Reviews

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

These Amazing Shadows is most compelling when it bathes in the nostalgic recollections of celebrated filmmakers.


These Amazing Shadows

Length: 88 min
Cast: Rob Reiner, John Waters, Barbara Kopple, Leonard Maltin, Tim Roth, John Lasseter, Gale Ann Hurd, John Singleton, Wayne Wang, Dr. James Billington
Directors: Kurt Norton/Paul Mariano
Studio: Sundance Selects/Gravitas Docufilms
Year: 2011
Distributor: PBS

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.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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