“Most lists these days exist for pop culture reasons,” observes Leonard Maltin. “It’s an excuse for a TV special, it’s to sell magazine, it’s to get people arguing, that’s what lists do.” This isn’t the case, he implies, for the National Film Registry. This list, comprised of films deemed worthy of preservation by the National Film Preservation Board, is special. It includes films that are popular, yes, but also films that few people know exist, films that mark historical shifts, changes in technology and ideology, some obvious and momentous, others fleeting and almost forgotten.
This list — and really, the idea of this list — is extolled in These Amazing Shadows. Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton’s documentary screens 21 April at Stranger Than Fiction, followed by a Q&A with the directors, and is also available on demand on Sundance Selects. The celebration here includes a range of interviewees, including academics, critics, filmmakers, and preservationists, as well as clips arranged to remind you of why the Registry matters.
The documentary recounts the Registry’s inception, occasioned when Ted Turner bought MGM’s library in 1986 and began colorizing beloved classics. The documentary reminds you of this crisis with a few choice clips — Fay Wray screaming in unbelievable color, Jimmy Cagney tapping in Yankee Doodle Dandy in frankly abominable hues — then takes easy aim at the entrepreneur who pioneered this bad idea. “The last time I checked,” pronounces Turner in an archived interview that makes him look especially pernicious, “They were my films, I’m working on my films.”
As artists became aware of the costs of ownership in this sense, they traveled to Capitol Hill and testified before Congress: These Amazing Shadows includes appearances by Woody Allen and Sydney Pollack, as well as a TV interview with Jimmy Stewart (“Mr. Smith” himself, underlines Georgetown University’s Eric Schwartz, came to Washington). As these images demonstrate that the movement to preserve films emerged from an initial and very public revelation that films were art worth preserving, they also, remind you that art can take various forms. As Pollack asserts, films are “a part of our cultural history and they deserve preservation in their authentic form,” meaning, even films that aren’t obviously “art” (like “Citizen Kane, Citizen Kane, Citizen Kane,” as Betsy McLane, co-author of A New History of Documentary Film, so succinctly puts it) need to be saved.
This introduction sets up These Amazing Shadows‘ doubled focus, on Board members’ descriptions of how choices are made (25 films are added each year) and on films that have been chosen. Some of transitions between interviews and clips are awkward or overstated film clip (Tim Roth remembers seeing To Kill a Mockingbird as a child and believing, “Gregory Peck was what I thought America was in many respects”) and some are clever (Jay Carr notes, “The nice thing about the list is it’s all over the place, it’s democratic,” just before you see James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause in full-own method: “You’re tearing me apart!”).
Some stories are less about choices than about the processes of film history — how films have been lost or found. In the case of Baby Face (1933), nitrate film expert George Willeman remembers discovering two prints of the film one day, one being a copy of the original, uncensored version, wherein a delightfully young Barbara Stanwyck is advised to “exploit herself” and “use men to get the things you want.” The sequence includes side-by-side versions of a scene where Stanwyck gets something she wants by seducing a round-faced and rather simple male executive, indicates just how, as Mick LaSalle says, “Almost always, the things that people wanted to cut out of movies were ideas.” As The Amazing Shadows makes clear, it’s a minor miracle that the original footage is recovered (and now available on DVD), as the censoring efforts show as much about how culture works as the footage per se.
Such historical moments are put in yet another perspective when the documentary notes as well those films that many consumers won’t know about, for instance, home movies like Topaz, which documents the experience of a family in a Japanese internment camp in Utah during WWII, or a more famous home movie like the Zapruder film. If films are not always significant for their entertainment value, the documentary submits, they are always significant for the cultural and political history they reveal.
Some films do this overtly. The documentary includes interviews with Steve James (who made the Registry-listed Hoop Dreams) and Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA), as well as John Singleton (who explains that he worked to get Birth of a Nation on the list precisely because it represents an ugly real world history), Wayne Wang (who recalls thinking West Side Story represented an ironic take on being an immigrant “in America”), and Charles Burnett (who appears too briefly, pointing out racism in films like The Searchers). Julie Dash appears repeatedly, speaking to the wondrous experience of watching movies in a theater as well as racism in films and US. culture, and at last describing her remarkable Daughters of the Dust as an example of how women have “a different way of seeing the world, of placing characters and placing the camera.” Her comments and the fact that these examples of films “by women” or by Singleton come in something of a rush near the end of These Amazing Shadows, suggest there are many other ways of seeing the history of film, too.
This is underlined as well in a final sequence focused on war films, from All Quiet on the Western Front to The Deer Hunter, presented as examples of great art that can also shape perceptions of people who go to and also send others to war. If only, the documentary laments, viewers of such movies were able to understand what they’re seeing.