The first film I watched this year was a documentary called “These Amazing Shadows,” a look at the work being done by the National Film Registry, and a celebration of the impulse behind the creation of the annual list.
For those of you not familiar with it already, each year, the Registry picks films that are “works of enduring importance to American culture, that reflect who we are as a people and as a nation.” This year, anything released between 1897 and 1999 was eligible, and with this year’s choices, the registry now stands at 600 titles. That’s since it was created in 1989, and as with every year, the list of titles chosen includes some obvious choices, some eccentric choices, and some films you probably have never heard of, making for a typically heady mix.
I love that they’ve included “The Matrix,” which will probably end up being one of the most influential films released since I started writing about movies. It seems with each passing year to cast a larger and larger shadow over pop culture, and I’m wondering if the Wachowskis will ever be able to equal the impact that movie made on audiences and filmmakers alike.
Here’s the full list of new films added to the Registry, as well as the explanation sent out as part of today’s press release, followed by my own thoughts on each title in italics.
2012 National Film Registry
3:10 to Yuma (1957)
Considered to be one of the best westerns of the 1950s, “3:10 to Yuma” has gained in stature since its original release as audiences have recognized the progressive insight the film provides into the psychology of its two main characters that becomes vividly exposed during scenes of heightened tension. Frankie Laine sang the film”s popular theme song, also titled “3:10 to Yuma.” Often compared favorably with “High Noon,” this innovative western from director Delmer Daves starred Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in roles cast against type and was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard.
There’s a strong emphasis on pointing out highlights from the studio system, the gems that were slipped by, sometimes unnoticed or underappreciated at the time, and it’s something that the Registry does particularly well. There are very few of their classic Hollywood choices that I’ve disagreed with. “3:10 To Yuma” is a strong, simple movie, told with a quiet urgency, and is a solid addition to the library.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Director Otto Preminger brought a new cinematic frankness to film with this gripping crime-and-trial movie shot on location in Michigan”s Upper Peninsula where the incident on which it was based had occurred. Controversial in its day due to its blunt language and willingness to openly discuss adult themes, “Anatomy” – starring James Stewart, Ben Gazzara and Lee Remick – endures today for its first-rate drama and suspense, and its informed perspective on the legal system. The film includes an innovative jazz score by Duke Ellington and one of Saul Bass”s most memorable opening title sequences.
Yep. Pretty much a perfect summation of the film’s strengths. I don’t love Preminger across the board, but this one’s undeniable.
The Augustas (1930s-1950s)
Scott Nixon, a traveling salesman based in Augusta, Ga., was an avid member of the Amateur Cinema League who enjoyed recording his travels on film. In this 16-minute silent film, Nixon documents some 38 streets, storefronts and cities named Augusta in such far-flung locales as Montana and Maine. Arranged with no apparent rhyme or reason, the film strings together brief snapshots of these Augustas, many of which are indicated at pencil-point on a train timetable or roadmap. Nixon photographed his odyssey using both 8mm and 16mm cameras loaded with black-and-white and color film, amassing 26,000 feet of film that now resides at the University of South Carolina. While Nixon”s film does not illuminate the historical or present-day significance of these towns, it binds them together under the umbrella of Americana. Whether intentionally or coincidentally, this amateur auteur seems to juxtapose the name”s lofty origin-‘august,” meaning great or venerable-with the unspectacular nature of everyday life in small-town America.
Never heard of it until now, but it’s an evocative description, and based on the mission statement of the Registry, this sounds like exactly the sort of thing it was designed to feature, giving them equal weight with everything else on the list.
Born Yesterday (1950)
Judy Holliday”s sparkling lead performance as not-so-dumb “dumb blonde” Billie Dawn anchors this comedy classic based on Garson Kanin”s play and directed for the screen by George Cukor. Kanin”s satire on corruption in Washington, D.C., adapted for the screen by Albert Mannheimer, is full of charm and wit while subtly addressing issues of class, gender, social standing and American politics. Holliday”s work in the film (a role she had previously played on Broadway) was honored with the Academy Award for Best Actress and has endured as one of the era”s most finely realized comedy performances.
If you’re not familiar with this one, Holliday is indeed outstanding in it, and the real heartbreak is knowing that Hollywood never really figured out what else to do with her. She was a force of nature, a presence who worked better in a live theater than on a film set, but that was more a failure of the writers and directors who she worked with than of Holliday.
Breakfast at Tiffany”s (1961)
Truman Capote”s acclaimed novella-the bitter story of self-invented Manhattan call girl Holly Golightly-arrived on the big screen purged of its risqué dialogue and unhappy ending. George Axelrod”s screenplay excised explicit references to Holly”s livelihood and added an emotionally moving romance, resulting, in Capote”s view, in “a mawkish valentine to New York City.” Capote believed that Marilyn Monroe would have been perfect for the film and judged Audrey Hepburn, who landed the lead, “just wrong for the part.” Critics and audiences, however, have disagreed. The Los Angeles Times stated, “Miss Hepburn makes the complex Holly a vivid, intriguing figure.” Feminist critics in recent times have valued Hepburn”s portrayals of the period as providing a welcome alternative female role model to the dominant sultry siren of the 1950s. Hepburn conveyed intelligent curiosity, exuberant impetuosity, delicacy combined with strength, and authenticity that often emerged behind a knowingly false facade. Critics also have lauded the movie”s director Blake Edwards for his creative visual gags and facility at navigating the film”s abrupt changes in tone. Composer Henry Mancini”s classic “Moon River,” featuring lyrics by Johnny Mercer, also received critical acclaim. Mancini considered Hepburn”s wistful rendition of the song on guitar the best he had heard.
Great in many ways, embarrassing in a few key ways, “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” is, more than anything, a spectacular record of a charismatic movie star at the very height of their power. Audrey Hepburn is bewitching in the role, no matter what the compromises of the script. Mickey Rooney’s role is a horror show, no doubt about it, and offensive enough that it taints the movie, but Hepburn… and Pepard’s so pretty in it… and “Moon River”… and I get it.
A Christmas Story (1983)
Humorist Jean Shepherd narrates this memoir of growing up in Hammond, Ind., during the 1940s when his greatest ambition was to receive a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. The film is based in part on Shepherd”s 1966 compilation of short stories titled “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” which originated on his radio and television programs. Writer-director Bob Clark had long dreamed of making a movie based on Shepherd”s work and his reverence for the material shows through as detail after nostalgic detail rings true with period flavor. Dozens of small but expertly realized moments reflect an astute understanding of human nature. Peter Billingsley-with his cherubic cheeks, oversized glasses and giddy grin-portrays Shepherd as a boy. Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon are his harried-yet-lovable parents.
I have loved watching the evolution of this movie’s place in pop culture. I remember which theater I saw it in, a small mall multiplex in Atlanta, and I remember seeing the first “Ghostbusters” trailer in front of the film and freaking out about that, and then I remember being absolutely floored by the wit and the wisdom of Bob Clark’s best movie. I was 13. The perfect age to identify with Ralphie the first time through. And the brilliance of the script, so perfectly adapted from Jean Shepherd’s work, is the way I can watch the film now and see myself in Ralphie and in his father both. It is a film that is positively drenched in nostalgia, but not in a bad way. This isn’t about pandering to a demographic. It is a snapshot of a time and a place and a particular childhood, and in its specific focus, it speaks to the way so many of us have grappled with family and holidays in our own lives. TV rescued this film the same way it rescued “The Wizard Of Oz,” and now it is omnipresent, but in 1983, I felt like I was pretty much alone on how great it was. My friend Bill was the one I saw it with, and he dug it, but almost nobody saw it. I’m always glad to see a film get its due eventually if it doesn’t happen at first, and “A Christmas Story” is one of the best examples of how that can happen.
The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Title Fight (1897)
Independently produced motion picture recordings of famous boxing contests were a leading factor in establishing the commercial success of movies in the late 19th century. Championship boxing matches were the most widely popular sporting contests in America in that era, even though the sport was banned in many states in the 1890s. Soon after Nevada legalized boxing in 1897, the Corbett-Fitzsimmons title fight was held in that state in Carson City on St. Patrick”s Day of that year. The film recorded the introductions of famous personalities in attendance and all 14 of the fight”s three-minute rounds, plus the one-minute breaks between rounds. With a running time of approximately 100 minutes, “The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Title Fight” was the longest movie produced at that time. Films of championship matches before 1897 had been unsuccessful because they ended too quickly with knockouts, leaving movie audiences unwilling to pay high-ticket prices to see such short films. “Corbett-Fitzsimmons” was a tremendous commercial success for the producers and contestants James J. Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons (the victor), generating an estimated $750,000 in income during the several years that it remained in distribution. This film also is deserving of a footnote in the technical history of motion pictures. Producers of early boxing films protected their films from piracy by engineering film printers and projectors that could only accept film stock of a proprietary size. The film prints of the fight were manufactured in a unique 63mm format that could only be run on a special projector advertised as “The Veriscope.”
Again… never heard of this, but I love their description.
Dirty Harry (1971)
Clint Eastwood”s role as rogue police officer Harry Callahan in director Don Siegel”s action-packed, controversial paean to vigilante justice marked a major turning point in Eastwood”s career. A top 10 box-office hit after its release, “Dirty Harry” struck a nerve in the era”s politically polarized atmosphere with those who believed that concern over suspects” rights had gone too far. While a number of critics characterized the film as “fascistic,” Eastwood countered that Harry, who disregards police procedure and disobeys his superiors, represents “a fantasy character” who “does all the things people would like to do in real life but can”t.” “Dirty Harry,” he stated later, was ahead of its time, putting the “rights of the victim” above those of the accused. The film”s kinesthetic direction and editing laid the aesthetic groundwork for many of the 1970s” gritty, realistic police dramas.
Awesome. I love how cynical this film is, and it’s weird how much the imagery from the “Mad” magazine parody gets tangled up in my memory with the images from the film itself. The film is subversive and dangerous and nasty and treats law enforcement’s relationship with the sickest elements of the criminal world as pathology to be dissected. Clint Eastwood’s greatest strength as a filmmaker, both in front of the camera and behind it, has been his almost innate understanding of iconography. He knows exactly how to play Harry as mythological figure, and it’s almost like the less he cracks, the more epic he seems.
Hours for Jerome: Parts 1 and 2 (1980-82)
Nathaniel Dorsky shot the footage for what would become his silent tone poem, “Hours for Jerome,” between 1966 and 1970. He edited that footage over a two-year period. The film”s title evokes the liturgical “Book of Hours,” a medieval series of devotional prayers recited at eight-hour intervals throughout the day. Dorsky”s personal devotional loosely records the daily events of the filmmaker and his partner as an arrangement of images, energies and illuminations. The camera intimately surveys the surroundings, from the pastoral to the cosmopolitan, as fragments of light revolve around the four seasons. “Part 1” presents spring through summer and “Part 2” looks at fall and winter-a full year in 45 minutes. Named filmmaker of the decade in 2010 by Film Comment magazine, Dorsky creates his works to be projected at silent speed, between 17 and 20 frames per second instead of the usual 24 frames per second for sound film. Projecting his films at sound film speed, he writes, “is to strip them of their ability to open the heart and speak properly to their audience. Not only is the specific use of time violated, but the flickering threshold of cinema”s illusion-a major player in these works-is obscured.”
The Kidnappers Foil (1930s-1950s)
For three decades, Dallas native Melton Barker and his company traveled through the southern and central sections of the United States filming local children acting, singing and dancing in two-reel narrative films, all of which Barker titled “The Kidnappers Foil.” Barker recognized that many people enjoyed seeing themselves, their children and their communities on film. Since home movies were an expensive hobby, he developed a business to provide them. Other itinerant filmmakers produced similar fare, but Barker appears to have been the most prolific. Enlisting local movie theaters and newspapers to sponsor and promote the productions, Barker auditioned children and offered “acting lessons” to the most promising for a fee of a few dollars. He then assembled 50 to 75 would-be Shirley Temples and Jackie Coopers, ages 3 to 12, to act out the melodramatic story: a young girl is kidnapped from her birthday party and eventually rescued by a search party of local kids. After the “rescue,” the relieved townsfolk would celebrate with a party where the budding stars showcased their musical talents. A few weeks after filming, the town would screen the 15- to 20-minute picture to the delight of the local audience. Most prints of these films no longer exist, although some have been discovered in vintage movie houses or local historical societies. The Texas Archive of the Moving Image holds a collection of these itinerant films and hosts Internet resources for those who appeared in them as children.
Kodachrome Color Motion Picture Tests (1922)
This two-color (green-blue and red) film was produced as a demonstration reel at the Paragon Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, under the direction of Kodak scientist John Capstaff. It features leading actresses, including Mae Murray, Hope Hampton, and Mary Eaton, posing and miming for the camera to showcase the capability of the complex Kodachrome process to capture their translucent movie star complexions and colorful, high-fashion clothing. Hampton wears costumes designed for “The Light in the Dark,” the first commercial feature film to incorporate scenes filmed with the Kodachrome process. During the first three decades of motion picture history, the most practical methods for adding colors to 35mm prints filmed on black-and-white film stock had been through laborious processes by which separate colors were either painted on individual film frames by hand or added by overlaying mechanically produced stencils on prints and applying colors in sequence. While aesthetically pleasing, these color additive methods were complicated and costly. Soon after 1900, inventors in several countries began experimenting with ways to advance the chemistry of color movies and create film stocks capable of reproducing the true colors of nature. Leading the way in the U.S. were Technicolor in 1912 and Eastman Kodak, starting in 1914. The Kodachrome Color Motion Picture Tests of 1922 was the first publicly demonstrated color film to attract the general interest of the American film industry. Many feature films produced by major studios incorporated two-color sequences using Kodachrome and the rival Technicolor film stocks until three-strip Technicolor became the industry standard in the late 1930s.
If we truly are at the end of film, or at a transition moment where we start to debate how long film is going to be the primary archival media, then it is appropriate that there be so many entries on the list for these experimental and/or amateur films, where the entire point of the inclusion is the fact that these things test the limits of film.
A League of Their Own (1992)
Director Penny Marshall used the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (1943-1954) as a backdrop for this heartfelt comedy-drama. “A League of Their Own,” featuring an ensemble cast that includes Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna and Rosie O”Donnell, not only illuminates this fascinating, under-reported aspect of American sports history, but also effectively examines women”s changing roles during wartime. Rich with period detail and equally complex performances-especially Davis as a team ringer and Hanks as the down-on-his-luck coach-Marshall and her company delivered an enjoyably nostalgic film about women”s choices and solidarity during World War II that was both funny and feminist.
Uhhhh… sure. Okay. It’s a really well-made piece of entertainment. It wouldn’t be my first choice or even my hundredth choice for a list like this, but I guess it’s fine.
The Matrix (1999)
A visionary and complex film, the science-fiction epic “The Matrix” employed state-of-the-art special effects, production design and computer-generated animation to tell a story-steeped in mythological, literary, and philosophical references-about a revolt against a conspiratorial regime. The film”s visual style, drawing on the work of Hong Kong action film directors and Japanese anime films, altered science fiction filmmaking practices with its innovative digital techniques designed to enhance action sequences. Directors Andy and Lana Wachowski and visual effects supervisor John Gaeta (who received an Academy Award for his efforts) expertly exploited a digitally enhanced simulation of variable-speed cinematography to gain ultimate control over time and movement within images. The film”s myriad special effects, however, do not undermine its fundamentally traditional, if paranoid, story of man against machine.
I couldn’t agree more. “The Matrix” isn’t my favorite film from 1999, but as I said at the start of this piece, I can’t imagine anything from recent film history that more clearly pointed the way towards what mainstream cinema would look and feel like. It is an amalgam of a hundred different influences, all of them clearly visible in the finished film, but it combined them in a way that felt revolutionary at the time. The amazing thing is how it has genuinely proven to be revolutionary. I would argue that none of modern superhero cinema would have evolved the same way if “The Matrix” had not happened when it did. George Lucas may have pushed the use of digital effects and characters forward through brute force, but the Wachowskis made it artful. There are images in that first film that are still startling in their mix of horror and beauty and surreality, and I think this is perhaps the most significant entry on this year’s list.
The Middleton Family at the New York World”s Fair (1939)
Produced by Westinghouse for the 1939 World”s Fair, this industrial film is a striking hour-long time capsule that documents that historic event within a moralistic narrative. Shot in Technicolor, the film follows a fictional Indiana family of five (mom, dad, son, daughter and grandma) as they venture from grandma”s quaint house in Long Island to the fair”s popular pavilions. The whole family enjoys the gleaming sights, especially the futuristic technologies located in the Westinghouse Pavilion (including something called “television”). While the entire family is affected by the visit, none are changed so much as daughter Babs (played by a young Marjorie Lord), who eventually sours on her foreign-born, anti-capitalistic boyfriend in favor of a hometown electrical engineer who works at the fair. Both charming and heavy-handed, “The Middleton Family” provides latter-day audiences with a vibrant documentary record of the fair”s technological achievements and the heartland values of the age.
One Survivor Remembers (1995)
In this Academy Award-winning documentary short film by Kary Antholis, Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein recounts her six-year ordeal as a victim of Nazi cruelty. At age 16, her comfortable life was shattered by the Nazi invasion of Poland. She and her family were sent to concentration and slave labor camps. She alone survived. Mixing footage shot in contemporary Europe at key locations of Klein”s story with interviews and personal photographs, “One Survivor Remembers” explores the effects that her experience had on the rest of her life. It is told with a simple yet powerful eloquence that “approaches poetry,” the Chicago Tribune observed.
In the 1930s, a number of Protestant groups, concerned about the perceived meretricious effects of Hollywood films, began producing non-theatrical motion pictures to spread the gospel of Jesus. “Parable” followed a filmmaking tradition that has not very often been recognized in general accounts of American film history. One of the most acclaimed and controversial films in this tradition, “Parable” debuted at the New York World”s Fair in May 1964 as the main attraction of the Protestant and Orthodox Center. Without aid of dialogue or subtitles, the film relies on music and an allegorical story that represents the “Circus as the World,” in the words of Rolf Forsberg, who wrote and co-directed the film with Tom Rook for the Protestant Council of New York. “Parable” depicts Jesus as an enigmatic, chalk-white, skull-capped circus clown who takes on the sufferings of oppressed workers, including women and minorities. The film generated controversy even before its initial screening. The fair”s president Robert Moses sought to have it withdrawn. Other fair organizers resigned with one exclaiming, “No one is going to make a clown out of my Jesus.” A disgruntled minister threatened to riddle the screen with shotgun holes if the film was shown. Undaunted, viewers voted overwhelmingly to keep the film running, and it became one of the fair”s most popular attractions. Newsweek proclaimed it “very probably the best film at the fair” and Time described it as “an art film that got religion.” The Fellini- and Bergman-inspired film received the 1966 Religious Film Award of the National Catholic Theatre Conference, along with honors at the 1966 Cannes, Venice and Edinburgh film festivals. It subsequently became a popular choice for screenings in both liberal and conservative churches.
Wow. I want to see that. That sounds amazing.
Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia (1990)
International relief worker Ellen Bruno”s master”s thesis at Stanford University, “Samsara,” documents the struggle of the Cambodian people to rebuild a shattered society in the aftermath of Pol Pot”s killing fields. “Samsara” is a Sanskrit term that literally means “circle” or “wheel,” and is commonly translated as “cycle of existence.” Bruno fleshes out this concept by using ancient Buddhist teachings and folklore to provide a context for Cambodia”s struggle. Described as poetic, heartbreaking and evocative, the film brings a humanistic perspective to the political chaos of Southeast Asia with a deliberate, reflective and sometimes dreamlike pace as it intertwines the mundane realities of daily life with the spiritual beliefs of the Khmer people. One reviewer reflected, “The meditative pacing, the rhythm of bells and chimes, the luxuriant green landscape, the otherworldly response to horrific recent history-I was transported not just to a faraway place but to an altered consciousness.”
Along with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” (1989), “Slacker” is widely regarded as a touchstone in the blossoming of American independent cinema during the 1990s. A free-floating narrative, the film follows a colorful and engaging assortment of characters in Austin, Texas, throughout the course of a single day as they ruminate on UFOs, Scooby Doo, Leon Czolgosz and many other things. Shot on 16mm film with a budget of $23,000, director Richard Linklater dispensed with a structured plot in favor of interconnected vignettes. This resulted in a film of considerable quirky charm that has influenced a whole generation of independent filmmakers. “Slacker” was eventually picked up by a major distributor and earned more than $1 million at the box office.
Influence is a big part of what earns a film a spot on this list, and LInklater’s movie turned on so many other filmmakers to the entire definition of what could or couldn’t get picked up for theatrical distribution. Without “Slacker,” there’s a whole generation of guys who may or may not have had the same epiphanies. And, on top of that, it remains a completely deranged delight, a contact high of a movie.
Sons of the Desert (1933)
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, along with comedian Charley Chase, star in this riotous comedy of fraternity and marital mishaps. Directed by veteran comedy director William A. Seiter for Hal Roach Studios, “Sons of the Desert” successfully incorporated into a feature-length film many of the comedic techniques that had made Laurel & Hardy such masters of short-subject humor. The film was ranked among the top 10 box-office hits after its release. Film scholars and fans consider it to be the duo”s finest feature film.
There’s always room for Laurel and Hardy.
The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)
When “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” was restored for DVD release in 2004, the New York Times called it “a story of black insurrection too strong for 1973.” Based on a controversial best-selling 1969 novel by Sam Greenlee and with a subtly effective score by jazz legend Herbie Hancock, the film presents the story of a black man hired to integrate the CIA who uses his counter-revolutionary training to spark a black nationalist revolution in America”s urban streets. Financed mostly by individual African-American investors, some commentators lambasted the film for its sanctioning of violence and distributor United Artists pulled the movie from theaters after a successful three-week run. Others appreciated its significance. Washington Post journalist Adrienne Manns, a former spokesperson in the black student movement, argued that the film “lends humanity to persons who are usually portrayed as vicious, savage, sub-humans – the street gangs, the young people who have in many cities terrorized the communities they live in.” New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby commented, “The rage it projects is real.” Ivan Dixon, the film”s director known for his roles in “Hogan”s Heroes” and as the lead in “Nothing But a Man” (1964), believed that the film did not offer “a real solution” to racial injustice, but projected instead “a fantasy that everybody felt, every black male particularly.”
Never seen it. Never heard of it. Sounds amazing.
They Call It Pro Football (1967)
Before “They Call It Pro Football” premiered, football films were little more than highlight reels set to the oom-pah of a marching band. In 1964, National Football League commissioner Pete Rozelle agreed to the formation of NFL Films. With a background in public relations, he recognized that the success of the league depended on its image on television, which required creating a mystique. “They Call It Pro Football,” the first feature of NFL Films, looked at the game “in dramaturgical terms,” capturing the struggle, not merely the outcome, of games played on the field. Written and produced by Steve Sabol, directed by John Hentz and featuring the commanding cadence of narrator John Facenda and the music of Sam Spence, the film presented football on an epic scale and in a way rarely seen by the spectator. Telephoto lenses brought close-ups of players” faces into viewers” living rooms. Slow motion revealed surprising intricacy and grace. Sweeping ground-to-sky shots imparted a “heroic angle.” Coaches and players wearing microphones let the audience in on strategy and emotion. “They Call It Pro Football” established a mold for subsequent productions by NFL Films and has well earned its characterization as the “Citizen Kane” of sports movies.
Never seen it. Never heard of it. Sounds amazing.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Told largely with revealing news clips and archival footage interspersed with personal reminiscences, “The Times of Harvey Milk” vividly recounts the life of San Francisco”s first openly gay elected city official. The film, which received an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, traces Harvey Milk”s ascent from Bay Area businessman to political prominence as city supervisor and his 1978 assassination, which also claimed the life of San Francisco mayor George Moscone. While illuminating the effect that Milk had on those who knew him, the film also documents the nascent gay rights movement of the 1970s. The film, with its moving and incisive portrait of a city, a culture and a struggle-as well as Harvey Milk”s indomitable spirit-resonates profoundly as a historical document of a grassroots movement gaining political power through democratic means.
I’ve written here before about this one, and I think it’s a great, significant record of a time and place, and a great example of how film can serve as a living memorial for the departed.
Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
During a short-lived period following the success of such youth-oriented films as “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate” and especially “Easy Rider” in the late 1960s, Hollywood executives financed-with minimal oversight-a spate of low-budget, innovative films by young “New Hollywood” filmmakers. With influences ranging from playwright Samuel Beckett to European filmmakers Robert Bresson, Jacques Rivette and Michelangelo Antonioni, one such film was the minimalist classic “Two-Lane Blacktop.” The film follows two obsessed but laconic young operators of a souped-up 1955 Chevy (singer-songwriter James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson) as they engage in a cross-country race with a 1970 Pontiac GTO, whose loquacious, middle-aged driver (Warren Oates) continually reinvents his past and intended future. The drivers” fixation on speed, mastery and competition is disrupted when a 17-year-old drifter (Laurie Bird) joins their masculine world and later leaves them in disarray. Director Monte Hellman and screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer allow audiences time to absorb the film”s spare landscapes, car-culture rituals and existential encounters, and to reflect on the myth of freedom that life on the road traditionally has embodied.
This one seems to be carrying the torch for the much-celebrated ’70s revolution in film as far as this year’s entries on the Registry, and “Two-Lane Blacktop” is absolutely perfect as an example of what the best of the era’s filmmakers were trying to do. Personal, experimental, with elements of exploitation film language used in service of a genuine yearning to express something new, something real. Monte Hellman doesn’t get the same amount of press as many of the other filmmakers who were turning out important work at the same time, but this film is a titan, and should be acknowledged as one.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1914)
Harriet Beecher Stowe published her great anti-slavery novel in 1852. Adapted for the stage in 1853, it was continuously performed in the U.S. well into the 20th century. “Uncle Tom”s Cabin” was frequently adapted to movies after 1900, but always with white actors in the lead roles until this version, said to be the first feature-length American film that starred a black actor. Sam Lucas-actor, musician, singer and songwriter-had become famous in the 19th century for his performances in vaudeville and minstrel shows produced by Charles Frohman. In 1878, Frohman achieved a breakthrough in American theatrical history when he staged a production of “Uncle Tom”s Cabin,” featuring Lucas in the lead role. Thirty-six years later, Lucas was lured out of retirement by the World Producing Corp. to recreate his historic role on film and, in the process, set an important milestone in American movie history.
Obviously important, this is one of those films more people know by title than by actual experience. I’ve never seen it. I’ve seen clips, I know what it is generally, and I know it was significant in terms of the conversation about slavery in American art. I think it’s also important in terms of looking at the art of adaptation from one media to another. In this case, the film was made in no small part to capture the performance by Sam Lucas on film, since it was legendary from his theatrical run. Compare that to “Dracula,” where Lugosi had to really fight to earn the right to play the part that he had played so successfully on stage, and you can see a shift in the attitude about how and why to adapt something.
The Wishing Ring; An Idyll of Old England (1914)
Director Maurice Tourneur, called by film historian Kevin Brownlow “one of the men who introduced visual beauty to the American screen,” arrived in America in 1914. Previously, he was as an artist (assisting sculptor August Rodin and painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes), actor and innovative director in French theater and cinema. Tourneur”s third American film, “The Wishing Ring,” was once believed lost until Brownlow located a 16mm print of the film in northern England. The print subsequently was copied to 35mm by the Library of Congress as part of an effort funded by the National Endowment for the Arts to preserve America”s film heritage. At the time of its initial release, the film was admired for its light and pleasing cross-class romantic story, its fresh performances and the authenticity of its “Old England” settings-although it was shot in New Jersey. Historians of silent cinema have lionized the film since its rediscovery. William K. Everson praised its “incredible sophistication of camerawork, lighting, and editing.” Richard Koszarski deemed it “an extraordinary film – probably the high point of American cinema up to that time.”
And they round it all out with one more title that I obviously will need to see at some point now that I’ve read about it.
Thanks to the inclusion of it on the Registry, and thanks to the inclusion of all the other titles on this list, there is a stronger chance that they’ll be available in some form. Maybe some day we’ll see a streaming channel run by the Registry, a Netflix-like service where you can see any of those 600 titles in their most pristine form, permanently preserved and made accessible to anyone. That certainly seems like the sort of thing that our shifting media landscape seems perfect to feature.
So tell me… what do you guys think of this year’s list?