Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Perfect Time To Think Silver

Back in the '60s, Andy Warhol had his Factory in Greenwich Village decorated with aluminum vents, tin foil on the walls, and pieces of broken mirrors. It was all self-reflective and silver, and made one very aware of the surroundings. It was the amphetamine in and all around him, and in the people around him; and those shiny and reflective surfaces emphasized the acrylic self-awareness of a drug-fueled artspace.

If more of the prevailing members of the community had been shooting heroin (instead of just the satellite hangers-on), the Factory might have been decorated in shades of brown, with soft cushion spread on the carpet.

It all comes down to money. When t.v. came in, film attendance was threatened and studios developed Cinemascope, 3-d, and other technical marvels to call attention to the differences watching films in a theatre from watching them at home. The original 3-d required a return to the old silver screens (highly reflective material) that movie screens were made of until the extra cost proved unnecessary. Truly 3-d had 2 projectors projecting 2 images simultaneously – both images interlocked mechanically so neither imaged drifted out of register as it ran approximately 24 frames a second.

With 2 images superimposed on each other, a more reflective screen and brighter projector were needed.

Warhol would experiment by running numerous projectors with completely different reels on top of each other. His magnum opus, “Chelsea Girls” was a mashup of 2 different images going simultaneously, originally a spur-of-the-moment improvisational “event” that caught the attention of the critics and was codified and printed in one definitive version to be released nationwide. Its focus on a single location and set of characters (and presumably plot events) was its diploma from the art-school pretension of “Empire” or “Sleep” to the later Morrissey horror shows.

In the really old days, cinematic film was “nitrate stock,” with silver nitrate in the photo-sensitive stock. It was also very flammable if not handled carefully, and if the film would get stuck in the gate, and the frame in front of the light got stuck long enough and got too hot, it didn't just melt (which is something you might have seen at your local multiplex,when something goes awry up in the booth) – it burned. The flame would travel up to the reel above and practically explode. Water could not put out these fires. Many old booths still have metal plates above the port glass that were designed to slide down and trap any infernos in the booths if fire broke out (there were burnable stays that would burn and drop them in case of a conflagration). So the fire would be contained to the booth and only the projectionist would perish.

And these guys used to smoke all the time. In the booth. That scene in “Cinema Paradiso” isn't fiction.

Nitrate, because of the silver in the stock, has a darker deeper blacks, and the whites fairly “glow” due to the silver in the stock. Nitrate film, because of all the danger, started to be replaced in the early '40s, and was done by 1951. Many old nitrate films, especially silent films, were recycled for the silver in them. It was leeched out for the raw materials - as much as 90% of silent films no longer exist in complete form, and only about half the films made before 1950 exist. Much of this was due to unstable nitrate stock, but another aspect is that t.v. started to become a viable market for old films, and they started to be kept in a more meaningful manner after then.

(Readers interested in more info are invited to follow this link.

Nitrate prints are seldom projected, but if you have the opportunity to see one you must take it. Places in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and New York screen nitrate on occasion.

They have 2 projectionists and an asbestos blanket on hand at all times. It's a lot of work, and most nitrate that still exists is now being transferred to a digital format for future exploitation.

That's nice.

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