The Library of Congress announced Wednesday the addition of 25 films to its National Film Registry, a growing archive of American motion pictures earmarked for preservation because of their cultural, historic or aesthetic significance. According to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, who hand-picks the films each year from a shortlist winnowed from thousands of online suggestions, the National Film Registry — which includes everything from home movies to Hollywood blockbusters — is not just a best-of list, or even a list of his favorite films, but a “vehicle for understanding our culture and society more broadly.”
Simply put, Billington says, “our responsibility is to help define a national patrimony.”
To that end, the 2013 honorees include three early works from the silent era: “A Virtuous Vamp” (1919), “Daughter of Dawn” (1920), and the proto-feminist Cinderella tale “Ella Cinders” (1926). The inclusion of these titles will come as particularly good news to fans of silent cinema, many of whom were no doubt alarmed this month to learn, through a report issued by the Library of Congress, that as many as three-quarters of all silent films made through the 1920s have been lost or utterly damaged.
The most modern film yet accepted into the Registry, which is restricted to works at least 10 years old, is “Decasia,” a 2002 experimental collage piece by New York artist Bill Morrison. Ironically, it was assembled from deteriorating film footage, some of which Morrison says he found at — wait for it — the Library of Congress. According to the artist, “Decasia” is not a call to arms, but rather a celebration — in such sequences as one in which a boxer appears to be battling a blob of decaying film stock — of the beauty and inevitability of decay.
“We can preserve only a small fraction of threatened films,” says Morrison, who described himself as overjoyed about the news of his film’s selection. Coincidentally, his prints of “Decasia” were destroyed in flooding from Hurricane Sandy, although the Museum of Modern Art had stored his negative, allowing Morrison to reprint the film. The many layers of destruction and creation involved in “Decasia” make it a work that gives people “lots to chew on,” says Morrison. Being honored with preservation by the nation’s biggest library is, he says, “yet another layer” to the story.
In between these extremes of old and new, there is much more mainstream fare. This year’s inductees include the 1956 sci-fi adventure “Forbidden Planet,” notable for being the first film to feature a robot with personality; “The Magnificent Seven,” a 1960 western inspired by Akira Kurasawa’s “Seven Samurai”; and “Pulp Fiction,” Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 puree of genre films.
Established in 1989, the National Film Registry now numbers a total of 625 films, and includes such obvious classics as “Citizen Kane” (1941); “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) and “Casablanca” (1942), along with such surprising choices as amateur filmmaker Abraham Zapruder’s 1963 footage of the Kennedy assassination; Jon Landis’s 1983 music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”; and a 1972 short known as “A Computer Animated Hand.” Created as a college project by one of the men who went on to found Pixar, it’s thought to be one of the earliest example of 3-D computer animation.
The threat to older films is well established, partly as a result of the Library of Congress’s efforts to raise awareness. But more recent works are also highly fragile. Filmmaker Michael Moore, whose groundbreaking documentary “Roger & Me” is also on the list of 2013 inductees, says he was recently dismayed to discover — when the New York Film Festival requested a copy of his film for the festival’s 50th anniversary — that there were no prints of the 1989 film that had not “faded to pink.”
Moore’s no stranger to the detective and/or repair work that is sometimes necessary to bring to light old film footage. His body of work, which some might say has ushered in a new golden age of nonfiction filmmaking, is notable for the inclusion of obscure clips. On occasion, he has personally paid to restore damaged films (such as Milos Forman’s 1979 “Hair”) in order to be able to screen them at the small Michigan film festival that he runs.
Moore applauds the work being done by the Library of Congress’s Packard Campus in Culpeper, Va., where films on the National Film Registry are typically housed, in collaboration with other archives. He also acknowledges the simple prestige of being included in such august company. “To me,” says Moore, “this honor goes on the same shelf as the Oscar and the Palme d’Or.”
Films selected for the 2013 National Film Registry
“Bless Their Little Hearts” (1984)
“Brandy in the Wilderness” (1969)
“Cicero March” (1966)
“Daughter of Dawn” (1920)
“Ella Cinders” (1926)
“Forbidden Planet” (1956)
“The Hole” (1962)
“Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961)
“King of Jazz” (1930)
“The Lunch Date” (1989)
“The Magnificent Seven” (1960)
“Martha Graham Dance film” (1944)
“Mary Poppins” (1964)
“Men & Dust” (1940)
“Notes on the Port of St. Francis” (1951)
“Pulp Fiction” (1994)
“The Quiet Man” (1952)
“The Right Stuff (1983)
“Roger & Me” (1989)
“A Virtuous Vamp” (1919)
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)
“Wild Boys of the Road” (1933)