The dream of the nitrate is alive in Portland.
I didn’t quite know what I was signing up to when I took this gig at the Oregon Historical Society. I knew there would be plenty of film handling experience to be had; greatly needed after a first semester at NYU that ended in me chewing up a half foot of 16mm with a sprocket tape applicator. I knew there’d be no small amount of data entry; a suitable task for someone as anal and obsessive as I am with small details. There were also whispers via trans-American phonecalls that I might have the chance to dabble with some nitrate film; every young moving image archivist/potential pyromaniac’s dream. It would turn out that the nitrate collection at OHS was to be my main project for the entirety of my summer in the Pacific Northwest.
The nitrate basics are learnt pretty quickly in MIAP (that’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation, just to bring you up to speed) – store it in a cold, low-humidity environment to stop it from decaying; if it catches fire, it will burn until it is consumed, so don’t let it catch fire; once it starts deteriorating, nothing can reverse the process. It’s good for its beautiful, crisp picture records, bad because once it starts to sweat its own chemical base the picture itself gets lost in a mix of powder, goo and rotten banana smell. It’s good for killing Nazis, bad for blinding beloved small town projectionists. But for even the most fearless moving image archivists in training (read: not me), it is a substance that draws as much awe as it does dread. Not so much the Holy Grail of cinema as the Ark of the Covenant: open it at the wrong time and get a face full of ghost poison.
OHS is a staple of Downtown Portland, a fine museum and research centre whose catalogue of Oregon history would compare favourably to many national collections. Some distance east, at its archive and warehouse in Gresham, Oregon, OHS boasts the most secure nitrate vault in the Pacific Northwest. Almost 500 cans of nitrate film line the shelves of this blast proof room, full mostly of films from Oregon but many put in OHS’ care by archives in Washington, Alaska and Northern California.
Like the rest of the 60,000-ish films in the OHS archive, the nitrate collection is primarily made up of films made in and around Oregon, or by or about Oregon personalities. The main difference is that, while the main collection is predominantly 16mm, the nitrate is all 35mm, and due to safety laws belatedly introduced in 1952, none of it post-dates the mid-’50s. There are no major Hollywood productions; all of those are absorbed by the major archives and private collectors, although a few old silent and early talkie shorts can be found hiding on higher shelves. The rest? Old newsreel, public information films, local movie theatre advertisements, Oregon-themed documentaries, home movies, and the films of explorers such as Portland’s own Amos Burg, whose assorted travelogues and film fragments take up almost a quarter of the entire vault.
This was where I came in. Figuratively locked in the vault for a month and a half, it was my role to account for every can in the nitrate collection. If there was a title, make sure it matched. If there was no entry for a can in the database, create one. Permanently wearing my gas mask like an overenthusiastic Darth Vader cosplayer, I proceeded to root through every last tin, recording content, the number of reels or rolls of film, whether the film image was positive or negative, had a soundtrack or not, and to what degree if any it was showing signs of nitrate deterioration. The nitrate is quite safe in its humidity-controlled fridge (it was nice for me to stay cool given how hot a summer Portland’s been having), but time has been cruel to some of it (as was the move to Gresham a few years back, which saw much of it stored in unwelcome conditions for months), and powdering is not uncommon, while others are showing signs of stage 4 deterioration, with bubbles of gas on the film pack and large sections of reels fused together into fleshy, stinky clumps. Much of the Burg collection arrived following some flooding that had left the film damp and subsequently coated in mould; whitish speckling of fluff that could sometimes be found wrestling with nitrate powder for dominance on the most unfortunate of reels.
It took nearly six weeks, but in the end I had every film in the nitrate vault accounted for, logged in the system, with shelf numbers and system codes. That’s when the fun began.
At the 2013 AGM of AMIA (the Association of Moving Image Archivists, he added helpfully, as if there was anyone reading this who is not a member of AMIA), a slogan bounced around was that “nitrate can wait”. That is to say the problem of nitrate has been solved as best as it can; we know how it decays, we know how to delay the decay, we have nitrate cracked. But the reality is in archives nothing can wait. Pages wither, digital files corrupt, magnetic media shed their particles and nitrate, well… nitrate congeals into a frame-free nothing. Nitrate has to wait because it’s no longer a priority, but can it wait? Not really.
And so under the direction and tutelage of OHS’ Michele Kribs it fell to me to take the most violently decayed specimens off the shelves and tear into them with scalpel, chisel and saw and save what could be saved. Few things smell worse than decaying nitrate; perhaps only diacetate safety, which when mixed in with the nitrate (as it too often is) produces a combination of rotting banana and mothball odours that form a veritable Sophie’s Choice of nasal torture. Hacking open the fleshiest, goopiest reels not even my gas mask could keep out all the smell. Protective eyewear seemed like an excessive safety precaution before chipping away at the reels launched several shards of nitrate splinters towards my face. The job is all patience and elbow grease and rapid tape-splicing, winding through the reels slowly to not damage anything, slicing or sawing out whatever is no longer truly film. Taping everything back together to hide the excisions is the final step to making a real reel of film once more. You can’t clean up all the nitrate gum from the reel, but the very act of removing the most cancer-like parts and airing the whole reel out increases shelf-life substantially.
Certainly there are disappointments. After two hours of scraping and sawing one reel proved to not have a single image on it, an ex-film. By the time I was done its mangled corpse resembled the most nightmarish creations from John Carpenter’s The Thing. A safety copy exists, thankfully, but it’s a shame to tear up the entire original and find nothing but poison to salvage.
And yet sometimes you get lucky. One reel, rotten towards its core, proved after much digging through its yellowed flesh, to have some recoverable frames at its very centre. Perhaps only a few feet of film extra, but when it contains 90-year-old footage of a bear cub feeding from a female goat, there’s simply no room for complaint!
Nothing can properly prepare you for the chance to interact with nitrate film. No amount of winding and rewinding 16mm, no amount of lectures or reading or Howard Besser PowerPoints can leave you ready for holding volatile, self-destructive works of art in your hands. But like many aspects of the archiving world it’s sink or swim; do it or lose it. I’ve been so fortunate that OHS thrust me in at the deep end and trusted me with some of the most precious (and endangered) works in their film collection. Once you get past the fear that it will explode in your hands on touching it becomes a matter of just winding through it and saving what you can, beholding some beautiful and sometimes all-but forgotten images. If you save one film, a summer’s work is well worth it. Already I’ve brought several back from the brink. The summer’s drawing to a close and classes start back in New York once more in a few short weeks, but I’ll be damned if I’m not gonna save a few more films while I can.