Why we praise almost anything
By Jen Chaney
Friday, May 27, 2011
“These Amazing Shadows” is, technically, a documentary about the National Film Registry — the growing list of movies deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” each year by the Library of Congress’s National Film Board. But really, “Shadows” is an 88-minute valentine to cinema, a reminder of why we continue returning to the multiplex, and an abiding faith in the power of film to transport us to faraway places.
Indeed, anyone who loves movies will enjoy listening to various filmmakers, National Film Board members and other cinematic scholars wax sentimental and analytical about the public’s love affair with motion pictures. But as a documentary that unearths hidden, surprising truths about the process of expanding the registry, “Shadows” succeeds only occasionally.
Filmmakers Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton open the movie with a bit of history, reminding us that, as readers of a certain age will recall, the Film Board and Registry were born in the late ’80s in the wake of controversy over Ted Turner’s decision to colorize such beloved classics as “King Kong” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Once established, the Library of Congress purposely gave board members a wide berth, choosing that carefully parsed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” wording to ensure that a wide variety of films would be included on the list.
“We love that phrase,” notes National Film Registry coordinator Stephen Leggett, “because it basically means almost anything.”
And as “Shadows” demonstrates, that “almost anything” approach allows the registry to embrace the usual examples of exceptional cinema — your “Casablancas” and “Citizen Kanes” — as well as some surprisingly offbeat selections, from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which in 2009 became the first music video to join the registry, to “Topaz,” a series of 1940s-era home movies that document life in a Japanese internment camp.
“These Amazing Shadows” is at its most enriching when it explores both the decision-making that happens behind the registry scenes, as well as those little-known gems that board members go out of their way to recognize. A bit that focuses on the obscure 2001 registry addition “The House in the Middle” — a 1954 clip from the National Clean-Up Paint-Up Fix-Up Bureau that suggests well-maintained homes are more likely to withstand nuclear attack — is particularly amusing. (“The reward may be survival!” shouts the narrator during the short, which plays like a propaganda piece prepared by a particularly controlling homeowners association.)
Unfortunately, “These Amazing Shadows” veers too frequently into AFI TV special territory, devoting too much time to celebrating “It’s a Wonderful Life” or explaining why “Fantasia” was such a watershed moment in animation. Sure, most movie buffs will get a kick out of listening to “Inception” director Christopher Nolan explain what a “cultural milestone” the release of “Star Wars” was. But it’s also something we’ve all heard a thousand times.
In the end, “These Amazing Shadows” — which is also available for viewing OnDemand via some cable companies — is the sort of talking-head-filled documentary whose pleasures can just as easily be relished at home as they can in a theater. But in a review of a work that heaps so much love on the communal experience of going to the movies, one feels almost duty-bound to recommend seeing “Shadows” as its makers undoubtedly intended — in a darkened cineplex that’s illuminated solely by the familiar, flickering light of a film projector.
Contains a few suggestive situations and mild violence, courtesy of the film clips featured in the movie.