Backing the future and the past
EmptyBy Stephen Clark's account, 2007 had been a pretty bad year for his favorite film.
Universal decided to shutter the "Back to the Future" rides at its theme parks, and it looked as if the movie was fading like Marty McFly's relatives in his photograph. Traffic was still good at Clark's bttf.com Web site, but the Athens, Ala., resident felt it needed a boost.
He received one Thursday when Librarian of Congress James Billington picked the 1985 hit as one of the 25 selected this year for inclusion in the National Film Registry.
"Just this year they closed the 'BTTF' rides at the theme parks," he said. "I thought this would be really great to cap off what had been a pretty bad year for 'BTTF.'"
The selection was thanks in no small part to Clark's effort and some goading from an archivist at the library known to Clark only by the Web nom de plume Frisbee the Cat. Oh yeah, and a "guy" at The Hollywood Reporter.
"I read an article in The Hollywood Reporter about 'Caddyshack,'" he told that guy — me — in an interview. "The guy wanted to get that in the film list. I thought, 'So that's how it works.'"
Clark took the advice and posted a message on his Web site. That very day, the messages started coming in.
"It's a very good film, and there was a very large write-in campaign," said Steve Leggett, staff director of the National Film Preservation Board.
Clark also was aided by Liz Stanley, a Library of Congress archivist and "BTTF" fan who knew that public input weighs heavily in what gets in. So she made sure that "BTTF's" superfan knew about it.
"I got it into my head that 'BTTF' needed to be in the National Registry," Stanley said. "I'd discovered the site and used it as a reference work. I wrote to him."
Frisbee the Cat, by the way, is Stanley.
While a write-in campaign helped put an enduring hit on this year's list, a movie that is the antithesis of the big-budget production perhaps best signifies why the federal government should care about film preservation.
"Our Day" is a 1938 film about a day in the life of the Kelly family. The 12-minute home movie shot by Wallace Kelly depicts his family as they go about their lives in Lebanon, Ky. The cast was made up of his mother, wife, brother and pet terrier. "Our Day" also contains exceptional images of small-town Southern life, ones that counter the stereotype of impoverished people eking out a living after the Depression.
"What really caught everyone's eye was how well it was made," said Dwight Swanson, an archival consultant and board member at the Center for Home Movies. "Most home movies are tedious to watch. It just looked beautiful."
Like a Hollywood movie, "Our Day" is successful because it was made by a talented individual.
"He did what a Hollywood director would have done at that time," Swanson said.
Swanson saw the film at the Center for Home Movies. The center and the Kelly family have agreed to have the 16mm film blown up to 35mm. Swanson hopes that Kelly's entire collection can be preserved in the center's archive and then kept at the Library of Congress.
"To me it's interesting because it shows my parents when they were young," Martha Kelly told The Hollywood Reporter. "But the people who didn't know my family all love it for the 1938 minutia. Grandmother cooks on an electric stove, but there's a coal stove in the background that she just can't bear to get rid of."
Martha said her father might have lived in small-town America, but he wasn't a rube. He studied art, loved New York and took a stab at being a book illustrator until the 1929 stock market crash and his father's heart attack brought him back home to central Kentucky.
"He was trying to be an artsy-fartsy person in the middle of Kentucky," Martha said. "It was lonely."
"Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son" is a preservation double whammy. Ken Jacobs' landmark avant-garde film uses an old paper-print film as its source material.
Until Aug. 24, 1912, there was no law allowing for the copyrighting of film. Moviemakers submitted paper prints allowing them to get copyrighted as photographs until the law was changed.
Jacobs used a 1905 paper print from the Library of a cinema short of the fairy-tale song to explore the parameters of film art. A "structuralist film" masterpiece, Jacobs for "Tom, Tom" used techniques ranging from slow and studied examinations of individual paper print images to probing experiments in manipulation of motion and light.
The structuralist film theory emphasizes how a movie conveys meaning through the use of codes and conventions much like a language is used to construct meaning in communication. Jacobs took this on as he made his film between 1969-71, ripping apart the five-minute short and reconstructing it into a 115-minute film.
"I try to get people to wake up to what's going on," Jacobs told The Hollywood Reporter. "Every image is so loaded. It's a point of view whether you want to have it or not."
In an e-mail, Jacobs said the selection was a pleasant surprise.
"Imagine, a story about the theft of a small pig getting this sort of spotlight!" he wrote.