Dec 28, 2011

Must Watch TV: These Amazing Shadows

I don’t know if this was specifically planned, but I think it’s great that the National Film Registry announced its choices for the 2011 list  today, one day before These Amazing Shadows, a documentary about the birth of and reason for that list will air on Independent Lens (PBS, 10PM PST).

These Amazing Shadows starts in the eighties, a dark time for those who love film. Ted Turner (who would eventually be the ‘T’ in TCM!) has purchased the MGM film library and he is determined to make his new acquisition marketable to as wide an audience as possible. His solution is colorization, a process that director John Huston once called as effective as “pouring sugar water over a roast”. There was an immediate uproar, both from the public and the artistic community. Turner seemed flabbergasted. There’s a clip in the documentary where he arrogantly smirks, “the last time I checked, they were my films. I’m working on my films.”

Of course, a lot of people knew better. In fact, is there any other art form where the public claims such fervent ownership of the product? You could make an argument for music, but there’s no denying that despite whoever owns the rights, movies are the shared cultural heritage of anyone who cares to claim it. It is this passionate belief, and the fear of seeing that heritage destroyed, that led to the National Film Preservation Act of 1988 and the creation of the National Film Registry.

Each year, the Library of Congress selects twenty-five notable films that will be preserved. The National Preservation Board, with assistance from the public, helps to pick the titles. The only common element among these choices is that they are deemed to be "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant". As a result, the list of over 550 movies is a wonderful mishmash of all sorts of goodies. From short to feature-length, fictional to documentary and home movies to big budget Hollywood productions.

These Amazing Shadows manages to cover many of these areas, with clips from the movies and personal interviews with notable film lovers. The diversity of interviewees was almost exciting. How fun to see Debbie Reynolds and John Waters in the same documentary. It was great to see a classic film blogger, Farran “Self-Styled Siren” Nehme, speak her piece as well!

The film zips among genres with delightful grace. One minute you’re learning about sci-fi, the next you’re watching a family in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. You’d think switching moods so frequently would be jarring, but the transitions are managed smoothly. In addition to the overall review of many of the things Registry titles have to offer, there are also segments where lesser-known titles are explored in greater detail. 

Though the Registry is a government-sponsored effort, it is clear that it is driven by passion for the many worlds to be found in film. The voices here may be diverse, but their common affection for movies enveloped the film.

 I felt invigorated after watching These Amazing Shadows, because it spoke to a lot of the reasons why I treasure the medium so much. I did not need to be reminded of the importance of the Registry, I think a lot of the people who watch this film will feel that way, but I was surprised to find how much more I appreciated the significance of what it does for our culture.

These Amazing Shadows airs Thursday, December 29 at 10PM PST on the PBS show Independent Lens.

 Check out the amazing site for the documentary.

 There are lots of interesting things to read and do on the documentary site at Independent Lens as well.

 I love this interview with the filmmakers.


  1. Great review! It's good that you point out that Ted Turner is the T in TCM. While TCM is a godsend to many classic film fans, as this documentary points out Turner's attempt to alter films was one of the reasons the government got involved in protecting them.

    Thanks so much for linking to my interview! That means a lot. :-)

  2. Thanks Raquelle! Yep, Turner is a perfect example of how scary people can sometimes inspire great things. I always enjoy your interviews. You've got a knack for asking the right questions. I never feel like anything important has been left uncovered.