Judge Paul Corupe kept looking for the lyrics, but all he found was a bunch of restored nitrate film stock that was in danger of exploding.
"Nothing remained of his remarkable life…except for the moving pictures he had brought back from the wasteland Antarctica"—J.C. Sullivan (Joseph O'Conor)
A compilation of films by Dutch filmmaker Peter Delpeut, this disc showcases Delpeut's use of decaying nitrate footage from silent films in two distinctly different ways—first as a collage film, and then worked into a new, dramatic narrative.
Facts of the Case
Lyrical Nitrate strings together a gold mine of rotting nitrate film that Delpeut found in the attic of an Amsterdam theater. The fragments, produced between 1905 and 1920, include scenes from travelogues and dramatic productions. The centerpiece of this loving tribute to silent film is a carefully hand-painted crucifixion scene.
More ambitious is the second film on the disc, The Forbidden Quest. Set in Ireland in 1941, an elderly ship's carpenter gives an account of his 1905 expedition to the Antarctic. With help from a tray of film reels and a box of photographs, he talks about the curious appearance of a polar bear, the discovery of an Eskimo village, and how sled-dogs were driven against the bitter cold in search of what one shipmate called "the Passage—an opening in the Earth."
Although extremely flammable, nitrate was used in the manufacture of 35mm film until 1951, when it was finally abandoned for acetate. Over time, fears about the flammability of these films have taken a backseat to a more pressing issue—nitrate's chemical instability. As cellulose nitrate rots, it shrinks and becomes brittle, leaking toxic fumes corrosive enough to turn a reel of film into smelly gelatin ooze. This presents a major problem for film historians, as improperly stored reels of nitrate film are in danger of disintegrating, or even exploding.
Peter Delpeut restored many of these dangerous pieces of cinema history for Lyrical Nitrate, and the results are simply beautiful. Over the course of an hour, tinted shots of steam trains, ships, and cities pass over the screen, leaving behind only a ghostly resonance. Each series of clips is grouped into chapters with titles like "Body" and "Looking," occasionally broken up by slightly longer narrative pieces.
Watching Lyrical Nitrate, you are immediately struck by the fact that many of these silent films are no more ambitious than living photographs or moving paintings. There are several brief "portraits" included, children and adults who slowly rotate their heads for the camera. Many of the dramatic scenes, especially the aforementioned crucifixion, feature actors frozen in tableaus, striking epic poses.
Slowly, the quality of the film deteriorates, until we are presented with a dramatic sequence about Adam and Eve so badly corroded it is difficult to make out any action. The patterns the rotting nitrate have carved out on the damaged film then seem to take over, strangely becoming the focus of your attention. You may not have seen a film like this before, but Lyrical Nitrate is an ephemeral spell, a gentle depiction of a lost art that is a far cry from how we see cinema today.
The Forbidden Quest is a little more forceful. An adventure yarn told by J.C. Sullivan (Joseph O'Conor) to an unseen interviewer, this film uses footage from over 15 silent naval and Antarctic exploration films to recount his search for the "Passage." Although we never actually see Sullivan thread a projector as he narrates, the assumption is that he is showing these silent films to help illustrate his story of survival.
While generally interesting, The Forbidden Quest just doesn't have as much interesting material to draw on as Delpeut's previous film. Because the found footage is mostly from "educational" travelogues, the film has a hard time building up any suspense or dramatic interest. More attention is paid to sociological details like Eskimo villages and hunting than the quest itself. In the end, the film resorts to editing tricks in an attempt to get its point across, with uncertain results.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of this disc is that both films feature a period soundtrack, ranging from opera to the forgotten sounds of the glass harmonica. It works quite well, but I found each film most powerful when no sound at all had been added, and the images had to speak for themselves.
I have no criticisms about the sound quality on this disc. The narration is clear, and because the music is taken from turn-of-the-century recordings, the Dolby Stereo track works just fine. The transfer is a little more difficult to talk about. While the found footage is still full of artifacts, it has been restored to the best of the director's ability. Restoring it any further for this release would have been detrimental, since the poor quality of the excerpts is essential to each film. Unfortunately, the only new footage on this release, seen in The Forbidden Quest, is not very impressive. Shot on video, these black and white sequences are grainy, and full of pixelation. It isn't too distracting, since the found footage makes up the bulk of the film, but it certainly should have looked better. There are no extras included on this DVD.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Lyrical Nitrate certainly isn't for all tastes. While The Forbidden Quest is more accessible to a mass audience, those who don't bring a healthy appreciation for silent film to this collection probably won't get much from it, beyond the simple magnificence of the forgotten images.
There's no denying the restoration of these nitrate reels was laudable, but watching The Forbidden Quest also raises some interesting questions regarding our perception of stock footage. We cringe or laugh when a low-budget 1950s film switches to grainy sequences of military jets or atomic explosions obviously clipped from another film. By constructing a narrative almost entirely out of public domain material, isn't Delpeut essentially doing the same thing here?
And no extras? I've seen bare bones discs before, but they don't usually carry a price tag so hefty. These films have an interesting story behind them; a tale that this disc leaves almost completely untold. It amounts to a missed opportunity on Zeitgeist's part, since extras certainly would have benefited this DVD release.
Lyrical Nitrate and The Forbidden Quest are truly an open window to a rapidly disappearing era. The rotting nitrate film Peter Delpeut rescued from an Amsterdam theater is not only a bonanza for silent film fans, but also a dire warning for proper preservation of film history. With two different approaches to found footage, silent film buffs and curious art house patrons won't be disappointed with a rental of this release.
All pending charges against Lyrical Nitrate are dismissed, but The Forbidden Quest is ordered to complete six months of remedial plot development. Finally, this court expects Zeitgeist's next client to testify on its own behalf—via special features. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
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