Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Honored and Preserved: These Amazing Shadows

It took a special talent to rile up the great Jimmy Stewart, but the not so great Ted Turner had it. However, the hue and cry he raised against the Mouth from the South’s colorization program ultimately put the Library of Congress in the film preservation business, as the custodians of the National Film Registry. Filmmakers and scholars discuss many of the officially recognized films cafeteria style in Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton’s These Amazing Shadows (trailer here), which airs this Thursday on PBS’s Independent Lens.

Responding to the concerns of Stewart and his colleagues, Congress sprang into action, passing a bill none of them had read. Eventually, the Library of Congress’s legal staff determined they had been charged with selecting twenty-five culturally and artistically significant films each year to be preserved for generations to come. Though the list is largely determined by a panel of experts, public input is also solicited. It is a retrospective honor, reserved for films at least ten years old, with practical consequences for posterity.

Naturally, there are many clips of widely acknowledged classics, such as The Godfather and It’s a Wonderful Life. However, Mariano and Norton seem more interested in the oddities on the list, like Gus Visser and His Singing Duck, an early experiment with soundie technology from 1925 and films whose inclusion are clearly noted to criticize the notions of American exceptionalism, such as Dave Tatsuno’s Topaz, a collection of amateur films documenting life in a Japanese internment camp.

Perhaps Star Wars fans will be most frustrated by Shadows because it raises but never addresses what will be an obvious question for them. Not surprisingly A New Hope, a.k.a. Star Wars, was selected for the Registry, but given Lucas’s persistent habit of making alterations both large and small, one wonders which version has been preserved? The broadcast version of Shadows never explores this issue.

There are tons of talking heads in the documentary, but none really has anything stop-the-presses insightful to say. Mostly, we simply get bromides about how nice it is to see movies in theaters because it is part of a communal experience. Whereas, just why Peter Coyote is selected as an expert on the Zapruder Film frankly remains a bit baffling.

For an honor like the National Film Registry, what is not on the list is just as controversial as what has been selected, but the broadcast cut never tackles the subject of arguable omissions. Of course, since films do not have any window of eligibility, it is never too late to rectify an oversight, which is why the absence of such discussion is so glaring. Though this year’s list will be announced imminently, I am happy to suggest for next year: Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky, King Vidor’s The Fountainhead, and Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm.

Essentially, Shadows is like a lite beer version of a Chuck Workman film, replacing his visual wit and verve, with some flat commentary. It is a passable time killer for movie lovers, but hardly appointment television when it airs this Thursday (12/29) on Independent Lens.