Monday, January 8, 2018

These Amazing Shadows

Last month, Ben Mankiewicz sat down with the Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden on the day that the new entries to the National Film Registry were announced. Together they presented a night of movies that were among the 2017 honorees, but started off with a documentary about the National Film Registry, These Amazing Shadows. It's available on DVD and for those who do the streaming thing, Amazon streaming.

Apparently, we have Ted Turner to thank for the National Film Registry. Not, however, for the same reason we can thank him for TCM. Our story begins in the mid-1980s when Turner amassed the back library of movies that would become the "Turner library" and formed the backbone of the TCM schedule, even more so in the early years than now. To try to monetize that library meant not a cable channel yet, since cable space was still at a premium. Instead, he tried to colorize the movies, which pissed off a lot of old-time Hollywood people, who testified before Congress. (Since Ted Turner was now the copyright holder on these movies, he was probably legally in the clear to colorize them if he wanted, but the early colorization looked terrible.) The stars' pleas for film preservation in the original state ultimately led to the creation of the Registry, which has as its task the annual selection of 25 movies that are aesthetically, culturally, and historically important.

This means that it's not just going to be the Hollywood classics that are selected. Obviously, a lot of those classes are culturally important, and tentpole titles like Citizen Kane or Casablanca were among the selections in the first year (1989). But it's not just going through all the big classics that would lead to selecting independent films or even stuff that is basically home movies. There's a reason the Zapruder film is on the registry, or the "let's all go to the lobby" jingle.

Part of the job of the registry is to preserve the movies, so the documentary goes into a bit of discussion on preservation, telling us about the horrors of nitrate degradation and how nitrate was used up until the early 1950s as film stock before we got safety film that was just as good. There's also a look at the film vaults and the job that the preservationists actually do.

Overall, These Amazing Shadows is a good primer for somebody who knows next to nothing about the registry or the topic of film preservation. For the sort of people who watch too much TCM, however, it's probably too cursory. The part about how the committee actually makes its selections is probably the most interesting, but the film has too much in the way of clips of the classics. It would have been interesting to see more from the home movie-type stuff. I think all that got mentioned was the footage from the Topaz internment camp for Japanese Americans, and a few brief clips of a movie about the town of Cologne, MN.

These Amazing Shadows is something I'd certainly recommend if it shows up on TV again, but not particularly anything I'm looking to add to my DVD collection.

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