Movies, which seem like such a pervasive and permanent part of our culture, are in fact quite fragile and perishable. A stunning number of important works shot on flammable and unstable nitrate film stock in the early 20th century have in fact deteriorated to dust and are lost forever.
Which is one reason that, for all its flaws and political shortcomings, the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress is such a godsend to movie lovers.
So any film buff who understands the need for careful preservation and thoughtful stewardship for America’s rich and diverse film history should check out the DVD release of the documentary “These Amazing Shadows,” an informative overview of the Film Registry and its work in recognizing movies that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
This Sundance Film Festival discovery by directors Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton takes on the sweeping subject in easily digestible bits and chapters, and also provides personal perspective and insights from a handful of notable film lovers and historians.
While the documentary features the requisite number of clips from familiar classics – “Casablanca,” “Gone With the Wind,” “West Side Story” and so on – it also duly notes the diversity and democratic leanings of the Registry, which has added at least 25 new films to its vaults each year since its founding in 1988.
Along with the expected “classics,” the Registry has cast a wide net to include selections from nearly every genre – Hollywood blockbusters, silent films, documentaries, newsreels, avant-garde works and even home movies. Thus, alongside “Citizen Kane” you can find such oddities as “Gus Visser and His Singing Duck,” the famed Zapruder footage of John Kennedy’s assassination, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video and the 1957 cartoon intermission teaser, “Let’s All Go to the Lobby.”
Although some topics get a rushed, slightly perfunctory treatment (the whole subject of film preservation and restoration), and in touting the important work of the Registry the tone often slants toward infomercial pandering, the documentary pleads its case in informative and sometimes touching vignettes (as when George Takei contrasts his family’s experience in World War II Japanese interment camps with images from the documentary “Topaz,” or when Pixar’s John Lasseter rhapsodizes about Disney cartoons, or Rob Reiner waxes poetic about “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
And the filmmakers note with vigor the losses of cultural treasures that occurred before the Registry was formed. Half of all American movies shot before 1950 are now lost, and more than 80 percent of silent-era films are gone forever. Even the original negative of such a recent classic as “The Godfather” was in danger of irretrievable deterioration before the Registry came to the rescue.
So if “These Amazing Shadows” occasionally slips into self-congratulatory mode, it nonetheless makes a powerful case for the Registry’s profound importance as America’s movie time capsule.
- Dennis King