The PBS series, “Independent Lens” is giving film lovers a real holiday treat on December 29th with the television debut of the documentary, “These Amazing Shadows,” an entertaining and informative look at the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Unlike the Oscars and other award shows the National Film Registry is not just an excuse to create another list or TV special. The films chosen have “stood the test of time,” as one of the interviewees tells us early on. They represent a group of films that are culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.
The selected films are far reaching in range from the Hollywood classics you would typically expect like “Casablanca,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Searchers,” “The Godfather” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” to many less recognized works ranging from the avant-garde, to historically important home movies along with some unexpected rarities and oddities. From the spectacular large Hollywood productions down to scratchy 8mm films and everything in between, the National Film Registry has collected and preserved works that tell our history, celebrate our lives and reflects what we as Americans were, are and how film, whether they are works of art or entertainment, reflect our lives, influence our thoughts and define our culture.
Produced, written and directed by Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton, “These Amazing Shadows” is packed with film clips from the 550 films added to the Registry since its inception, after passage of the National Film Preservation Act in 1988 by Congress, just two years after Ted Turner acquired the MGM library and began the hideous process of colorizing classic films such as “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “The Maltese Falcon” and “King Kong” among 100 other films. Filmmakers, critics and much of the public were appalled. In an archival interview Turner stated at the time, “The last time I checked, they were my films. I’m working on my films,” he smirked. Filmmakers like Woody Allen and Sydney Pollack are shown speaking to Congress on behalf of film preservation and the rights of filmmakers to have their work be recognized as art.
Other highlights range from how and why films are selected to the National Film Registry, to the discovery by George Willeman of the original version of the pre-code Barbara Stanwyck film, “Baby Face.” However I found the most interesting segments related to the lesser known films and rarities. One of the more fascinating pieces, and one of the darkest moments in American history, took place during World War II when orders were given to round up Japanese-Americans, this happened mostly on the west coast, sending them to internment camps. Masaharu Tatsuno was a Japanese-American businessman whose family was soon placed in a camp known as the Topaz Relocation Center. Tatsuno was an amateur filmmaker who shot and recorded inside the camp, with a contraband 8mm camera, the daily life of his family, including Arlene Damron, Tatsuno’s daughter who narrates his story. Along with thousands of other Japanese-Americans detained, not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, held for no other reason than they were Japanese, these films, essentially home movies, reflect the rudimentary barracks, desolate landscape, and the simple daily living conditions of life inside these camps. Tatsuno’s film became known as “Topaz.” Among other Japanese-Americans placed in these camps were actor George Takei, Sulu of Star Trek TV fame, and his family. The most famous home movie, the Zapruder film of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassination, is also, as expected, included.
There are lighter moments, some films that today are no more than footnotes, though historically important, like an early experimental talkie called “Gus Visser and His Singing Duck” shot in 1925, or the industrial film, “The House in the Middle,” a film produced by The National Clean Up – Paint Up – Fix Up Committee whose short film attempts to convince its audience that keeping your home clean and freshly painted, will help protect you from a nuclear attack. The film was basically a government sanctioned ad produced by the paint industry, and as the credits read, was made with the cooperation of the Federal Civil Defense Administration.
Those interviewed include filmmakers Paul Schrader, Charles Burnett, John Waters, Christopher Nolan, Julie Dash, John Singleton, Barbara Kopple and Wayne Wang who admits to being seduced by “West Side Story” and having a huge crush on Natalie Wood as a young boy. Nolan talks about the power of film to transport you into another world while Dash reflects on the influence of women behind the scenes in the early days, and racism. Other talking heads include actors Tim Roth, Debbie Reynolds, Peter Coyote, film critics and historians Anthony Slide, Jay Carr, Mick LaSalle and Farran Smith Nehme.
If the film has a problem it is its short running time that results in some interviews and subjects to seem a bit rushed, a minor point overall though in this interesting documentary. The film is scheduled to be broadcast on December 29th at 10PM but be sure to check your local PBS station for exact time and day.