2017: A Film Festival Restrospective from the Northeast, above all, the Berkshire and the Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum, Rochester

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Film festivals have become an integral part of film-going life. They are no longer the preserve of industry professionals, now attended by a variety of cinephiles and even casual viewers, who may have read a title or a preview that struck their fancy. Not a few worthy films will never make it into general distribution. We take that for granted, and a festival award may be the best many filmmakers can hope for. A screening at a festival before a roomful of living humans in itself seems more tangible than a showing on cable or one of the streaming networks.

Students at the Holy Trinity Music School in Haiti, scene from Owsley Brown's Serenade for Haiti.
Students at the Holy Trinity Music School in Haiti, scene from Owsley Brown’s Serenade for Haiti.

I experienced the phenomenon at its best this past June at the Berkshire International Film Festival. I have already written about Serenade for Haiti, Owsley Brown’s moving documentary about the Holy Trinity Music School, which I viewed with a packed audience at the Triplex Cinema, one of its Great Barrington venues. The festival, known as BIFFMA or BIFF, spreads itself out through the Berkshires by screening also in Pittsfield. The enthusiasm and energy of the generally mature local crowd in the pleasant outdoor space in front of the Triplex was infectious, and the questions posed by the audience in the cinema were intelligent and informed.

Christopher Plummer in The Exception.
Christopher Plummer in The Exception.

I could only see one other film at the festival, The Exception, a historical drama about the relations of the National Socialist government with Kaiser Wilhelm II, as played out around a visit in May 1940 by Heinrich Himmler to the chateau in Holland where the former Kaiser was living in exile at the time. The film saw only limited release in the US last summer and did not fare especially well. I found it an absorbing and entertaining “what if” concoction imagined within the interstices of historical events. Hitler and his circle hinted that they might want to reinstate the Kaiser on his throne to lend them legitimacy, but in fact their purposes were more treacherous than that. The expository scenes, which David Leveaux, who has worked primarily on the stage, directed with a fine sense of the interaction of people gathered together in grand rooms in unpredictable situations, were quite witty, and we were not failed by suspenseful encounters with Nazis and a chase for a finale. Not a great film, but well worth seeing as entertainment.

The occasion for the screening was the presence of the actor who played the Kaiser, Christopher Plummer, who was honored by the festival for his lifetime achievement in film. This event took place at the Mahaiwe Arts Center. I was especially impressed by the graciousness and urbanity of everyone involved, especially Kelley Vickery, Executive Director of BIFF, who introduced Mr. Plummer and film critic David Edelstein, who engaged the actor more in conversation and reminiscence than an interview. Their exchange, which lasted around an hour, was rather franker and more relaxed than what one might see on television, and was mercifully free of pretension and smug Hollywood self-promotion. One important event, which I did not attend this year, is the Filmmaker Summit, a two-day “program of panel discussions, lectures, special events, and breakout sessions lead by known industry professionals, the BIFF Filmmakers Summit is designed to celebrate and support the advancement of filmmakers and recognize film as a relevant and important medium.”

As a first-time visitor, I throughly enjoyed my visit to BIFF and went away with the impression that it reflects especially well on our communities in the Berkshires, because, in addition to the arts community rooted in our museums, music, theater, and dance festivals, there is a real film community, and a vibrant one at that, thanks to resources like BIFF, the Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative, and the numerous filmmaking talents who have made the Berkshires their home.

I have written elsewhere about Kino!2017, a festival of German cinema, both old and current, held in early April, at the Sunshine Cinema, now, sadly, slated for demolition.

A Nitrate Projection at the Dryden. Can you identify the film that's being shown?
A Nitrate Projection at the Dryden. Can you identify the film that’s being shown?

An especially exciting experience this past year was The George Eastman Museum’s Nitrate Picture Show, which was the most unusual of festivals in that the titles of the films to be shown were kept a secret until the day the festival began. The Eastman Museum has its own, extremely important collection of nitrate prints, but all of those shown were loans from institutions around the world, and one from a private collector, David W. Packard, whose philanthropy has set his stamp on the study of the Classics and also includes film preservation and opera. The Dryden Theater was packed for every screening with a most diverse audience: cinephiles who had traveled far to attend, film preservationists, some from the lending institutions, as well as local people who were in the habit of taking advantage of one of Rochester’s cultural treasures. George Eastman, through his Eastman Kodak Company and through his philanthropy had a huge impact—for the better—on how we all live today—but above all for the people of Rochester. So, along with the rest of us, who just enjoy good movies and are fascinated with how they are constructed, there were specialists in attendance, who had a chance to meet with their colleagues from distant parts and to talk shop. There were also lectures and presentations, mostly on film and its conservation.

As most cinemas make the transition to exclusively digital projection, film has become more precious to cinephiles. A few directors still shoot entirely or largely on film. Prints are still made, also of classic films and these are treasured at venues like the Film Forum or MoMA. If these fulfill a need somewhat like that for vinyl discs, nitrate prints are rather more like 78 rpm records. If you listen to one of these recordings, stamped from directly-cut originals, on a high-quality and well-adjusted turntable, arm, cartridge, and stylus, their presence and dynamic range are astonishing. Nitrate prints went out roughly around the same time as 78s. After many years of professional use, a consumer vinyl long-playing record was introduced in 1949. In 1952, Eastman Kodak began a four-year transition to phase out the highly combustible nitrate film, which had been the motion picture industry standard since the beginnings of cinema. The idea that nitrate prints have special qualities in respect to local tonal values, dynamic range, spreading from inky darks to silvery highlights, and a sense of three-dimensionality has been rumored for quite a long time. I have long regretted missing a unique screening of a nitrate print in Cleveland around 1990. This was part of a program of the Cleveland Museum of Art, where I worked as a curator, but the film could only be screened offsite, at an old cinema with the fire department at hand.

The Nitrate Projectors at the Dryden Theater.
The Nitrate Projectors at the Dryden Theater.

The Dryden Theater is one of the few cinemas licensed and able to show nitrate prints safely. When the film ignites, the fire is extremely difficult to put out. The projectors at the Dryden have a special chamber around the film gate, which seals off oxygen it the film should jam or catch fire. In the northeast MoMA also occasionally shows nitrate prints.

I had to miss a few of the films at the beginning and end of the festival, which included Hitchcock’s Spellbound, which I should have loved to have seen in nitrate, as well as “A Blind Date with Nitrate.” Eastman likes to play with the preliminary secrecy of its program to include a “mystery movie.”

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

My Nitrate Picture Show experience began with Yasujirō Ozu’s Bakushū (Early Summer, 1951), a masterpiece which I was seeing for the first time. This is a story of the transition of traditional customs to the modern, as a strong, admirable young woman, much treasured by her family for her usefulness and good sense, delays marriage, until she decides for a man not approved by her family. I was deeply moved by the multi-faceted family story and the performance of the supremely beautiful and discreetly expressive Setsuko Hara in the principle role. The qualities of the nitrate print were subtle, mostly apparent in local gradations of tone and a general glow. Ozu was a master of compositional depth, and his dramatic scenes, built on a back-to-front axis, made themselves felt with or without the advantages of nitrate.

Cary Grant, Shirley Temple, Gregory Gaye, and Myrna Loy in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.
Cary Grant, Shirley Temple, Gregory Gaye, and Myrna Loy in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.

The next film came from Hollywood, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), an RKO Picture directed by Irving Reis from an original story and screenplay by Sidney Sheldon, who won an Oscar for his work. Robert de Grasse and Nicholas Musuraca, as directors of photography, worked with their own sense of back-to-front space, often quite expansively, and in this case the rich tonalities of the print brought out the three-dimensionality of their vision. I wish I had enjoyed the movie more. I didn’t find it all that amusing. Sheldon’s urbane screenplay was replete with sexist jokes which belong in their time, but make one feel uncomfortable today. There is a scene in which Myrna Loy’s character, Judge Margaret Turner, is revealed as such with frames concentrating on her elegant hands, revealing her extraordinary beauty and making a joke of it. This kind of humor, which I suppose we should enjoy historically, fell flat. Still there were a few amusing situations, and I’ll try to see the film again some time when I’m in a different mood. This doesn’t make it any less excellent a candidate for screening. It was a splendid demonstration of the qualities of nitrate in expert Hollywood hands, and was enlivened by characteristically snappy acting from Ms. Loy and Cary Grant.

Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh.
Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh.

The next morning, proceedings began at 9:30 am with the MGM musical, Anchors Aweigh, which presumably needs no introduction. This was the first time I’ve seen it from beginning to end, uncut, in its full 140-minute glory. Who cannot be charmed by this pinnacle of family entertainment? It seemed rather long for a juvenile audience, but much of the film was aimed at children, especially the core relationship between Gene Kelly’s character, Joseph Brady, and the orphaned boy, Donald Martin, played by Dean Stockwell. The singing, dancing, and acting of Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson, José Iturbi, and above all, Pamela Britton are classic, and the Technicolor nitrate print was resplendent in its full plasticity and saturation. Also classic are the scenes of over-the-top musical kitsch, as in the battalion of pianos on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl.

A Scene from Siréna.
A Scene from Siréna.

The film which has most indelibly lodged in my memory was Siréna (The Strike) (Karel Steklý, Czechoslovakia, 1947), which, based on a novel, tells the story of a historical 1889 strike at Bohemian steel mills. The workers rose up against the Austrian owners of the local steel mills and bravely faced the consequences. Not only was it a superb film as narration and imagery, it seemed intensely real, down to the sweat of the factory workers. I assumed that that the actors were non-professional peasants engaged for their roles and was astonished to learn that the principals were classically-trained stars of the National Theater in Prague. It won the best film award at the Venice International Film Festival, competing against Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and I daresay it deserved it. It haunts me as apparently a product of verismo, which shows itself as an elaborately constructed studio film in the large-scale action sequences towards the end. The tones were rich and deep, splendid to watch. At the Biennale, it was apparently in danger of being ignored as an entry from an obscure, provincial source, but the director cleverly managed to draw attention to his film in a press conference and influenced the judges to take it seriously. At the time, the communist government had not yet come to power. Czechoslovakia was governed by a coalition between 1946 and 1948. The picture of the popular uprising presented in Siréna is indeed leftish in its sympathies, but still free from official doctrine. The focus of interest is psychological, dwelling on the effect of the bosses’ behavior, intolerable working conditions, and the workers’ response to it on their lives as they live them. Familial ties, adultery, and alcohol play as much of a role as social issues.

The chandelier of the Salle Garnier looms ominously as lusty Russian cavort on stage to the music of Tchaikovsky.
The chandelier of the Salle Garnier looms ominously as lusty Russian cavort on stage to the music of Tchaikovsky.

From this visceral depiction of a historical uprising against exploiters and oppressors, we moved to another classic of Hollywood kitsch, The Phantom of the Opera. It is more a musical of operatic pastiches than a horror film. Its Technicolor looked magnificent, and I have always been deeply besotted by Claude Rains’s baroque acting, and the “Russian opera” is a hoot. This was David W. Packard’s personal contribution to the festival, one reflecting his passion for opera and cinema, and a most welcome one. Dr. Packard himself has created an operatic film, a highly regarded one of a production he supported in San José of Mozart’s great Idomeneo.

Nikolai Cherkasov as Aleksander Nevskij in Sergej Eisenstein's film.
Nikolai Cherkasov as Aleksander Nevskij in Sergej Eisenstein’s film.

An artistic classic among classics ensued in a splendid print of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. At one congenial point in the relations between the Soviet Union and Austria in the 1960s, the latter’s film institute received the gift of this print. Its presence and immediacy made it clear how much richer an experience it was to see a film like this back in the day. The quality of the print made the expansive spaces of the battle on the ice and the gatherings of soldiers and knights in their silver armor quite spectacular.

It's curtains for Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) in Jules Dassin's Night and the City.
It’s curtains for Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) in Jules Dassin’s Night and the City.

My last screening was Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, in a nitrate print discovered in the UCLA collection. Dassin made the film in England with a British and American cast. Blacklisted, he could no longer work in Hollywood. No one realized until the print had a preliminary screening at Rochester that it is in fact is longer than either the British or American cuts of the film. It was presumably a print made for the British censors. I have seen the film before in the American version, but I always had reservations about it, as if it were either a very good, but not great, British film, or an American film impaired by British conventions. In this print those reservations disappeared, and I thought it an exceptional piece of work. The curators discussing it found it hard to identify what made for the ten minutes or so which make it a great film rather than a very good one. The word is, that Dassin preferred the shorter American version over the British. To me, the UCLA version is best of all. The extra temporal space, which presumably expands several scenes allows for the film’s psychological expression to bloom, and this is more important than the action. We should all hope that Criterion may release a Blu-Ray of all three versions, or at least of this one.

This will give you an idea of the many different insights and issues that arise out of this wonderful festival. For my part, I never want to miss the Nitrate Picture Show again…or BIFF, for that matter.

Tickets went on sale only a few days ago. Buy your passes here.

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