SUNDANCE REVIEW: These Amazing Shadows

Sundance Film Festival - These Amazing Shadows - Film Still - 2011
Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival
A classy tribute to an offshoot of Congress seems an unlikely proposition these days, but this one will be sheer joy to anyone who loves movies.

Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton's inspiring documentary makes an illuminating case for the National Film Registry as America's time capsule and family album.

PARK CITY -- To most of us, awareness of the National Film Registry is confined to a column item in the arts pages once a year, listing the annual selection of 25 new additions. Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton's inspiring documentary makes an illuminating case for this vital institution as America's time capsule and family album.

When you have access to the collection of images that these filmmakers -- and their accomplished editors, Doug Blush and Alex Calleros-- can tap into, presumably it's hard to go wrong.

However, These Amazing Shadows goes beyond the obvious orgy of great clips, and the expected laudatory account of the work of the National Film Preservation Board, which serves as an advisory body to the Librarian of Congress. It also doubles as eloquent advocacy for the importance of film archives, and a consideration of the role of movies in documenting a culture and reflecting the times in which they were made.

Following a handful of pre-titles comments in the prosaic magic-of-cinema mode, the doc gets down to business with a series of loosely delineated chapters.

Founded in 1988, the NFR was born partly out of the mid-'80s controversy sparked when Ted Turner started tampering with old Hollywood by colorizing black-and-white gems. Following the pan-and-scan offenses already committed by video, this violation of artistic integrity stirred protest from names such as Woody Allen, Sydney Pollack and James Stewart, galvanizing Congress.

The criteria for NFR selection specifies films of cultural, historical and aesthetic significance, which as Mariano and Norton have fun pointing out, opens the door to just about anything. Of course Casablanca and Citizen Kane are in there, but it's more intriguing to learn that so is Michael Jackson's Thriller music-video and Let's All Go to the Lobby, the 1957 cartoon candy-counter promo that for decades was part of the American moviegoing experience.

The moment of elation that came with that selection is one of many from staffers and board members that give this film a more personal stake than just another parade of talking heads reeling off classic titles.

The doc highlights how many unexpected entries have made the cut, including novelties like an early sound demo from 1925 with the self-explanatory title Gus Visser and His Singing Duck. And when movies such as Blazing Shadows,Fast Times at Ridgemont Highand This is Spinal Tap start turning up, it's clear the board are not cultural snobs.

While it's far from comprehensive and some subjects are given rushed treatment, the film makes a commendable effort toward inclusiveness. It touches on home movies, experimentalism, industrial and educational films (including an inadvertently hilarious nuclear-alert propaganda plug for the paint industry) and documentaries.

There's a fascinating section on the discovery of a pre-censored negative of 1933's Baby Face, with clips showing Barbara Stanwyck embracing Nietzschean philosophy and sexual bartering to a degree much sanitized in the Hays Code-approved cut.

Robust sections deal with sci-fi and fantasy, animation, the women's perspective and now-uncomfortable endorsements of racial or social imbalance, such as The Birth of a Nationand The Searchers. Interview subjects talk about movies as an essential dialogue with the past, and particularly in relation to the section on war films, a way of visualizing harsh experience.

George Takei speaks movingly of his family being uprooted from their home and packed off to an internment camp for Japanese Americans during WWII while images of the documentary Topaz illustrate that episode.

Wherever possible, the filmmakers look for a personal angle.

Tim Roth and Wayne Wang share how their ideas of America were formed at a young age by watching West Side Story and To Kill a Mockingbird, respectively. And filmmakers acknowledge their inspirations: John Lasseter eulogizes Disney toons; Christopher Nolan touts the rewards of repeat Blade Runner viewings; Rob Reiner tears up over It's a Wonderful Life.

An efficient infomercial for film preservation, the doc reveals that half the American movies made before 1950 are now lost, along with more than 80 percent of silent-era output. The original negative of even such a relatively recent milestone as The Godfather was in tatters.

While Mariano and Norton (who wrote the narration with co-editor Blush) may not break ground that hasn't been explored elsewhere in movies on movies, it's hard to quibble when their elegantly assembled film concludes with a gorgeous stream of some of the most indelible images in 20th century screen history.

However, it's the personal insights that stir the soul, such as the infectious delight of likable film geek George Willeman, the Nitrate Vault Manager at the Library of Congress audiovisual branch, handling negatives like precious archeological finds.

Production: Gravitas Docufilms
Writers: Kurt Norton, Paul Mariano, Doug Blush
Producers: Christine O'Malley, Paul Mariano Kurt Norton
Executive producers: Suzanne Chapot, Audree Norton, Kenneth Norton
Director of photography: Frazer Bradshaw
Editors: Doug Blush, Alex Calleros
Music: Peter Golub
Sales: Films Transit International
No rating, 88 minutes