By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 6:00 AM
Two quintessential Washington movies will be named to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry on Tuesday. "All the President's Men" and "The Exorcist," along with 23 other feature films, documentaries and shorts, have been deemed "works of enduring significance to American culture," according to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, and thus important enough to be preserved for all time.
Whereas last year the registry made history by including the Michael Jackson music video "Thriller," no such surprises grace this year's list, unless you count a preponderance of films from the 1970s. In addition to "All the President's Men" (1976) and "The Exorcist" (1973), '70s films that made the cut included the documentary "Grey Gardens" (1976), about Edith and Edie Beale, cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; Robert Altman's reinvented western "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971); and the disco musical "Saturday Night Fever" (1977). At least three of this year's films were directed by or feature artists who passed away in 2010: "Airplane!," the Hollywood satire starring the late Leslie Nielsen; "The Empire Strikes Back," the "Star Wars" installment directed by the late Irvin Kershner, and "The Pink Panther," the 1964 screwball comedy directed by Blake Edwards, who died Dec. 15.
The board met in November to select 25 films from a list of hundreds of titles. The board includes such well-known figures in the film world as Martin Scorsese, Leonard Maltin and actress Alfre Woodard, as well as representatives of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Motion Picture Association of America, the National Alliance of Theatre Owners, several crafts unions, archives and other filmmaking institutions.
Each year, the Library of Congress receives recommendations from the public as to which 25 movies ought to be included in the registry, which, with the 2010 crop, will include 550 films. Over the past 12 months, Billington said, the library received 2,112 public recommendations, which were winnowed by the board's committees to a more manageable list of finalists.
"Anything more than 10 years old can be included," said Billington, who added that the only criteria for selection are that a film be culturally, historically or aesthetically significant. "People noticed there were a fair amount of '70s movies this year, but there's no sense of distributive justice," he said.
In addition to recognizable titles, this year's list includes films that, without the legitimacy conferred by the library, may have been in danger of being forgotten. Half of the films produced before 1950 and an estimated 90 percent of films made before 1920 have been lost or destroyed, according to Billington. So this year's list includes "Preservation of the Sign Language," a film produced in 1913 in which onetime National Association of the Deaf president George Veditz demonstrates sign language as a necessary option at a time when deaf people were being pressured to verbalize and lip-read. It includes the 1906 short "A Trip Down Market Street," a 13-minute record of a San Francisco street taken by a camera mounted on the front of a cable car shortly before the earthquake and fire that would devastate the city.
And it includes "Tarantella" (1940), a five-minute experiment in abstract line, color and sound by avant-garde filmmaker Mary Ellen Bute, whom Billington knew little about when the film first came to his attention. "It's the ones that I didn't know about that thrill me the most," he said, citing the landmark 1969 film "I Am Joaquin," which helped forge and introduced the concept of Chicano cultural identity. "That's where I really have a feeling of satisfaction, that by golly this really is a creative country. Everybody with something to say can do it through moving pictures."
Over the years, the National Film Registry has named home movies, ephemera and the "Thriller" music video to its ranks. Is there a chance that one day a YouTube creation could be deemed culturally, historically or aesthetically significant enough to make the cut? "Well, we're talking basically about film," Billington said, "and films that are seen on a fairly large screen, not films that are cut down to a small television presentation.
"But," he added, "everything's changing so much."
This year's films will eventually be accessible for researchers at the Library of Congress's Capitol Hill facility and for the public through various means, including theatrical screenings at the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va., and the cable channels HDNet and TCM. The films will also be available through Netflix and online streaming sites, including the library's. "We're going to be putting a lot of this, hopefully, online," Billington said. "I hope we'll be able to work something out, because [the registry] has great educational and inspirational as well as entertainment value."
Once the list of this year's 25 registry entries becomes public, the first of thousands of suggestions are sure to be crossing the library's transom. "Somebody has to be the institutional memory of the country," Billington said. "And that's pretty much what Congress has empowered its library to do and to be."