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  • Carrie Specht

Rare 35mm Nitrate Prints are to be Celebrated and Seen on Screen


Nitrate, nitrate, nitrate. All the cineastes go on about movies on nitrate. Why do classic film festivals like the TCMFF among others, make such a big deal about screening the old classics on actual nitrate stock? Because nothing, absolutely nothing, makes a film look at its utmost best like a pristine print. And nitrate is as pristine as it gets. So why, if given the opportunity, wouldn't you watch a celebrated film of years gone-by in the best format possible? It's like viewing the highest quality digital presentation, but so, so much better. It lives and breaths with every click of the projector's claw pulling away at the delicate sprockets passing through the illuminating gate of a mechanical magic lantern. It's the closest thing we have to the original experience of seeing a film in an old film in a theater upon its initial release, sitting with an audience in a grand picture palace. It's history, twenty-four frames per second, right before our eyes.


Initially manufactured by Eastman Kodak in the 1880s, nitrate film was the first material that was flexible, strong and transparent enough to carry motion picture frames through the wheels and gates of a projector, creating luminous and crystal sharp images. However, it is extremely flammable, resulting in disaster if ignited. So, it was replaced with acetate-based stock in the 1950s, forsaking quality for necessary safety. Nitrate prints now survive only in archives, kept in special storage conditions. It is essential that only certified theaters with fireproof projection booths present films on nitrate. As it happens, the Rigler Theatre at the Egyptian in Hollywood is one of only four venues in the country certified to do so. And fortunately for LA, the Egyptian is in part curated by the American Cinematheque, an organization dedicated to providing access to classic cinema.


The upcoming weekend event is co-presented by the George Eastman Museum in collaboration with the Library of Congress, the Academy Film Archive and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. (These groups are the heavyweights of film archival). The nitrate projection is made possible through the support of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Turner Classic Movies and the Film Foundation in partnership with the American Cinematheque and the Academy Film Archive (the money men). The 35mm print of Gone to Earth is courtesy of the George Eastman Museum, from producer David O. Selznick’s personal collection, which is very cool!


Other films in the weekend scheduled include two of Alfred Hitchcock's most gorgeous black and white films, Rebecca and Spellbound, and film noir favorites Nightmare Alley and Laura. As a super-spectacular added bonus, a few nitrate experts will be on hand to discuss the importance of preserving the format. One is the Oscar nominated director, Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk, The Dark Knight), another is Academy Award winning director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways) and then there's the George Eastman Museum's Jared Case. With five films set to screen at various times, there's plenty of time to take advantage of this amazing cinematic opportunity to celebrate the best ever film format known to date.