Saturday, October 29, 2005

Saturday Nitrates

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The other day a fellow cinephile asked me if I'd seen Good Night, and Good Luck or Capote yet. My answer was no, that these days I'm generally not drawn to seeing films that seem to me (perhaps I'm being short-sighted) to be made for DVD or cable TV as much as they're made for theatrical release, no matter how good they're reported to be. I'm much more likely to put a priority on seeing something purely cinematic like The Weeping Meadow, especially since I've never seen a Theo Angelopoulos film in a cinema before. His previous film, the Cannes Palme d'Or-winning Eternity and a Day was theatrically released while I was living abroad in a city where prints of his films probably have never played, and Ulysses' Gaze before my cinematic interests included 3-hour art films by Greek auteurs. I won't pretend that I understood the significance of everything I saw in The Weeping Meadow, but I can assure you that my eyes popped over and over. This epic, which Angelopoulos intends to follow with two sequels, is undeniably composed for large screen theatrical viewing, not for even the most audacious of home systems. His long shots need to overpower the viewer with their complexity and their size. His long takes cannot be interrupted by the distractions of the home environment. A pause button would kill this film, and its incredible debut performance by Alexandra Aidini. Perhaps that makes it somehow too fragile to be of much use in the current aesthetic climate, but as long as there's a place like the Balboa taking the risk of showing such a film (if only for four days; The Weeping Meadow ends this Monday Oct. 31!) I'm going to be there.

The same reasoning draws me to as many revived classic films as I can fit into my viewing schedule. Films made in the era before anyone thought seriously of reducing and broadcasting them to mass audiences can feel like revelations when returned to their natural setting. Such was the case of Singin' in the Rain, which I saw at Palo Alto's Stanford Theatre last weekend. I'd only ever seen it on a television set before, and though I liked it, to be honest I'd never quite grasped why it could be so highly esteemed as to earn a place on so many notable top 10 lists; why it had become perhaps the quintessential Hollywood musical. No wonder; in a way I'd never really seen it! It wasn't just that the vastness of the screen helped me to see details like the broken hairs on Donald O'Connor's bow by the end of "Fit as a Fiddle", or the wrinkle in Cyd Charisse's panty hose when she appears in the "Broadway Melody" sequence. It was that the deep blacks, bright whites and vivid candy store colors emphasized the story's fantastic elements and made me more easily forgive the anti-historical, pro-talkie mythologizing. I was able to dream along with the film.

I don't think I'd ever seen any Technicolor print so rich in color and clarity. So when I noticed that the Stanford's printed calendar boasted that every Saturday would feature a screening of "a beautiful original print (usually nitrate from the UCLA film archive)" I had to wonder if I had just seen a nitrate print! I was familiar with Paolo Cherchi Usai's term "epiphany of nitrate", meaning the moment a cinephile may have when viewing cellulose nitrate (the Stanford being one of the few places in the world insured to run the obsolete material through its projectors for the general public) when the palpable difference between it and safety stock is understood, and all but assumed that my experience with this Singin' in the Rain print must have been mine!

But subsequent research showed me to be wrong. I found sources saying that the original nitrate print of Singin' in the Rain had been lost forever, and others implying that Singin' in the Rain was not quite old enough to have been distributed on nitrate prints, the format having been retired in 1951. In any case, a call to the Stanford Theatre's box office confirmed that the Saturday nitrate screenings will always be for the films being shown at 7:30 PM. I had seen nitrate after all; the other half of the double bill. It was a nicely-colored, but horribly scratched (the worst I've seen at the Stanford) and badly spliced print of the airheaded Don Ameche/Betty Grable musical Moon Over Miami. Nothing jawdropping. No epiphany, nitrate or not.

But I'm going back. According to the person I spoke to on the box office phone number, they'll be showing at least six more nitrate prints over the next few months, including Seven Days to Noon (tonight), Stormy Weather (Nov. 5), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (Nov. 12, and specifically promised to be "gorgeous" in the program guide), Down Argentine Way (Dec. 3), Ernst Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait (Dec. 10) and Cover Girl (Dec. 17). I know you can't expect to force an epiphany, but I'm going to see if I can't try anyway. And who knows, maybe there will be some incredible safety stock restorations as second features?

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