LYRICAL NITRATE (Peter Delpeut; Netherlands; 1990)
Peter Delpeut's Lyrical Nitrate is a mini-archive, a visual museum of dusted-off nitrate relics given a chance to dance on screen once more. The snippets of film that Delpeut used date from 1905 to 1920, and were recovered from the collection of Jean Desmet, a Dutch cinema owner and film distributor who horded hundreds of films in an Amsterdam movie house.
Here, cinema's mortal form is firmly on display and in question, as the film is split into six parts that refer to cinema's nature and life cycle – 'looking', 'mise-en-scene', 'body', 'passion', 'dying', 'and forgetting'. These sections seem to mimic the function of categories in an archive, to assist with classification and archival location. Delpeut's use of images incrementally reveals a desire to present the heart and the history of cinema. The film is almost the mortal anthropomorphic trajectory of cinema as an entity, going from birth, living and loving, pain, dying, then finally death.
The film is 'born' with a series of iris shots, until we see a screen within the screen, and the black of the rest of the shot lights up to reveal an audience watching a film. This introduces a self-referential aspect that permeates the entire film, and sets off a chain of relations between scenes that suggests that the history of cinema is predicated on constant influence, mutation, and re-birth. At times it even seems like these films are watching each other, providing a haunted fantasy of what films might get up to in an archive when they are discarded, forgotten and unobserved.
Delpeut often retains the natural speed of the images he uses, but on occasion he employs variations to startling effect. During the 'mise-en-scene’ section, a scene of a man and a woman talking then moving apart in a drawing room is broken down into still shots. After these still images choppily describe their brief liaison, they finally kiss, and the film comes to life again as they embrace, a moment that is exquisitely similar to the blinking eye that occurs in Chris Marker's La Jetee. This sequence not only signifies the archival reduction of early cinema to still images through inaccessibility, but also of the metaphysical movement of early film from death back to renewed life again, through rediscovery, re-projection, and re-use.
In another section, Delpeut scientifically breaks down a scene where a woman is assailed with some kind of emotional trauma in a parlour room. He plays the scene over and over, first at normal speed, then slower, then even slower again. At this slowest speed, Delpeut zooms in on details in the scene – her neck stretched and taut, her arm flailing behind her, searching for support. Suddenly the spell of being immersed in pure unadulterated early cinema is broken, as this moment is scanned and analysed, like a specimen to be observed, dissected, and experimented upon. It is a moment of analytical re-photography akin to Ken Jacobs' work.
The final section of Lyrical Nitrate is a dream (nightmare?) of the death of cinema. The scene is of Adam and Eve, but most of the images are ravaged by decay. Images flicker determinedly through increasing barrages of haze and murk, as we see Eve converse with the Serpent, and then take a bite of the fruit that gives knowledge but takes away immortality. At this moment, the film is completely obliterated with decay, the only image visible in the final two minutes being the image of either Death or God, seated, in the sky. It is fitting that this final moment is part of a section entitled ‘forgetting’, which comes after ‘dying’. Here, alone in the archive, these films dream of their possible fate, and dream of their fear of death. But an even worse fate for these ‘lost’ films is the possibility of being forever forgotten, their existence slowly extinguished as the memory of them fades.
You can watch a small segment of the film here.