Every year, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington personally selects which films will be added to the National Film Registry, working from a list of suggestions from the library’s National Film Preservation Board and the general public. “What it’s proven to me, having done it now for a number of years, is the continuing inventiveness and diversity of how moving images and the film industry have flourished in this country,” Billington said. “There’s just terrific variety and richness.”
In addition to such mainstream motion pictures as “Norma Rae,” “Bambi” and “Stand and Deliver,” this year’s list includes such lesser-known titles as “Allures,” a 1961 study in abstraction by Jordan Belson, and “I, an Actress,” by George and Mike Kuchar, filmmakers whose subversive experimental films influenced John Waters, among other directors. This year, “Forrest Gump” and the 1971 feminist documentary “Growing Up Female” enjoyed significant public support, with the library receiving substantial numbers of e-mails advocating for both.
As in every year, however, some popular titles were left behind. “The Times of Harvey Milk,” Rob Epstein’s Oscar-winning 1984 documentary about the San Francisco politician and gay rights advocate, has long been recommended by the board but has never been chosen for the registry. Dennis Doros, whose company Milestone Films has distributed a number of the classic and “orphan” films the registry regularly champions, sees the absence as a troubling blind spot.
“One of the reasons I’m disappointed is that I think so highly of the selections of the National Film Registry, that they try to be so diverse,” Doros said. “They have just about every minority represented, so the omission of LGBT films just makes that omission even more glaring.”
For his part, Billington says, “I don’t think there’s been an absence,” citing such registry films as “Midnight Cowboy,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Eaux d’Artifice,” by gay filmmaker Kenneth Anger, as examples. “There’s no conscious exclusion of anybody. It’s a question of who do we include in a given year. We don’t have quotas. And I don’t think you’ll find a list with a wider range of inclusiveness than this one, in terms of films with a distinct point of view.”
Still, board member Bob Rosen, a preservationist, historian and former dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, noted that a few films by gay filmmakers or featuring gay characters “is not by itself sufficient to reflect the cultural, historic and aesthetic significance of the literally thousands of LGBT films produced over the years.”
“The list, now numbering more than 500 titles, is truly amazing in reflecting generic, cultural and gender diversity,” Rosen added. “That there are no films that reflect gay and lesbian culture and history suggests an area that remains to be addressed.”
This year’s crop brings the total number of National Registry films to 575. The registry was created in 1989 by an act of Congress, which commissioned the librarian to choose 25 films every year that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant. The films named to the registry are preserved at the Library of Congress’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, or through collaborations with archives, studios and independent filmmakers. (The registry’s history and selection process are chronicled in the documentary “These Amazing Shadows,” which is scheduled to air nationally Thursday on the PBS series “Independent Lens.”)
Most of the films named to the National Registry can be viewed by reservation at the Library of Congress’s reading room on Capitol Hill. Billington said that making the films available online is a long-term goal. “Maximizing public access is one of the core concerns of the Library of Congress, because it’s the closest thing we have to a national patrimony of the creative arts,” he said. “This is a celebration of America, really, of creative America in all its variegated richness.”