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What do the films Casablanca, Blazing Saddles, and West Side Story have in common? Besides being popular, they have also been deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," by the Library of Congress and listed on the National Film Registry. These Amazing Shadows tells the history and importance of The Registry, a roll call of American cinema treasures that reflects the diversity of film, and indeed the American experience itself. The current list of 525 films includes selections from every genre - documentaries, home movies, Hollywood classics, avant-garde, newsreels and silent films. These Amazing Shadows reveals how American movies tell us so much about ourselves...not just what we did, but what we thought, what we felt, what we aspired to, and the lies we told ourselves. Written by
Robin Blaetz, Chair of Film Studies, Mount Holyoke College, is the very first and very last interview subject seen on screen. See more »
There is nothing like going to a theater, a communal atmosphere, watching something that is bigger than life.
It's dark, you don't look at anybody...
And then the movie started, and it was really, really magical.
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These Amazing Shadows takes an in-depth look at an underrated organization that is dedicated to preserving and maintaining films in their current form. The National Film Registry was founded in 1988, coinciding with the passing of the National Film Preservation Act, after a suit at MGM threatened to colorize classic black and white pictures after his purchase of the company. The NFR has been devoted to preserving films that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Since '88 they have preserved over five-hundred films, along with quite a few short films and minor, culturally significant snippets.
I'd rather spend this time discussing my thoughts on the registry rather than the documentary itself. There isn't a whole lot to say about the film, but there's a plethora to discuss about the registry itself. First off, let me say this is an organization that needs to exist. It may seem pointless to some; an organization that collects movies? What's the point? Speaking more as a common-man than an avid film reviewer, it is important to preserve an art form so we can not only gain knowledge of the thing itself, but gain knowledge of the time period it is portraying or when it was made. Here's a good question to ponder for those still unconvinced; why do we have history textbooks? There are a plethora of films in the registry now that absolutely deserve to be in there, and several still waiting to be recognized (my main recommendations would be De Niro's underrated and unsung A Bronx Tale and Scorsese's masterpiece Casino). Films like Citizen Kane, Close Encounters, Do the Right Thing, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, The Godfather, Goodfellas, Malcolm X, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, To Kill a Mockingbird, and even The Rocky Horror Picture Show exist in the registry, all serving a unique and valid purpose.
What I love about the organization is that it isn't biased. If the NFR had an attitude like the MPAA, if I proposed the inclusion of Rocky Horror, it would most likely be met with sneers and laughs. I had the same reaction to its placement as did another member. If it can have a run at midnight showings all across the country, with people dressing up as characters, playing games, and having fun, it must speak to people in some way. For that reason, it is culturally, historically, and aesthetically different. And boy is it more than aesthetically different.
I was fascinated by the inclusion of many short films as well. There is a short film in the registry called H20, directed by Ralph Steiner. The short is thirteen minutes, and involves shots of flowing water that gradually become closer and closer to the point where it becomes almost unrecognizable. "You forget it's water" says a woman working in the registry. The short is captivating in every sense of the word and can be found on Youtube to this day. People can't see themselves enjoying such a flimsy, basic idea, but anyone with an open mind and a strong appreciation for cinema will definitely be entranced.
Another short I desperately would like to see is called Topaz, depicting life in the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah during World War II. We are shown brief shots of the film, but to my knowledge, it is not commercially available, most likely because it was shot illegally. Another short I'd like to see is called Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther. The short depicted life with the German-American community with the approach of World War II in sight. Unfortunately, like Topaz, it is not commercially available. Another charming short on the list was an old ad played at theaters to hopefully have a run on concession stand items; Let's All Go to the Lobby.
As far as the documentary These Amazing Shadows goes, it is nothing shy of wonderful. Eighty-eight minutes races by as we are shown the painstaking process of preserving a film, a room full of cold, well-kept film reels, and the concept of how films are elected in the registry (they are in a very democratic procedure by voting online). This is a must see documentary for those concerned with film's future and where it stands today.
Starring: Christopher Nolan, John Waters, Barbara Kopple, Tim Roth, John Lasseter, Wayne Wang, and Julie Dash. Directed by: Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton.
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