October 3, 2013

National Film Registry: A Love Story

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These Amazing Shadows is a film buffet: there’s a little sample of everything. Drawn from the nostalgic imagery of old films juxtaposed with an omnipresent narrator, the documentary dives into the history and importance of the National Film Registry. Disappointingly, this 88-minute documentary does not give enough credit to the film industry and the Registry; however, its audience should still be thankful to have such a powerful insight into the mysterious world of classic film.

For most of the world, the National Film Registry is important merely for a column published in the arts pages once a year, which lists an annual selection of new additions to the registry. Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton’s inspiring documentary makes a case for this crucial institution. Their documentary shows the world that the National Film Registry acts as America’s time capsule. Impressively, they put together a piece of work that allows the films to speak for themselves, presenting straightforward information to its audience in an elegant, engaging manner.

These Amazing Shadows serves as a means not only to appreciate film, but also to get to know its history. The film educates its audience on the origins of the committee and its historical process of picking the variety of films each year. As it eloquently explains, the National Film Registry works to preserve the art of film and, more importantly, to protect these works of art from harm. Mariano and Norton argue that the Registry is so worthwhile a cause that it should be funded by both the government and private citizens.

A primary draw of the film is its array of interviews with well-known hollywood-types. Mariano and Norton consult with different directors, actors, and movie making professions, in addition to board members, including filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, John Waters and Barbara Kopple. They also converse with film critics like Mick LaSalle and Jay Carr. One of the most engaging interviews occurs with Gregory Peck’s son, a Vietnam veteran, who exposes the horrors of that war and how many films have captured it. These conversations give insight into the decision-making process, as well as how these films make them feel.

Focusing far beyond obviously classic movies — namely, Gone with the Wind and Casablanca — the documentary examines all genres of film, including avant-garde, Hollywood classics, newsreels, silent films, documentaries, and more. The discussion of the variety of film presented justifies the claim that films inform people of the culture at specific points in time. For example, Mariano and Norton included Birth of a Nation not to illustrate racism, but because it is historically significant. Other films such as U.S.A. do not show America at its best, but at its most real.

Mariano and Norton also explore the art of film preservation, discovering uncensored versions of movies that were edited under the Production Code. They follow preservation specialists, giving the audience an understanding of their job and the rewarding experience it entails. In particular, the film features a segment that scrutinizes two different versions of Barbara Stanwyck’s 1933 film Baby Face. Someone had two copies of the movie — one, he noticed, was slightly longer than the other. They discover that one version was unedited while the other must have been censored. Mariano and Norton put the versions side-by-side, resulting in an informative and comedic segment.

Although this film is the perfect documentary for all of the film nerds in the world, and for anyone else, the 88-minutes seem to go by quickly without giving enough attention and depth to each film. The structure of the film also leaves much to be desired: Its broadness becomes a strain on the cohesiveness of the film, leaving the audience with many unanswered questions. The documentary also seems to be advertising the National Film Registry, which seems a tad unethical even if, by the end, the committee proves worthy of celebration. Nevertheless, these problems do not undermine the obvious amount of hard work and love put into the film.

Overall, despite their film’s flaws, Mariano and Norton are able to capture well the American cinematic treasures that reflect the diversity of film. Like many great films, this documentary acts as a love letter to film itself. It presents the ways America cherishes the medium, its history and the hard work that goes into making extraordinary movies. These Amazing Shadows grasps the American experience as a whole, revealing much about our culture, but more importantly, about us. The movie is summarized when board member Robert Rosen asks, “Why would you want to save movies? I would ask, Why do we save family pictures?” The importance of film is unspoken — film transforms us in a way that no other medium is capable of doing. At the very least, this documentary gives its audience a whole new repertoire of movies on their must-see list.