The 1980s were a time of exceptional technological advancement: the Commodore 64, digital watches, Pac-Man, neon everything, A-Ha’s music video for Take On Me , and the colorization of black and white films. Alright, maybe that last one isn’t such a great technological advancement. However one person thought it was a brilliant idea. In the mid-1980s, Ted Turner (media mogul extroidinaire), voiced his approval and financial support of film colorization. He, along with a few other advocates of the process, argued that colorization would attract newer and younger audiences. It would breathe life into the lost and forgotten gems of past days. Although Turner may have had the best of intentions (I can’t bad mouth him too much. He started TCM!), the process immediately drew harsh criticism from film directors, actors, and producers.
The opponents of colorization argued the process tampered with the artistic integrity of a film. Famous voices against the process included Woody Allen, James Stewart, and John Huston. They, among others, petitioned the United States Congress to intervene to protect the original content of the films from being altered. In 1988, the National Film Preservation Act was passed, enabling the Library of Congress to actively preserve, restore, and protect film history.These Amazing Shadows: The Movies That Make America, co-directed by Kurt Norton and Paul Mariano, chronicles the process for selecting and preserving the films deemed worthy of protection. Each year, the Library of Congress and the National Film Preservation Board select 25 films to be added to the National Film Registry. Films eligible for nomination to the Registry must be a) at least ten years old, and b) “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” These broad guidelines make it possible for essentially any film , at least a decade old, to be nominated. This also includes short films, documentaries, and home videos. Public opinion is seriously taken into account and can be extremely influential in the final selection process.
Although many people are aware of the existence of the National Film Registry, I think it is safe to say that most, including myself, do not understand the film preservation process. Norton and Mariano place a great deal of focus on the dedicated individuals who save films one frame at a time. One of the most fascinating segments of the documentary highlights the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation. George Willeman is the Nitrate Vault Manager for the facility and an expert in his field. From the first word out of his mouth, it is obvious Willeman loves his job. This is the very person we want on the front lines of film preservation. One of my favorite anecdotes is when Willeman talks about the discovery of the original edit of Babyface (1933) starring Barbara Stanwyck, which is now regularly played on TCM and available on DVD.
When documentaries are produced and directed by people who are passionate about the selected subject(s), it shows in the finished product. These Amazing Shadows is no exception. The film’s message is first and foremost an educational one. It is also quite entertaining with its nicely edited and interwoven clips from films off the Registry. Norton and Mariano have brought together numerous experts, historians, writers, and notable directors and actors, to discuss the films that tell the story of America. Whether you are a casual moviegoer or a film fanatic like myself, These Amazing Shadows: The Movies That Make America is a fascinating look into film appreciation and preservation.