinkage: 0.95%. Produced by the Powers Motion Picture Company in New York, this costume drama of religious subject is the earliest film shown so far at the Nitrate Picture Show.”

The main character Marcus, was an epicurean. He was taken with a young dancer on whom forced attentions. However, he was soon under her charms and her religion, Christian.

The film made extensive use of a lake as a setting. There was tinting extant on the print, especially blue for evenings. This was not great filmmaking but fascinating. The plot, involving decadent Romans and a Christian maiden, reminded me of the skeleton plot for The Robe.

En Kluven Värld / A Divided World, Arne Sucksdorff, Sweden 1948. Svenska Filminstitutet (Swedish Film Institute), Stockholm. Running time: 9 minutes. “Donated to the Swedish Film Institute in 2003 by a private collector, the print is in wonderful condition, with only nine splices. Shrinkage: 0.75%. Arguably the greatest by the Swedish master of shorts. Arne Sucksdorff, A Divided World is a hauntingly beautiful, poetic depiction of animal hierarchy in a forest somewhere in Sweden on a winter night.”

This was indeed a delight. I have seen Sucksdorff’s films before and he is idiosyncratic. The films at first appear as documentary but often, like this short film, they are akin to fantasy. The film presented a winter nighttimes landscape where animals, including s ferret, a rabbit, a fox and an owl searched the terrain. The depiction reached a rather macabre climax. The black and white moonlit images looked great, but this was studio rather than actual settings. The film also made good use of natural sounds with more dramatic accompanying music.

Together in the Weather George Pal, US 1946. Library of Congress, Culpeper, VA. Running time: 7 minutes. “The copy is in overall good condition. Shrinkage: 0.7% One of the most beloved (and edgiest) “Puppetoons” by the famous Academy Award–winning Hungarian-American master of stop-motion puppet animation.”

I am more familiar with George Pal’s science fiction features but in the 1940s he made a series of animated short films under the generic title ‘Puppetoons’. This title involved a romance between two animated weather vanes; as the introduction suggested the story had quite an adult feel for the 1940s. The well presented puppets looked great in Technicolor.

The Kidnapper’s Foil, Melton Barker, US 1930.. Library of Congress, Culpeper, VA. Running time: 17 minutes. “The print is generally in good condition, with twelve splices and some perforation and edge damage. Shrinkage: 0.7% A unique treasure of our shorts program, this early example of truly independent, amateur small-town filmmaking is the original that inspired Barker to travel the United States for forty years, remaking the same film with local children.”

Neither film nor print was memorable but it did seem unique: a slice of genuine ‘Americana’.

The other short films were Movies are Adventure, Jack Hively, US 1948, Academy Film Archive. Pá Ski Med Pwer Og Kari, Skiing with Per and Kari, Norway 1948, Nasjonalbiblioteket. Something You Didn’t Eat, James Algar, US 1945, Museum of Modern Art – a war time animation.

The first feature film was on Friday evening.

Bakushū/ / Early Summer, Yasujirō Ozu, Japan 1951. National Film Center, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Running time: 124 minutes.

This was a fine example of Ozu’s filmmaking. It was fairly typical of his later films, though not quite as minimalists as some: there were a couple of tracking shots used. There were a lot of familiar faces both in front of and behind the camera. Setsuko Hara played the lead as Noriko Mamiya. Aficionados of Ozu tend to have an almost obsessive delight in this actress. She was excellent but I was also struck by Chikage Awashima playing her close friend and confidant Aya Tamura. Aya was less of a traditionalist and the scenes where they discussed their different situations were a delight.

The Cinematography by Yûharu Atsuta was also a delight. However, the print was slightly warped and the focus, especially when deep staging was in use, was not consistent.

Early Summer (1951)
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
Shown: Setsuko Hara (as Noriko), Chikage Awashima (as Aya Tamura )

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, Irvin Reis, US 1947. Academy Film Archive, Los Angeles. Running time: 95 minutes. “The print is in very good condition, though it does have significant curl. Shrinkage: 0.6%.”

I had seen this film before. It stars Cary Grant and Myrna Loy: two fine actors who looked out of their comfort zone in this film. A teenage Shirley Temple was not in their class. The print did look good, but I wished that a better film had survived on nitrate.

Anchors Away George Sidney, US 1945. British Film Institute, London Running time: 143 minutes “Generally in good condition, the print has a few visible light to medium scratches (both emulsion and base) and slight nicks at the edges. Heavy edge wave throughout the print; perforations, however, are undamaged. Shrinkage: 0.35–0.55%.”

I was surprised to find the the film runs over two hours, it had never seemed that long. Gene Kelly dances superbly, especially with the ‘little girl dancer’ and played his usual ne.er do well character saved by the ‘good woman’. Sinatra was surprisingly innocent but has a couple of fine numbers. Dean Stockwell was no more objectionable than the average Hollywood ‘cure’ kid. José Iturbi was a better conductor than actor. And Kathryn Grayson had a great voice but it was in a different register from Kelly’s: I wondered wishfully what the film would have been like with Judy Garland. However the ‘Jerry the Mouse’ sequence was superb and technically masterful. Kelly’s films do tend to have sequences with children, presumably to humanise him. The print looked great but the second reel was slightly sploggy. Presumably the M-G-M sent a master across for the British Labs and experts there were divided if this was the print or a projection bulb. The film confirmed how good Technicolor looks on nitrate.

In the afternoon we had two Czech films.

Źhavý Jicen / Hot Throat, Jiří Lehovec, Czechoslovakia 1939. PNárodní filmový archiv (National Film Archive), Prague. Running time: 12 minutes. “The National Film Archive received this nitrate print from the estate of the film’s director in March 2004. The print is in excellent condition. Shrinkage: 1.3% An industrial short produced by Pražská železářská společnost (Prague Ironworks Company) in 1939, the film contains footage from the shorts Výroba oceli (Steel Production, 1939)—today presumed lost—and Poklady země (Treasures of the Earth, 1939), both directed by Karel Kohout.”

The introduction explained that the film was made at the time that the Third Reich was dismembering Czechoslovakia. Thus, whilst the film was overtly an industrial documentary, covertly a sub-text obliquely presented a nationalist stance. This appeared to have been achieved mainly through the music. This was extremely martial: if I had not known about its resonances I would have been puzzled as to the significance.

Seréna / The Strike, Karel Steklý, Czechoslovakia 1947. Národní filmový archiv (National Film Archive), Prague. Running time: 77 minutes. “The print is in very good condition. It was deposited with the National Film Archive at some point before 1952, and is probably the print of Siréna that was screened in 1947 at the 8th Venice International Film Festival where the film won the Grand International Award. Shrinkage: 0.8–0.95%”. “a dignified and an even more brilliant counterpart, with its proletarian story about the working-class Hudcový family. It is an intense, extensively detailed, and often riveting picture about the bitter cycle of existence for the poor, a picture of misery and grief, warmed only by the rays of human love and hardened by the hate that compels one to clench their fists and come to blows—perhaps even wrongly.” – Jan Žalman, Kino, May 9, 1947.”

This was a powerful depiction of a C19th strike with on one side the working class mining community and on the other the bourgeois owners and their lackeys among the government and military elites. The brochure drew a comparison with the British The Stars Look Down (1940). I thought this misplaced. The British film is a melodrama which focuses on a working class leader, played by Michael Redgrave. This film was much closer to the slightly earlier German film Die Weber / The Weavers (1927), an adaptation of a play from 1892. Both films dramatically present the exploitation and concurrent oppression of the workers. In both cases a strike leads to confrontation with the authorities, violence and the wreaking of the bourgeois mansion. This version presented the confrontations with dramatic flair and powerful cuts as the conflict developed.

Phantom of the Opera Arthur Lubin, US 1943. Print from David W. Packard. Running time: 92 minutes. “Occasional curling and brittleness throughout the print. Despite the overall stiffness of the base, the copy has an excellent look on the screen, with saturated colors and minimal scratches. Shrinkage: 0.65–0.75%. “Phantom of the Opera” is far more of a musical than a chiller, though  this element is not to be altogether discounted, and holds novelty appeal.”

The film certainly lacked the disturbing and scary features of the earlier version: only the more recent musical (2004) is inferior. The film makes use of a number of operatic [or operetta] sequences, but these were rather flat. Claude Rains in the title role had some promising scenes but was never properly exploited. And the romantic hero and Police Inspector were played more for laughs than frights. It did, though, look great. The Technicolor was vibrant and the contrast, especially in the sequences below the Opera House, was excellent.

In the evening we enjoyed a special treat

Alexsandr Nevskij / Alexander Nevsky, Sergei M. Eisenstein and Dmitriy Vasilev, Soviet Union 1938. Österreichisches Filmmuseum (Austrian Film Museum), Vienna. Running time: 108 minutes “At some point in the 1960s, this became the 324th print to enter the collection of the Austrian Film Museum, likely a donation of the Soviet embassy in Vienna. The print is in excellent condition. Shrinkage: 0.8–1%. “In Nevsky, the white robes of the Teuton Ritter were associated with the themes of cruelty, oppression and death, while the color of black, attached to the Russian warriors, conveyed the positive themes of heroism and patriotism.” (Sergei Eisenstein, ‘The Film Sense’, 1942).”

The Introduction suggested ‘Socialist realism’, for me a complete misnomer. Whilst the film falls into the period when that form was dominant the film is not realist, and whilst there are convertional characters their treatment transforms them. The film is famous for the battle on the ice at the climax, but all the way through the nitrate print added luminosity to the armour and the decoration, and finally the ice bound, lake. Eduard Tisse’s cinematography was, as ever, magnificent. And the film enjoyed a pioneering score by Sergei Prokofiev, though, unfortunately, the aged soundtrack did not do this full justice,

I was pleased to see that the Brochure added a note of approval by Uncle Joe:

“It is necessary to show historical figures correctly and strongly. You directed Alexander Nevskij. It came out very well. The most important thing is to maintain the style of the historical period.” – Joseph Stalin in conversation with Sergei Eisenstein, Moscow, February 1947.”

Before the closed we had another short film. A warning about its content reduced the audience, presumably including vegetarians and vegans and those with sensitive stomachs.

Le Sang des bêtes / Blood of the Beasts, Georges Franju, France 1949. La Cinémathèque française, Paris. Running time: 22 minutes.  “Donated to La Cinémathèque française by André Joseph, editor and first assistant of Georges Franju, cofounder of the Cinémathèque, the print is in great shape, with very few scratches or splices. Shrinkage: 0.6%. A haunting documentary classic that details the daily operations of Paris slaughterhouses.”

One of the outstanding documentaries, though it makes no concessions to ‘good taste’ or audience sensibilities. This shocking approach is part of the film’s project. Not a great print but it looked fine.

Ironically this screening was followed by the reception provided by the Museum for the guests at the Picture Show. There was a plentiful supply of meats on offer including beef, but not [as far as I could tell] horse meat.

Night and the City, Jules Dassin, UK/US 1950. UCLA Film and Television Archive, Los Angeles. Running time: 111 minutes. “This very special pre-release print of the noir classic runs ten minutes longer than the UK cut and a full fifteen minutes longer than the most widely known US cut. The print is in excellent condition. Shrinkage: 0.9–1.15%.”

This is a noir classic and contains some fine location shooting in London by Max Greene. The art direction for the interiors and sets was skilfully done by C. P. Norman. And the editing by Nick de Maggio and Sidney Stone was fluid and keeps the pace of the film tight. Jules Dassin orchestrated this team with fine direction. The same applied to the cast. Richard Widmark gave a standout performance as Harry Fabian, verbose and flashy but vulnerable and ultimately tragic. The supporting cast was a sheer pleasure: Googie Withers (Helen Nosseross) was hard and cynical whilst husband Francis L. Sullivan (Philip Nosseross) was weak under the calculating bonhomie; Herbert Lom as a wrestling impresario Kristo was impressively threatening and Stanislaus Zbyszko   completely convincing as a classic Greek wrestler Gregorius. Smaller parts were equally well played, as, for example by Maureen Delaney  as Anna O’Leary , a sympathetic black-marketer.  Then there was Gene Tierney (Mary Bristol). Someone at George Eastman is obviously a fan; we have had one of her movies in each of the three Picture Shows, previously Laura in 2016 and Leave Her to Heaven in 2015.

The longer print was intriguing though the additional footage was not obvious. My New York friend reckoned that the final wrestling match was shorter in the US version. As far as the UK version goes I thought there were possibly a couple of extra lines of dialogue, otherwise difficult to tell. But it was a sharp print. The chiaroscuro looked great and the London scenes, especially along the river, were worth a trip to see.

 Spellbound, Alfred Hitchcock, UK 1945. Library of Congress, Culpeper, VA. Running time: 111 minutes.”This print was submitted for copyright deposit at the Library of Congress by David O. Selznick. It includes a very special effect at the end of the film—blink and you will miss it! There is very little scratching, and the black-and-white emulsion has retained all of its luster. Shrinkage: 0.5–0.6%.      “This writer has had little traffic with practitioners of psychiatry or with the twilight abstractions of their science, so we are not in a position to say whether Ingrid Bergman, who plays one in her latest film, Spellbound, is typical of such professionals or whether the methods she employs would yield results. But this we can say with due authority: if all psychiatrists are as charming as she—and if their attentions to all their patients are as fruitful as hers are to Gregory Peck, who plays a victim of amnesia in this fine film which came to the Astor yesterday—then psychiatry deserves such popularity as this picture most certainly will enjoy. For Miss Bergman and her brand of treatment, so beautifully demonstrated here, is a guaranteed cure for what ails you, just as much as it is for Mr. Peck.”

Seventy years on these psycho-analysts has little in common with that proposed by Sigmund Freud. But Ingrid Bergman is captivating. Whilst Gregory Peck tends to the wooden, in this case, as an amnesiac, it works well. There is a delightful supporting role with Michael Chekhov as Dr. Alexander Brulov. And the most realistic exit from an elevator you could hope to see.

The standout sequence is that designed for the film by Salvador Dali, though it demonstrates why he was not a fully-paid up Surrealist. The ‘special effect’ at the end was a shot in Technicolor. This nicely rounded off the print. Though its visual qualities did not show off nitrate’s characteristics to full effect. there were some fine close-ups of Ingrid Bergman, but no tear to match the much talk-about drop in Casablanca screened in  2015.

So to the final film and the ‘Blind Date’ of the Festival. This screening is kept secret till the audience see the opening credits of the film. The Brochure contained a single still, a puzzle to ponder over from Friday to Sunday. Our little group narrowed it down to 1940s European; variously German, Italian or French. The shot contains cobbles and a drain, not objects in which we had many cinematic references. We were only warm, the title emerged as Finnish.

Lovoton Veri / Restless Blood , Teuvo Tulio, Finland 1946. KAVI, Kansallinen audiovisuaalinen instituutti. (National Audiovisual institute) Helsinki. Runing time: 91 minutes.            “Opinions on Restless Blood are quite abruptly divided…”

My sense of the audience was that the division in the Dryden Theatre was between people who found it slightly amusing or interesting and a [possibly] larger number who were baffled by why the film was selected. It is basically a melodrama involving family and sexual relationships, with the film dominated by the star Regina Linnanheimo as Sylvi: an impressively over-wrought performance. The script was not well judged and the technical aspects offered low production values and some really skimpy cinematography: some of the close-ups were seriously inadequate.

In his introduction to the film, avoiding any hard information, Paolo Cherchi Usai suggested we were about to see an ‘auteur’ who has been overlooked and forgotten and needed to be re-discovered. This was auteur not in the usual sense of familiar style and themes but ‘auteur’ in the sense of an obsessive focus on certain characters and situations. A friend who has seen some films directed by Tulio in the 1930s thought those were better; this title did not inspire me to find out.

I think this demonstrates the problem with ‘secret’ programmes. The reliance on other’s tastes and criteria. Happily most of the programme justified that, this film was an unfortunate exception.

Alongside the screening there were several illustrated talks.

‘Motion Picture Show on a 1905 Projector’.

This was a 35mm print run through a 1905 Lubin machine from the Archive. The print was hand-cranked and the exhibition was really interesting. It was not, given the guests were filing round to look at the projection closely, a nitrate print. it was an Edison short, The Land Beyond Sunset from 1912. I had seen this film before, at my first ever visit to Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. However, I would have liked to be able to have sat down and watched the whole film: maybe in future such an event could end with a re-screening of the print?

We also had ‘Keepers of the Frame’: Hisashi Okajima from the National Film Center in Japan. He has a long involvement in this key archive. He talked about his experiences and the ravages that have destroyed much of the Japanese film heritage. These included the earthquake in 1923, fire bombing in World War II and then a fire in the archive in 1986.

Alexander Horwath gave ‘The James Card Memorial Lecture’. He is director of the Ősterreichisches Filmmuseum [Austrian Film Museum]. Quoting from Walter Benjamin he talked about film as a ‘heritage’, emphasising the act of projection and viewing as the focal centre. He also offered two short films on nitrate: ‘Death Mills’ produced in 1945 by the victorious allies for screening to German civilians. This was footage, mainly of the death camps, that presented the Holocaust in direct and bleak images. it seemed to contain some of the footage that was also sued in Resnais. masterly Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard 1956). The second was Rouen, martyre d’une cité (1945). The latter showed the wartime damage to the city. The contrasts between the films was emphatic, though I had reservations about the comments on this contrast. I think there is a discussion to b had about audiences, images and values in these examples.

There was also a documentary on archive work on the Thursday evening: I missed this having an early night. But apparently in the discussion people were using the terms – ‘film’, i.e. nitrate and acetate; and ‘file, i.e. digital. This seems to me a really useful distinction but I doubt the industry could be persuaded to take it on board.

Overall a very worthwhile weekend. Some fine movies, some really fine prints, and an opportunity to see something that is becoming another vanishing species: not because it is ephemeral, having a far longer shelf life than digital, but through lack of attention in the industry. There is debate about the issue of shrinkage. This year’s highest ratio was Night and the City, at 1.5%: this was the outstanding print of the Festival. Shrinkage presumably creates projection difficulties but the prints can still look great. There was a recurring focus problem on one projector, slight but affecting the depth of field.

Next year’s Picture Show will be on May 4th to 6th. This means that once more the opportunity arises of celebrating the birthdays of Max Ophuls and Orson Welles with a print; I gather the organisers are looking, especially for Orson’s.

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