Jan 24, 2012

Review--These Amazing Shadows: Full Version

Film is the art form of the twentieth century, and we have let it go. -Robin Blaetz, Chair of Film Studies, Mount Holyoke College 

So much of film history has been lost, but there’s still a great deal that can be saved if we are willing to do it. -Stephen Leggett, National Film Registry Coordinator 

A couple of days after I posted my review of the documentary These Amazing Shadows, I received an email from one of the directors of the film, Kurt Norton. He mentioned that there was a longer version of the film, and asked if I wanted to see a copy. I sure did!

The version of the film in my previous review was edited for television, and specifically an episode of the PBS program Independent Lens. It runs just under an hour. The full version, which was screened at Sundance in 2011, is about 88 minutes. This is the version which has now been released on DVD and BluRay.

I got a very different feeling from the full-length version of These Amazing Shadows. It went into a lot more detail about the board and their process. It was interesting to see how this diverse gathering of film experts collaborated with and inspired each other. They all seemed dedicated to challenging both themselves and the public by striving to find diverse choices that were worthy of preservation.

This part of the documentary gave me great insight into the reasons members pick films. They definitely aren’t there to pick their favorites, and at least one member said she would actually pick a film she didn’t like if she felt it had merit. It is this spirit that seems to aid the group in reaching a consensus when there are hundreds of titles to consider each year.

It was fascinating to get a peek at the process of selection, but I was even more intrigued by the segments that showed film preservationists at work. What enormous patience it must take to prepare a film, frame-by-frame, for preservation. Watching one woman at work, I figured she had to have a permanent crick in her neck. She sits every work day looking at frail pieces of film, removing small pieces of tape and treating tiny tears.

One of these preservationists, George Willeman, nitrate film vault manager of the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation even coined the phrase “These Amazing Shadows.” In this version of the film, Willeman has a lot more screen time. I enjoyed the charisma and panache he exuded in his entertaining, but also informative segments.

I also loved getting a peek inside a film vault. My stomach dropped as I watched Willeman peel frail bits of material off a damaged reel. It really drove home how fragile these films are, and how important preservation is.

This version of the film also tells the story of the discovery of censored footage from the pre-code Barbara Stanwyck flick Baby Face (1933). While comparing two copies of the film, Willeman realized one reel was larger. When he compared the films, he realized he had found footage that was believed to be lost for decades. The film was finally restored in 2005.

I was also moved by the stories of loss, preservation and restoration in a short film that was one of the special features on the DVD called Lost Forever: The Art of Preservation. This is a closer examination of film preservation, with several of the interviewees from These Amazing Shadows providing background. There are many stories of discoveries made in archives far away from the United States, where films were often abandoned at their last stop after their run had ended.

One discovery of over 400 reels of discard films buried under the ground really got to me. Movies by stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and John Barrymore were left to rot away. Some of these films could have been lost forever if they had not been found.

It was also amusing to see some of the interview outtakes. John Waters was especially funny, mostly because his opinions about these movies are unusual, but undeniably practical. .

I liked having the opportunity to watch both versions of These Amazing Shadows, because it gave me the opportunity to really focus on different aspects of the film. Though I loved the segments where interviewees discussed different elements of the movies, I was most fascinated by the work of the board and the preservationists. I wouldn't be surprised if this film eventually made it onto the registry itself. It’s a rich document of a worthy cause.

You can read my original review of the film here.

Thank you to Kurt Norton for giving me the opportunity to view this DVD.

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