Some 75 years after their creation, a number of early silent motion pictures were discovered among the collection of a pioneer Dutch film exhibitor. The decomposing nitrate film stock was mostly unviewable, but historians and cineastes rushed to preserve what they could from this diverse
collection of American and European films produced in the 1910s.
Rather than a documentary as such, LYRICAL NITRATE is a free assembly of the most interesting of the surviving footage, some still completely intact, some disintegrating. No narration or explanatory text accompanies the forgotten images. A gentle, dreamy musical score provides the only continuity
for this impressionistic presentation.
Treating this cinematic treasure-trove as a time capsule, the producers of LYRICAL NITRATE merely lift the lid and allow viewers to ponder these long-lost images on their own. Void of context or explanation, the footage demonstrates the truth of the adage: "The past is a foreign country." To
contemporary eyes these turn-of-the-century snippets are enigmatic ciphers. Made in an era before the development of the star system, feature-length narrative, and conventional continuity editing, such films bear none of the visual cues modern spectators use to make sense of movies. What is left
is an impressionistic encounter with the original material in which one can only respond to the poetic, sensuous effects of raw imagery.
Clearly the producers hoped for this sort of response and tried to enhance it with the addition of lush music. Moreover, the decision to include lengthy strips of completely decomposed film amid the well-preserved footage makes LYRICAL NITRATE resemble a modern avant-garde film. Consisting only
of kaleidoscopic streams of amoeba-like shapes, these sequences are meant to encourage one to focus on the film's visual qualities and put aside the ingrained impulse to make some sort of narrative sense of the pictures.
However, several interesting highlights stand out on their own. The travelogue pictures remain vivid, with the scenes of people in their everyday lives holding the most interest. The editor's montage of interesting portraits and close-ups of various film characters is also an evocative study. But
the film works best when whole scenes or miniature stories are left intact. The crucifixion scene from THE LIFE OF CHRIST, a French Passion play filmed in color, circa 1906, and an Adam and Eve excerpt, with their biblical familiarity, offer a welcome reprieve from the rest of the imagistic flood.
The compilation's most exceptional piece, however, is a beautifully photographed and subtly acted film-within-a-film. Two young female moviegoers are seen entering a nickelodeon to watch a desert island romance featuring a handsome leading man. As the short story of love lost ends, the early movie
fans are shown rapt in the glow of the moment.
Presumably the compilers of LYRICAL NITRATE hoped to engender a similar response in the audience for their film. But few of these "lost films" speak so directly to modern viewers that they can respond with the sense of awe and wonder original audiences may have had. For a feature-length viewing,
more context and explanation would have made it easier to appreciate and understand these restored cinematic treasures. While this film remains a must-see for anyone with an interest in early cinema history, its free form will leave most viewers wanting more information. Questions about who made
these films, when, and for whom go unanswered.
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: NR
- Review: Some 75 years after their creation, a number of early silent motion pictures were discovered among the collection of a pioneer Dutch film exhibitor. The decomposing nitrate film stock was mostly unviewable, but historians and cineastes rushed to preserve w… (more)