Art can only survive if the people who enjoy it fight on its behalf. Unlike history which can be preserved through spoken word and artifacts, the survival of art requires a conscious act because it in itself isn’t represented by other forms—it is one of the artifacts reflecting history into future generations. With the 1988 establishment of the National Film Registry, a congressionally selected collection of films it deems to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, the United States government acknowledged that film constituted an important part of American culture, and that some films were thus deserving of preservation for future generations. In today’s world where the arts are under constant siege in budgetary battles, the cultural necessity of the registry is undeniable.
Each era writes its voice into its films and then pass them along for future generations to enjoy; it’s a quality that only art can possess when it has absolute freedom to express itself, and if not cared for the voice of an entire generation can be lost. Such was the case for roughly 80% of silent era films and some of the greatest features of all time are at equal risk to being lost to the toll that time takes on film. As awareness for the importance of the preservation of film increased, studios began to pay attention to the cultural treasures stashed in their vaults—and so did the US government. Hence, the National Film Registry.
These Amazing Shadows discusses the registry’s creation, its purpose, its reception within the film community, and why certain films were added. It’s a terrific documentary that benefits from being a subject so many in the filmmaking business care about, thus it’s littered with familiar faces. However, beyond raising awareness for its federally funded objective, you can’t help but wonder what the point of the film is. Is someone arguing against the preservation of these films? Without this counterpoint, These Amazing Shadows feels like a bare statement of “this is happening” rather than making any new arguments on the significance of film as the art form of the 20th century. Instead, These Amazing Shadows is a passion project made by people who love film and for people of the same mindset. If that’s you, then These Amazing Shadows is a terrific piece of nostalgia-inducing filmmaking.
What was the first film you saw in a theater? Which movie made you fall in love with the medium? Which can you watch again and again? Actors, directors, critics, producers, archivists, and others involved in the creation appreciation, and preservation of films speak up on the issue of the importance of the medium as a cultural landmark. Christopher Nolan, John Lasseter, Rob Reiner, Tim Roth, Leonard Maltin, John Singleton, Peter Coyote, George Takei, Wayne Wang, Debbie Reynolds, Zooey Deschanel, and John Waters are just some of the memorable faces that pop up during the talking heads portion of the film which is broken up with plenty of clips of classic films along with mini-tributes to film icons like Gregory Peck.
The true substance of the film comes from those who work for the registry and are actively involved in the reparations of rolls of film which they’re still sorting through. Sometimes films are melted into solid pucks and there’s nothing to save, which is sadly more often than anyone who appreciates film would like, but at other times a film’s restoration can occur and the archivists go about scraping off debris and repairing tears. When These Amazing Shadows devotes its time to honoring these people, and the work they’ve done in restoring prints of classics like The Godfather, that’s when something truly unique and meaningful comes through. Otherwise the film plays like a tribute reel that wouldn’t be out of place during a lull in the Academy Awards ceremony.
Still, as someone who loves film, I couldn’t help but sit rapt as famous film personalities came onscreen and talked about their first memories of sitting in a theater during the opening of Star Wars as the seemingly endless star destroyer tore through space or of Tim Roth’s formative memory from childhood in watching Gregory Peck’s performance in To Kill A Mockingbird and how his father considered it the quintessential performance of an American actor. For film lovers, These Amazing Shadows is like a feature-length extra from a DVD, but just strong enough to stand on its own two feet.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The best featurette the disc has to offer is a deep look at the film restoration process that has brought a great many films back from near ruin. After that, the rest of the extras cover the recording of the film's score, some deleted and alternate scenes, and footage from the film's run at Sundance.
"These Amazing Shadows" is on sale November 22, 2011 and is not rated. Documentary. Directed by Kurt Norton, Paul Mariano. Written by Douglas Blush, Paul Mariano, Kurt Norton.