“It eliminates the middle men,” Academy Film Archive director Michael Pogorzelski said of the experience of watching a nitrate print before a sold-out crowd about to take in Powell and Pressburger’s towering “Black Narcissus” in the format at last weekend’s TCM Classic Film Festival. The idea being that an original nitrate print collapses the distance between the viewer and the original artifact, whereas a digital restoration necessitates an intermediary, often making critical decisions about the way a film should look and sound. Which is not a knock on those intermediaries, who play a vital role in preserving the past (and Pogorzelski himself is one of them), but rather an observation of the unique viewing opportunity that nitrate prints offer.
Thanks to a generous grant from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association—yes, they do more than just hand out second-fiddle golden statuettes—the Egyptian Theatre booth was recently equipped with the ability (read: ventilation and fireproofing) required to project nitrate, and the TCM festival programmers hopped at the chance. “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934), “Laura,” and “Lady in the Dark” were also shown at this year’s festival, but it was the Technicolor “Narcissus,” which Pogorzelski described as “one of the best prints I’ve ever seen” (and I agree was drop-dead gorgeous in its range of color and contrast), that generated the most buzz of all. At a festival where Q&A star-power often attracts the largest crowds, it was heartening to see the Egyptian packed to the rafters—I literally couldn’t score a balcony seat 45 minutes in advance—for a show where the main draw was vintage celluloid.
Pogorzelski’s comments also got me thinking about the objective of the festival. Was each screening, as the archivist posited of the “Black Narcissus” print, to experience the same film that audiences originally experienced? Certainly, gaining insight into the original exhibition context is part of why I go to see these movies—many of which regularly appear on TCM’s cable channel—on the big screen with crowds, rather than in the comfort of my living room. But I enjoy the festival as much, if not more, for its celebratory atmosphere – for the sheer energy of the film fanatics who attend and cheer the decades-old films and stars and technicians with more gusto than megaplex audiences will for “The Fate of the Furious” this weekend.