“Somebody says ‘Why would you save movies?’ and I ask those people back ‘Why do you save your family pictures?'”
That’s the closing line from the above trailer, and it pretty well encapsulates what this documentary is all about. These Amazing Shadows is a 2011 documentary produced by Christine O’Malley and directed by Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton. It is ostensibly a history of the National Film Registry, but what it really is is a love letter to Americsn film and those who care about films past, present, and future.
For those who don’t know, the National Film Registry is a list of films selected by the United States National Film Preservation Board for preservation in the Library of Congress. The Film Preservation Board, in turn, was established by an act of congress known the National Film Preservation Act of 1988. Each year, the NFR presents a list of up to 25 American films to the Librarian of Congress for special recognition, and he may then modify the list as he sees fit. The only requirements for inclusion on the list are that they must be at least 10 years old (though this was not true for the first year’s selections), and that they be considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. There are no requirements as to length, genre, or any other consideration. As a matter of fact, a film does not even have to have had a theatrical release in order to be included on the list. This has led to an incredible amount of diversity among the films included, and now the Registry includes everything from newsreels to Hollywood blockbusters, from silent films to music videos, from short subjects to serials. As Dr. James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress who has overseen the registry since its inception has stated,
Taken together, the … films in the National Film Registry represent a stunning range of American filmmaking—including Hollywood features, documentaries, avant-garde and amateur productions, films of regional interest, ethnic, animated, and short film subjects—all deserving recognition, preservation and access by future generations. As we begin this new millennium, the registry stands among the finest summations of American cinema’s wondrous first century.
But all of that is really just background. As I said earlier, what this documentary really is is a love letter to the glory of American films, a reminder of where they (and we as film lovers) come from, and a celebration of those who are trying to keep that past alive. In some ways, there’s really nothing “new” in the actual information presented here, especially for those who have been following the fight for better preservation of our film heritage, but for those who haven’t, it certainly can be an eye-opener.
Also, it’s just a fun look back at not only some great movies that you may remember, but an introduction to ones that you may be completely unaware of.
One of the things that the doc also focuses on is that it’s not just the quote big unquote movies that deserve attention, but a lot of times the smaller or completely overlooked items, even home movies, that deserve attention, protection, and preservation, because a lot of times it’s those little items that really serve to provide a kind of “time capsule” of where we have been and where we are as a country and as a people, and that can help to remind us of the past and what it was truly like.
Sadly, as the film also points out, even being named to the registry doesn’t ensure that these films will actually be preserved, and there are a lot of others that are in danger of being, or already are, lost to the ravages of time and will never even be known or seen again.
In the end, These Amazing Shadows is very much worth watching if you consider yourself a film buff. But even if you don’t, it’s still worth your time, and who knows, maybe after watching it, you will come away remembering the effect that some of these movies have had on you in the past, and a sense of wonder at what else might be out there that might be worth taking a look at and why preserving our film heritage is so important, not only for their entertainment value, but for the link that they can provide to our culture and our humanity.
(Post script: I’m providing below what appears to be a shortened version of the film that was cut for presentation on PBS. I haven’t watched this version for comparison to its full-length counterpart, which i really recommend seeking out, but if you don’t want to do that, you can at least check this out.)