This article appeared in the June 14, 2024 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944)

Nitrate film stopped being used in the early 1950s. What had once been the industry standard was replaced by a variety of “safety” film stocks, so named because they, unlike their predecessor, were not prone to spontaneous combustion into inextinguishable fire. A festival dedicated to the projection of nitrate film will inevitably hit a historical limit. Every year at the Nitrate Picture Show, hosted by the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, the prints get older and more brittle. At some not-too-distant point in the future, it will become impossible to run the festival at all.

The George Eastman Museum is one of the few places in the world that is equipped to project nitrate film. It takes three projectionists to run each screening, and months of preparation to source, inspect, and repair prints. The endeavor is undoubtedly precious. In his opening remarks, Festival Director Peter Bagrov quipped that an “esteemed colleague” likened the festival to “spoiled billionaires eating extinct animals.” I don’t think there were billionaires at the Museum’s Dryden Theatre, which was full for the entirety of the four-day festival, but you can’t always tell by looking. I can say that there was one person wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Paul Schrader’s art-film diagram from his revised edition of Transcendental Style in Film. A few people sported straw hats, polka dots, and other 1940s-inspired attire. Many wore open-toed sandals.

It would be wrong to mistake the appreciation of nitrate as fetishism. To fetishize film would be to seal it away in a refrigerated vault and never touch or see it—to view projection as a purely destructive act. But the Nitrate Picture Show operates according to the opposite principle, in which the highest compliment that can be paid to a film is to screen it. Neither is the festival an exercise in nostalgia. (We have TCM for that.) Nostalgia is in many ways about an idealized past, a selective and sanitized one that never really existed. The Nitrate Picture Show’s emphasis on format shifts attention, instead, to history—to the life of a print, which is visible in scratches, warping, and clipped frames.

In a bit of irony, films that were less popular upon their release are more likely to have survived thus far in projectable condition. The same goes for films that were neglected or lost for a while. The print of D.W. Griffith’s magisterial Intolerance (1916), which opened this year’s festival, had been struck by MoMA in 1935, then made its way to Germany, where it was held in a Nazi archive. After the war, the print traveled to East Germany, where it languished for decades before turning up in Dayton, Ohio, where the Library of Congress stored nitrate in the late 1990s. It was only because this print was inaccessible and missing for so long that it could be screened in 2024. The story’s intrigue only added to the film’s world-historical bombast.

Watching Intolerance last week was my first time ever laying eyes on nitrate. Because it was projected at the silent-film speed of 16 frames per second (instead of the 24 frames per second typically used for talkies), the impression of fluttering was especially strong. I understood why people have described nitrate as “alive.” The image was also startlingly bright. According to Bagrov, this was a result of nitrate stock’s transparent base and high density of silver. But on the screen, what I saw was not just a clearer image but also a more vibrant one. During the Friday morning shorts program, Bagrov asked us to try and distinguish between two versions of the same film: Disney’s The Skeleton Dance (1929), which features four animated skeletons making music and mischief in a graveyard. One version was a diacetate safety print; the other was nitrate. By a show of hands, the audience (including myself, I’m proud to say) correctly identified the nitrate print. I had looked for contrast, flatness, and brilliance, but ultimately it came down to feeling: what felt fuller, more present.

Two late-festival screenings took up the topic of nostalgia explicitly: Raoul Walsh’s The Strawberry Blonde (1941) and Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) both look at the turn of the 20th century from their wartime vantage points. Much of The Strawberry Blonde is a flashback: James Cagney, playing a dentist named Biff, recalls how his double-crossing business associate also stole his crush, Virginia (a coquettish Rita Hayworth). Back in the present, Biff gets his chance at revenge—his rival has arrived at his office with a toothache, and Biff reaches for nitrous oxide. But when he sees Virginia bitterly sniping at her miserable husband, he discovers that justice has already prevailed. Happily settled with Virginia’s friend Amy (Olivia de Havilland, who shines in an unexpected comedic role), Biff realizes that, despite everyone’s worst impulses, things have worked out for the best.

The same is true for Minnelli’s classic musical, which looks back to a genteel St. Louis on the eve of the 1904 World’s Fair. An Austenesque family of four daughters (plus a son) hope that romance will come with the arrival of the fair, but when their father announces that they will be leaving their beloved hometown for New York City, the tone shifts, aided in no small part by Judy Garland’s moody rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” On the surface, the film is a riot of ruffles, horse-drawn buggies, and girls with, as Garland sighs, “too much bloom.” But why does young Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) spin tales of violently murdered dolls? What are “all our troubles” that Garland sings about? The film never reveals what lurks behind the frame except, as a friend remarked to me, in the repression so palpably exerted in the family’s efforts to maintain its decorous Victorian order. This is the essence of nostalgia, which labors to reshape the past into a desirable image that serves the present. In Minnelli’s time, the world war loomed darkly over life everywhere—except in the illuminated St. Louis he created on film.

The same war was addressed obliquely in Max Ophüls’s 1940 De Mayerling à Sarajevo (From Mayerling to Sarajevo), which chronicles the love affair between Archduke Franz Ferdinand (John Lodge) and a Czech countess, Sophie Chotek (Edwige Feuillère). The film both presumes and ignores the audience’s familiarity with the plight of the archduke, whose assassination in Sarajevo led to the outbreak of the First World War. It attends instead to the pair’s romance, which develops despite the objections of the emperor. Feuillère is ravishing, and as Sophie, she bears the indignities of the archduke’s family with barely discernible distress. When fate arrives, it does so like a train: unstoppable and indifferent. Except, in this screening, the film momentarily went dark, as if to offer a brief respite from what was inevitably coming. Something had gone wrong in the projection booth; I later learned that the film needed to be rethreaded. The house lights came on, and the audience murmured anxiously. “Don’t worry,” said a woman next to me, “it happens at least once every year.” I have to confess that I was too swept up in the film’s events to worry about the state of the print. Instead, I felt only relief that the countess’s happiness could be extended, even for a moment.

Genevieve Yue is an associate professor of culture and media at The New School and the author of Girl Head: Feminism and Film Materiality (Fordham University Press, 2020).