These Amazing Shadows-preserving our history

In October Comet Over Hollywood was approached, along with other classic film blogs, to review “These Amazing Shadows,” a documentary directed by Kurt Norton and Paul Mariano.  The documentary, which airs at 10 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011, on PBS, explores the foundation of the National Film Registry in 1988 and the importance of preserving culturally significant films.

“These Amazing Shadows” explains clearly how the Film Preservation Act of 1988 came into being.

It began when media mogul Ted Turner purchased the entire MGM film library and proceeded to colorize many of the black and white films.  According to Turner he was improving the movies and had every right to colorize them. “Last time I checked, they were my films,” Turner said.

But this did not sit well with members of Hollywood-directors and actors alike were furious.

Orson Welles famously said, “Keep Ted Turner and his damn Crayolas away from my movies.” Ginger Rogers, Sydney Pollack, Woody Allen and James Stewart were just a few to speak out against the process before Congress.

Eventually the Film Preservation Act would be enacted and the National Film Registry would pick 25 significant films to preserve each year.

Had the documentary chosen to focus solely on the history of the Film Preservation Act and the National Film Registry, it would have been nothing more than a short history lesson.  Thankfully, “These Amazing Shadows” delves deeper into why film is so important and why particular movies are chosen for the registry.

The documentary takes the time to expand upon why the Film Registry includes other movie genres including industrial, educational, documentary and home movies, touching on how these other areas shape American culture and life.

Watching this documentary it becomes very clear that films are not just for entertainment, but that they can be time capsules of our history and culture. Speakers in the documentary from other countries saw movies like “West Side Story” (1961) and thought that was what America was like.

Many of the movies in the registry are relatively unknown when compared to stable mates such as “The Wizard of Oz”(1939) and “Cascablanca” (1942).  Some of the most surprising films in the registry are “Gus Visser and His Singing Duck” (1925), a two minute film demonstrating sound, and the 1950s cartoon advertisement “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” which encouraged patrons to go buy snacks.

Other films in the registry are as simple as a 1939 home movie of daily life in Minnesota or the disturbing footage of President John F. Kennedy getting shot. Neither of these were block buster Hollywood films but contribute to the history of America.

“These Amazing Shadows” poignantly conveys that a movie is more than a series images burned into film.  A good film functions as art, a time capsule, or a reflection of culture.  But even seemingly insignificant films like a man talking with a duck still deserved to be respected for its cultural value.

Ultimately, “These Amazing Shadows” is a near perfect documentary. It left me informed, emotional and in awe. I was uplifted that so many films have been rescued and preserved through the National Film Registry, but also found myself holding a warning, “If we don’t save and preserve films, we won’t have a history.”

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