They call it America's family album. And that's really corny, but essentially correct. If there can be a summary in pictures of our nation's shared experiences, it must exist in the many American movies deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" enough to have earned protective preservation from the government.
That's the medium-sized but true enough idea behind directors Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton's documentary These Amazing Shadows, an affable infomercial about the National Film Registry. Of all the family albums you might ever have to sit down and politely flip through, this one is impressively unboring. For starters, the pictures being motion pictures, they helpfully flip through themselves. They're also generally entertaining and even sometimes quite good.
Prompted by Ted Turner's late-1980s colorization craze, which it sought to rectify, the National Film Registry has since maintained an ever-growing trove of significant films, and a mandate to properly illuminate their cultural context for the benefit of future generations. In addition to the expected titles, ranging widely in demeanor from Citizen Kane to Star Wars, the list also includes home movies, strange commercials, Michael Jackson's Thriller video and that little animated Let's All Go to the Lobby ditty that used to urge multiplex moviegoers to visit the concession stand.
"It's a different form of honor than getting an Academy Award," says critic Leonard Maltin, one of many familiar talking heads, of being on the list. "It's a more cumulative or retrospective kind of honor. It's saying your film has stood the test of time."
This partly explains why Mariano and Norton's film would be right at home during an Oscars telecast, as one of those gauzily glamorized interludes they fade in and out from while the host changes costumes and you go to the bathroom. It also should be said that in the same way classic black-and-white movies look better in classic black-and-white than in cheesy, later-added color, those choice moments from, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey do sound better with their original soundtrack of Johann Strauss' "Blue Danube" waltz than with These Amazing Shadows' fawning, generically lush, awards-show-style orchestral score.
Still, a wide range of tastes is evident. For all the earnestness and arguable colorization of its own implied sepia tones, These Amazing Shadows has a democratic sense of film appreciation, and a chatty, inviting warmth. John Waters remembers The Wizard of Oz: "I was sobbing when she went home -- to that dreary farm!" Local filmmaker Wayne Wang talks about how West Side Story gave him an early sense of America, and admits his appreciation of Senn Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Lucid reflections on American animation come to us not just from Pixar's John Lasseter, but also from undersung local lone animation genius Nina Paley as well. San Francisco public defender and filmmaker Jeff Adachi and George Takei both talk movingly about Topaz, the home movie that became a documentary on Japanese internment during World War II.
Meanwhile, unknown film archivists also get a moment in the spotlight to describe their work and explain their passion. And a few choice nuggets of uncommon knowledge emerge. Who knew that half the movies made before 1950 are lost to us now, and half of the films from the silent era were written by women?
The benevolent stewards of the National Film Registry knew, of course. Please allow them to haul out the family album and amaze us.
These Amazing Shadows opens in Bay Area theaters Friday, May 6, 2011.