Some thoughts on ‘These Amazing Shadows’ and the National Registry to kick off 2012

Ted Turner may be the greatest accidental hero in the history of film preservation.

Let me back up and take the long way around to get to this point.  I’m going to try something different this year and keep a media journal for myself, to not just break down what movies I watch but every bit of media I ingest.  When, how much, where, what I used to watch them.  I’m curious about my own diet, but also about our media diets in general.

With this in mind, I realized that I wanted to pick just the right thing to start 2012, and so I opened Netflix Instant and pulled up the documentary “These Amazing Shadows,” a movie about the National Film Registry and why it was created, how the films are chosen, who chooses them, and what it all means.

I had not seen the film before, and it’s a lovely piece on the cultural importance of movies, the nature of film preservation, and how we share our cultural history.  One thing the movie reminds me of is the way these films that have become old hat, ingrained to the point of white noise to some of us, are always new to someone, and there’s an importance to the idea of keeping them pristine and available so that future audiences have their chance to have that experience.  Yes, I’ve seen “Wizard Of Oz” so many times over the course of my life that I barely “see” it when it’s on, but this ongoing Film Nerd 2.0 project with my kids underlines the idea that every viewer has their first time with films, and setting the stage the right way for that first viewing can mean so much.  You can ruin a movie by showing it wrong, and you can make an afternoon into magic if you show it right.

Last week, they announced the 2011 additions to the National Film Registry, and there was the typical sound and fury about the choices.  I got several e-mails from people expecting me to blow up in print over the addition of “Forrest Gump” to the list, but I think I’m a little more zen about it than that.  I don’t consider any list, not even the ones I make, to be any sort of “authoritative” list.  Nobody can tell anybody else what movies they “need” to see, or what movies will matter to them.  You can’t predict someone else’s reaction to a piece of art.  All any of us can do is argue for the films that matter to us.  All we can do is make a case for why something should endure, how it affected us, what it means.  That’s what I’m doing each and every time I write about a film… I’m laying into the only context I have, my context, and I’m writing about the way it expands or enhances my relationship with cinema.  My journey started in a different place than anyone else’s, and it has followed a path that is particular to me.  These days, more than ever before, you can wrap yourself in a near-constant slow drip of movies from around the world, from every era, and how you make those choices is limited only by availability.

The National Registry and its purpose was described this way in the legislation that was passed to create it:

“Members of the National Film Preservation Board serve as an advisory body to the Librarian of Congress, counseling the Librarian on 1) the annual selection of films to the National Film Registry and 2) national film preservation planning policy.

Librarian (advised by Board) will continue implementation of the national film preservation plan and make any necessary updates.

This is a continuation of the work already begun under the auspices of the National Film Preservation Board: the study done in 1993, and the national plan in 1994. Both were accomplished by a consensus of the major film studios, the archives, the educational community, and other key players in the film and film preservation communities.

The Librarian/Board will continue to select up to 25 ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films’ each year for the National Film Registry. To be eligible, films must be at least 10 years old, though they need not be feature-length or have had a theatrical release in order to be considered. The legislation”s intent is that the broadest possible range of films be eligible for consideration.”

And the National Film Preservation Board was described this way in subsequent legislation:

“The Foundation’s primary mission is to save orphan films – those without owners able to pay for their preservation. The films most at-risk are newsreels, silent films, experimental works, films out of copyright protection, significant amateur footage, documentaries, and features made outside the commercial mainstream. Orphan films are the living record of the twentieth century. Hundreds of American museums, archives, libraries, universities, and historical societies care for ‘orphaned’ original film materials of cultural value. The Foundation will work with these film preservation organizations to preserve orphan films and make them accessible to ‘present and future generations of Americans.'”

The work they do is genuinely significant, and where I think the work is most important is in the choices they make that have to do with films you may have never heard of, films I’ve never heard of.  The idea that they include home movies, non-professional films, things that aren’t what we typically think of as “films,” is great, and “These Amazing Shadows” also makes a case for why that’s true.  “Topaz,” for example, is a home movie shot by a prisoner in the American internment camps during WWII, and George Takei is one of the people interviewed about why that footage matters.

Likewise, the films selected by the Registry emphasize other forgotten or downplayed parts of film history, like the roles of women in front of and behind the camera over the years.  Some great points are made, and the selections from “Dance, Girl, Dance” and “Daughters Of The Dust” make compelling cases for why these films need to be protected.

And here’s where we bring this all back around to Ted Turner.  As the film explains, it was his push to start colorizing movies in the ’80s when he bought the MGM film library that kicked off the debate that led to the formation of the Registry.  I remember the debate at the time, and the way it suddenly threw the notion of film preservation into the mainstream spotlight for the first time.  This was still before letterboxing was a regular thing on home video, and I think the colorization debate opened up a larger conversation about how you preserve the “true” version of the movie.  Film studios weren’t really taking care of their libraries, and it was only once they started to realize that secondary markets were going to be important and maybe even more financially important than the theatrical market that they began to go into their vaults and really start to figure out what they had and what condition it was in.  It destroys me to think of movies that have been lost to time, and it doesn’t matter if I like a film or not.  What matters is that someone made that, and that it was the effort of dozens or hundreds of people, and that effort resulted in something that should be permanent.  We have an obligation to that effort, to that intent, and that’s why I don’t mind if the Registry picks something like “Forrest Gump”.  So what?  I go through the list of all the films they’ve chosen so far, and it is a rich and diverse selection of movies.

This past year’s titles included “Bambi,” “The Big Heat,” “El Mariachi,” “Faces, “The Kid,” “Silence Of The Lambs,” and “War Of The Worlds,” and there are a number of titles on the list that I’ve never heard of.  “Fake Fruit Factory,” “Growing Up Female,” “I, An Actress,” “The Negro Soldier,” “A Cure Of Pokeritis”… no idea what those are.  That’s good.  I know they’re not just running down a list of the most popular films or the most awarded films or the highest-grossing films.  They are doing their best to establish a living history of who we are as a people, who we were, and who we want to be.  The act of adding each of these films to a big master list creates an opportunity for conversation that feels much more important and interesting to me than end-of-the-year awards buzz.  These are conversations about history and about culture and about worth, and they’re not driven by ad budgets or momentary heat.

I know my own favorite film, “Lawrence Of Arabia,” is a movie that was in terrible shape when it was shown on TV, and for much of my life, I found it impossible to watch.  It wasn’t until they did a 70MM restoration and a theatrical re-release that I finally saw and understood the film, and it instantly became my favorite movie.  That wouldn’t have been possible if there was no market for that restoration and if it hadn’t been important to the filmmakers and the executives who made it happen.  And now, it’s part of the Registry, which means that the version I saw and fell in love with should hopefully be available now and forever so more people can discover the film in the future.

I would encourage all of you, as you prepare for a new year of watching and enjoying movies, to check out “These Amazing Shadows,” and consider your own media diet this year.  What balance do you strike in your own intake of films?  Are you a feather on the wind, blown about by hype and release dates?  Are you primarily concerned with the new?  Are films disposable to you, background noise to pass the time?  Or are you trying to expand your own understanding of some era or some other culture with what you watch?

There are few things that unite and divide and enrich us the way movies do, and I consider it an enormous privilege to be able to write about such a broad, significant subject each and every day.