This week offered a bonus for Stranger Than Fiction attendees. These Amazing Shadows, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, screened in New York City at IFC Thursday night. The documentary focuses on the inception and history of the National Film Registry, which is the United States National Film Preservation Board's selection of films to be preserved in the Library of Congress. Criteria is based on whether a film is culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. Films range from Hollywood classics to home movies, experimental, documentaries and more.
These Amazing Shadows offers interesting insight on the importance of film preservation and also provides some background into it's beginning. Oddly enough it was initiated by the actions of Ted Turner and by a response from the Ronald Reagan administration.
In the 1980's Ted Turner purchased MGM and with it, its film library. Shorty thereafter, he announced his idea to begin colorizing Hollywood's black and white classics which resulted in an uproar over the violation of moral rights of the film's artisans, but also over intellectual property as well as copyright protection. President Ronald Reagan ended up signing the National Film Preservation Act in 1988, a direct response to the many directors, actors and union officials that came out in droves to Capital Hill in protest over Ted Turner's plans.
Another fascinating section of the film talks about some of the archivist's finds. In particular when an archivist stumbles upon two different prints of Baby Face (1933 ) with Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent and Donald Cook. One print turns out to be a pre-censorship version. I believe this discovery was around 5 or 6 years ago. I remember reading about it at the time.
These Amazing Shadows shows a before censorship and post censorship (the released version) scene in a split screen. It's like seeing the difference between a film that's been letterboxed against the same film that hasn't non-letterboxed. It's almost as though the before and after versions of Baby Face are two different stories (shows what a difference different editing choices can make). The implications of Stanwyck's Lily Powers is so much more vague in the censored version than the uncensored, where the intentions and actions of the characters are bold and clear.
Of course the main point this documentary makes is the significance of film as part of our cultural history and because of that, why films are so important to save. The filmmakers, Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton joined STF's Thom Powers on stage for a Q&A following the screening and audience members included Barbara Kopple (who's Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) was added to the registry in 1990 and also appears in interview clips in the These Amazing Shadows), a National Film Preservation Board member and others who worked on the film. These Amazing Shadows also encourages its audience to vote since the National Film Registry does accept suggestions and considers the public's opinion when compiling their list every year. During the talk back, Mr. Norton mentioned how much he thought the documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) should be preserved and the attending board member said that it has indeed been on the list but has yet to make the cut. I suppose that's where the public vote could have an influence. To vote for your favorite film, click here.
Although I had sort of yearned for more detail and even some coverage of the literal preservation process, the filmmakers did fit a lot in and it's a ton to cover. I was glad to see they recognized women in film and the need to preserve their legacy. They bring up big names of the silent era such as Lois Weber when women producers, directors, writers and editors ruled the roost, and then later Dorothy Arzner, when women were less prominent in those positions. I am pleased to mention the Women's Film Preservation Fund has played a part in some of those preservation efforts.
These Amazing Shadows will hopefully bring much needed ongoing attention to preservation because although there are terrific organizations raising funds year around to save fast dying films, it's still a race against time. To find out more about how you can help save films, check out the National Film Preservation Foundation, a non-profit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America's film heritage. Anyone interested can also donate to WFPF and have a hand in preserving the cultural legacy of women in the film industry. I have to plug that one since I joined the committee a while ago.