Feel the Burn: A Dispatch from the Nitrate Picture Show

Kyle Westphal on the most dangerous film

We're cross-posting this essay by Kyle Westphal with the Northwest Chicago Film Society.

For filmgoers of a certain age, nitrate is an evocative intoxicant, its name an incantation that conjures up living memories of inky blacks, glistening whites, and a greyscale of infinite latitude. Nitrate aficionados will recite their beloved stock's putative advantages over its safer successors: higher silver content that makes monochrome that much more lustrous, a very clear base that makes the image leap off the screen. Much of nitrate's mystique rests upon a brand of decidedly subjective, non-empirical aesthetic judgment—you simply have to see the Nitrate Look for yourself.

And make no mistake: the audience that gathered in Rochester for the 2nd Annual Nitrate Picture Show was primed for that ecstatic experience. It was a specialized, self-selecting crowd, with a vocal interest in all things photochemical. Between shows, I overheard attendees discussing the Impossible Project and its semi-successful effort to reverse-engineer instamatic Polaroid film. Cell phones were discreetly raised to record video of the Dryden Theatre's curtain rising. There was an audible gasp and scattered applause in the auditorium when it was announced that a short film would be screened in the short-lived 1.19:1 aspect ratio. If anybody was ready for a nitrate epiphany, it was these pilgrims...

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