These Amazing Shadows (2011) Mariano and Norton

 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.

12 comments on “These Amazing Shadows (2011) Mariano and Norton

  1. Dave Crosby says:

    We ought to remember that although Ted Turner unwisely colorized films his channel Turner Classic Movies is now recognized as a national cultural resource of enormous value, showing without commercials or censorship films owned by Turner and rented by the channel for short-term exhibition. Who could ever have predicted that such a channel would one day be available? It features not only films recognized as classics but also little known foreign pictures as well as silent films. In addition, we can see short subjects and travelogues probably never available after their first release. We who love cinema owe a very large debt of gratitude to Ted Turner.


    • John Greco says:

      Dave, I agree, we have much to be thankful to TCM about. Without them, film lovers would be deprived of so much cinematic gold. Over the years now TCM has given us many fllms, famous, infamous and rare. The station is a treasure.

      I am not trying to paint Turner as a bad person but he does come across in this clip as arrogant. Yes,they are his films, he bought the library, he owns them, but that does not give him the right to alter the art itself. You do not buy a Van Gogh painting and change the color of the SUNFLOWERS to red.

      I don’t want to seem like I am dwelling on it, Turner and TCM have redeemed themselves many times over.For classic film lovers, its the best game in town.

      Thanks again for you thoughts, and please watch this film. I think you will like it.


  2. Paul Mariano says:

    The “short running time” is (unfortunately) due to the requirement by PBS that it only be 54 minutes. The actual film is 88 minutes long, and can be viewed it its cinematic entirety on DVD and Blu Ray….available at ShopPBS.


    • John Greco says:


      Thanks for this information. I for one will be getting a copy,. I am anxious to see the original cut. Were you and Kurt able to make the required cuts or was that left to someone else?


  3. The Lady Eve says:

    I’m hoping that once “These Amazing Shadows” completes its run on PBS it makes its way to TCM, where it may be shown at its full length. A very fine assessment, John, of an important and fascinating documentary. I’d more or less forgotten about the “colorization” flap until watching this – and I was unaware that the film registry was connected to “Turner’s folly.” I do believe Turner has redeemed himself with filmmakers, film lovers and classics fans with the creation of TCM. But he always has been arrogant, I think it’s in his DNA…


    • John Greco says:


      Yeah, Turner has always had an arrogant look about him even when he does good things (in addition to TCM, I know he has purchased land in New Mexico with the intention of keeping it wide open so Buffalo will have room to roam). While Turner has stopped the colorization process, it does continue with other corporations are looking to make a quick buck and damn the arts.

      Like you, I hope TCM grabs this wonderful documentary and shows it in its entirety.


  4. Judy says:

    John, we now have a version of the American PBS channel just recently launched in the UK, so I’m hoping this film will turn up there – I enjoyed your review a lot and would certainly be interested to see it. Sadly I’ve just spotted too late that they showed the whole Ken Burns Prohibition series yesterday,but will keep an eye on their schedules and hope it turns up again!

    Hoping this station will turn out to be better than the UK version of TCM, which was great a few years ago but these days shows a very limited selection of films constantly interrupted by commercials, though occasional goodies do still turn up. I’m constantly turning a nasty shade of green when I see US movie bloggers describing what is coming up on your TCM!


    • John Greco says:

      Judy – I hope you have better luck with the American PBS than what is happening with TCM. I have not seem PROHIBITION yet but PBS in general, at least they do here have good selection of shows and films. Keep an eye out fo the AMERICAN MASTERS series. They generally have good films (docs) on interesting topics and people. Most recently, they had a 3 1/2 doc. on Woody Allen!


  5. Sam Juliano says:


    I will certainly mark down December 29. I can certainly count myself as a stanch opponent of colorization, which is a completely affrontery to artists and their work. I remember that Laurel and Hardy’s THE MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS was one of the first to fall victim to this dubious practice. At one point there wasn’t even a black and white version available. In any case I have always been intrigued by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, and would like to learn the various specifications. Delighted to hear that Wayne Wang had a childhood crush on WEST SIDE STORY’s Natalie Wood.

    Fantastic post here John!


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