‘These Amazing Shadows’: On Overcoming the Perils of Being Loved to Death

I have to wonder what the acerbic Jonathan Rosenbaum thinks of the NFR list. Those letters signify the National Film Registry, a government-sponsored roll call of movies deemed to have enduring artistic and/or cultural/social influence in the world of cinema. Film buffs may recall Rosenbaum’s acidic tome Movie Wars, in which the now-retired Chicago Reader critic not-so-gently dismissed the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Films list, substituting his own less obvious one.

The National Film Registry has been tasked by Congress to fashion a rigorous American cinematic canon – yes, all the selections are products of US Filmmakers – and Kurt Norton and Paul Mariano’s documentary These Amazing Shadows sheds some light – no pun intended – on the process.

How was this august collection established? Well, cineastes of a certain age will recall the film colorization scandal of the early ’80s, during which TV mogul Ted Turner – at his most arrogant renown – announced plans to colorize numerous classic black-and-white movies from the studio era, on the grounds that modern audiences, particularly teens and twenty-somethings, were disinclined to watch films without color. A brief clip features Turner referring to these treasures as “my films’, which technically they were, as his company owned the rights to a considerable library of them. As one might expect, assorted filmmakers and actors, including Martin Scorsese, erupted in protest, and the NFR — the product of the National Film Preservation Act of 1988 — arose from these seeds of discontent. Especially egregious was the possibility of a color-stained King Kong!

The Librarian of Congress is directly involved in overseeing the process, although his (or her) contributions are preceded by public balloting, then the National Film Preservation Board whittles down the final choices. The current board is appropriately mixed of men and women, but looks decidedly monochromatic. Perhaps I blinked, but I can’t recall a single non-white face amongst the participants, though in fairness, we don’t get to see every member.

Each year, up to 25 more films are added to the list, and These Amazing Shadows includes clips from many, surely the earliest being 1893’s Blacksmith Scene, an instructional short, featuring two blacksmiths plying their trade. I guess I knew that some films were being produced at a time when automobiles barely existed, but it’s almost miraculous that a movie of such vintage hasn’t vanished into thin air, as These Amazing Shadows reveals that half of all pre-1950 films are dust, and likely 80 percent of the silent productions. In fact, one of the major studios, which the director declines to name, destroyed all of its silent negatives during the ’40s, ironically, a time when filmgoing in America was at its frenzied peak, but I guess the short-sighted execs could only imagine the public craving sound flicks, not those musty artifacts from an earlier, technology-challenged period. Now, if these revelations aren’t a solid argument for cinema preservation, what is?

These Amazing Shadows argues that cinema, primarily Hollywood movies, helped thread a fast-industrializing nation together, and I’m reminded of historian Neal Gabler’s seminal An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, and its assertions that the meteoric rise of lavish Hollywood productions provided a tool for assimilation to countless immigrants after they passed though Ellis Island and other portals, as well as a celluloid encyclopedia, however slanted and sanitized, of American culture for hundreds of millions of viewers across the world. If a group of canny Jewish carpetbaggers “invented” Hollywood, then Hollywood “invented” America in the global imagination, attracting an incredibly diverse melange of peoples to emigrate during the Industrial Age and afterwards. This epochal event would simultaneously reinforce and re-configure American values and mores.

We’re also given a tour of the Library of Congress’ nitrate vaults, which briefly makes These Amazing Shadows seem an elegy for traditional film stock, slowly going the way of the dinosaur under the digital onslaught, itself enabled by the explosion of CGI in contemporary cinema. So many films have of course disappeared, but others have been “loved to death”, watched incessantly, to the point of needing restoration from impending scratchy oblivion. Indeed, the delicate specificity of film stock is brought home by one commentator, who mentions that Gordon Willis’ melancholy noirish cinematography on The Godfather could only be printed with its shadowy ambience intact, so no clueless busybody or Ted Turner wannabe could brighten it up. In our brave new digital world, anything can be altered, and we’ll have to accept the yin and yang of that.

Sadly, another discard of American filmmaking’s early decades is the role of women in hands-on cinematic production. According to These Amazing Shadows women were absolutely essential during the Silent Era, and wrote at least half of those films, which seems impossible today. Apparently, female filmmakers were summarily shoved aside during the so-called “Golden Age” – the ’30s and ’40s — when the major studios consolidated their control over American cinema and the habit audience rose to nearly 100 million admissions per week. Women had snagged the vote, but Hollywood preferred to see them in front of the camera only. Somebody once stated that women had great roles in Hollywood when they had no behind-the-scenes clout. There’s no question that actresses enjoyed countless juicy parts during the studios’ salad days, but the converse is that, in the current anxious, insecure Hollywood, there are many women in positions of power – at least in Burbank’s office suites – but meaty roles have largely migrated to cable TV and indie cinema.

These Amazing Shadows is at its most compelling, however, as it bathes in the nostalgic recollections of celebrated filmmakers, as they discuss their lifetime favorites and how they’ve fired their dreams. Chinese-American Wayne Wang worshipped West Side Story as a child, and conclude that if there was room for Latinos on screen, there could be room for Asians like himself. Chris Nolan raves about the elaborate world-building of George Lucas’ Star Wars, and the irrepressible John Waters recalls being brought to tears by The Wizard of Oz, because he couldn’t fathom why Dorothy wished to return to “that dreary farm”. On a personal note, I was elated to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show‘s inclusion on the NFR list, as that movie’s lightning-in-a-bottle lunatic genius is surely worthy of some august recognition, and John Landis’ Thriller, with a young Michael Jackson at his giddy, kinetic peak, is probably the Gone With The Wind of music promo clips, postmodern, campy, over-the-top, and yes, thrilling. I still recall the astonishment on a cynical teen friend’s face when I first showed it to him, and the making of Thriller documentary remains among the best-selling home video releases in history.

Extras are copious, in fact, more commensurate with a deluxe release of a beloved classic than a rather obscure documentary. Aside from its promo trailer – why do distributors always feel the need to include these? — there’s a nearly half-hour featurette “Lost Forever”, which looks deeper into the issue of film preservation. The United States has produced the lion’s share of movies throughout history, but tellingly, has the worst rate of preservation. This is partly due to the proliferation of nitrate usage for early films, which tended to go up in smoke faster than a California hillside. Many survivors were later melted down to access their silver content, but many have turned up intact in overseas vaults, with scant explanation of how they came to be there.

A forgettable inclusion is “Live From Prague”, a five-minute piece about composer Peter Golub’s score for the film, which is little more than filler. Following this is the Q&A session from These Amazing Shadows‘ successful screening at Sundance in early 2011; historian/preservationist George Willeman cracks wise about George Lucas’ infamous alterations of Star Wars, and aptly likens nitrate to gunpowder.

Also present are interview outtakes, featuring Tim Roth, Christopher Nolan, and once again, self-described “carny” John Waters, whose goal as a beginning filmmaker was to “get the wrath of the Pope”, and looks forward to a future of “Avatar-quality 3-D home porn”. If anyone needs a talk show, this impish reprobate does. Roth shares a story of meeting Francis Coppola, during which Coppola pulls out a letter Roth mailed to him back in the ’70s.

Inevitably, there alternate and deleted sequences, in which prominent directors, professionals and academics dish about their most beloved films. Historian Anthony Slide touches on the mysteries of cinephilia by declaring that a viewer should not be able to determine why a particular film pushes their buttons. Maybe that’s a job for one’s shrink, then.

These Amazing Shadows – that title sounds like an utterance from someone watching a ’20s German Expressionist film – informs and entertains, without being particularly cerebral, and of course, any number of academic cinema journals can feed that fix. If the Library of Congress needs any further weapons in their battle to preserve our precious celluloid memories, they could do worse than to wield this.

RATING 7 / 10