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These Amazing Shadows: The Movies That Make America (Blu-ray Review)

21 Nov, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Street 11/22/11
$24.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.

There’s something special and, yes, even unique about the United States National Film Preservation Board’s National Film Registry, whose annual 25 selections of “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” American films have spanned household-name blockbusters to Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy to The T.A.M.I. Show to the non-Hitchcock Topaz (made up of early-‘40s home movies shot in a Japanese internment camp).

For one thing, these screen achievements deemed extra-worthy of preservation by the Library of Congress are selected by a board of scholars and film professionals who tend toward a historical perspective that Oscar voters and even some day-to-day critics don’t always have (though there are professional critics on the Board). For another — and it’s a variation on the same thought — the picks have little to do with the viewing vibes of the moment because they have to be at least 10 years old.

What the Board is looking for are films that have resonated over time — either as an individual work or as something emblematic (like, say, director Budd Boetticher’s beautifully “oeuvre-representative” Western The Tall T). Which is why, for instance, we wouldn’t be likely to see recent Oscar winner The King’s Speech make the list even were its British pedigree not already a disqualifier (though films with some British blood by David Lean and Stanley Kubrick have made the cut). Perhaps the most delightful gonzo choice has been the Registry’s absolutely legitimate inclusion — after some lobbying by the LoC’s humor-blessed nitrate chief George Willeman — of the 1957 animated jingle Let’s Go Out to the Lobby. Talk about bedrock: Here’s the piece of film that has probably sold more popcorn, soft drinks and Goobers than any other — other than, of course, 147-minute Michael Bay movies that spur professional film viewers to run screaming up the aisle seeking four minutes of relief.

As this grabber Paul Mariano-Kurt Norton documentary explains, the process began in 1988 in substantial reaction to Ted Turner’s decision to colorize the black-and-white movies he purchased from the MGM Library, which got even a staunch pro-capitalist conservative like Jimmy Stewart to pull on the reins and shout ”whoa!” during a series of high-profile TV interviews. Actually, take away the colorization issue (though that’s an “if” of Gone With the Wind heft), Turner has been one of the better friends the movies have ever had, and colorization was a crackpot idea that never really went anywhere except maybe with Shirley Temple DVDs.  But the brainstorm of officially deigned achievements stuck, and you could do far worse than sitting down to see and re-see every Registry pick alphabetically — from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to the Zapruder Film. (And I wish I could).

This 88-minute history (with enjoyable bonus extras) also makes the tandem case for film preservation, spending a lot of its time at the LoC’s Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, VA., where prints (including nitrate in cool, dry vaults) are stored. Interviewees include Librarian of Congress James H. Billington and Packard Campus chief Dr. Patrick Loughney (also recently seen on a Turner Classic Movies night with Leonard Maltin) — also technicians, like Willeman, who regularly handle the prints (and yes, they wear gloves).

In a supreme instance of good timing, Shadows makes a keen dovetail with the knockout archival collection Treasures 5: the West 1898-1938 (Image, $59.98), curated by the estimable Scott Simmon and arguably the most purely entertaining of all boxed-set cornucopias plucked from many archives (not just the LoC’s) by the National Film Preservation Foundation. You can’t view the selections without thinking of how just as easily they might have disintegrated into nitrate goo or worse, petrol for some major fires. And here, we’re not only talking about featurettes (How the Cowboy Makes His Lariat) or vintage non-fiction tours of Western sites — but of a major release like Victor Fleming’s 1926 rustic Man Trap for Paramount, which is the best Clara Bow movie I’ve ever seen (and it couldn’t be more modern).

Happily cleared up by Shadows is one misconception: that when films are on digital, they are therefore “preserved.” Well, digital isn’t as stable as film stock properly stored, and the exasperatingly ephemeral digital formats of choice change every 18 months or so (Lord, will this whiplashing process go on forever?). Mariano and Norton don’t work a representative clip from every single Registry pick into the proceedings (at least, I don’t think so), but they get a lion’s share and certainly enough of them to remind any viewer of why he/she loves the movies. You won’t see much here that will make you want to go out to the lobby — except for when the end credits flash and the lobby becomes the starting point for any engendered discussion.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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