These Amazing Shadows

We found it at the movies.

These Amazing Shadows is one of those film-history compilations that never fail to send us out in search of overlooked movies to catch up on. But Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton‘s new documentary has more on its mind than just showing off the riches of America’s cinematic heritage.

The kaleidoscopic, clip-filled doc aims to acquaint us with the purpose of the National Film Preservation Act, which launched in 1989 with the Library of Congress issuing the National Film Registry, a cumulative annual list of 25 American-produced films to be preserved for future generations. The first few choices were easy: Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Star Wars, etc. But the board also included less well-known films such as King Vidor’s The Crowd, on the grounds of “cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance.”

The idea was that the collected films (550 as of 2010) represent a document of the times, a sort of diary of America and the way we saw ourselves in film, for better or worse. One of the most controversial choices was the 1992 selection of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, now and forever a true paradox. Griffith was guilty of aggravated racism in his ugly stereotypes and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan in that 1915 drama, but he was also the inventor of the modern language of film. And so his work takes its place beside the films of Charles Burnett, John Singleton, and Spike Lee. It’s all part of the “national memory.”

That memory is in danger of slipping with old age. We’re informed that half of all the movies made in America before 1950 no longer exist in any form, and that figure is 80 percent for films before 1920. Essentially, Mariano and Norton’s endlessly entertaining doc is a commercial for film preservation, including all sorts of neglected forms — newsreels, experimental films, home movies, music videos (Michael Jackson’s Thriller was the first music vid admitted to the Registry), made-for-TV movies — as well as critical and box-office champs that played in theaters. Let’s hope we never run out of money for this particular project.

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