One of the things I’ve really enjoyed at Sundance is talking with strangers about movies. Whether I’m on the bus, waiting in line, or sitting in a theater before the film starts, I’ve found friendly people who are willing to just geek out about movies. These Amazing Shadows is the cinematic equivalent of talking movies with your fellow film-lovers. Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton’s documentary jumps around excitedly as it points out great films that are in the National Film Registry, but it goes far beyond the popular stuff like Star Wars and Blazing Saddles. They look at experimental films, culturally significant movies regarding sex and race, and even popular bumpers. Mariano and Norton also examine the art of film preservation and the discovery of uncensored versions of movies that were edited under the Production Code. These Amazing Shadows lacks clarity and cohesion on certain points, but it’s a must-see for any film nerd.
These Amazing Shadows is part-film appreciation and part-film history. The documentary examines the formation of the National Film Registry as well as the work of film preservationists. This entry point allows Mariano and Norton to expand their focus to movies included in the registry and speak with a wide variety of fascinating subjects. You have professors talking about their participation in the registry and why they championed certain films. You have the preservationists talking about their work and their passion will get you jazzed about stuff like nitrate and climate-controlled vaults. You have filmmakers talking about their love of movies in broader context. The interviews with filmmakers like John Waters and Rob Reiner are particularly rewarding because usually they only comment about their most recent movie. Listening to them talk about film in a general sense helps to illuminate why they went into moviemaking and what drives them as a filmmaker.
The movie also features an amazing segment where Mariano and Norton examine two versions of the 1933 Barbara Stanwyck film Baby Face. A preservationist discovered that he had two copies of the movies, but that one was slightly longer than the other. He realized he had the unedited version of the movie and the censored version. Mariano and Norton put the version side by side and the result is educational, insightful, and hilarious.
I also have to commend the directors for expanding the subject beyond popular films. I was initially worried at the outset of the picture and the talking heads proclaimed how movies inform us of the culture at a particular point in time. If you’re only examining Hollywood product, those kinds of movies can be misleading. If you were to put a majority of modern romantic comedies in a time capsule, they would fail to provide an honest representation of most relationships. However, the directors and the subjects interviewed understand the importance of these films in context. Registry board members included Birth of a Nation not because they condone racism, but because the film is technically and historically significant. The registry also includes experimental movies, the work of female directors at the dawn of cinema, and hard-hitting documentaries like Harlan County, U.S.A. and Topaz (1945) that don’t show America at its best, but do show it honestly. It’s an eclectic mix and whether or not you agree with a movie’s inclusion, all of the films included have a solid argument for being on the registry.
While I love the broadness of the documentary’s scope, it lacks a structure to hold it all together. When the movie comes to a segment on This Is Spinal Tap, I was left wondering why they included it as opposed to another movie. Was it because Reiner was available? Is it because This Is Spinal Tap is too awesome to ignore? The movie swings wildly from historical notes to celebrating particular films to the social relevancy of the registry but there’s almost no organization when it comes to the order of the segments. There’s also some important points that are unclear. What’s the difference between preservation and restoration? Since Star Wars is included in the archive, is it the original version or George Lucas’ “Special Edition”. The National Film Registry was created in response to Ted Turner’s “colorization” of classic movies so that a filmmaker’s original intent could be preserved. If Lucas prefers his crappier, CGI’d version of Star Wars, shouldn’t that be the movie that makes it into the Registry? And what about Baby Face? The uncensored version is the one the director wanted to release, but only the censored version made it into theaters.
Despite the lack of clarity and form, These Amazing Shadows will have any film nerd cheering. It’s not about whether or not you love a movie that’s in the registry. It’s about seeing how America cherishes film history and applauding the folks who are working hard to preserve “the artform of the 20th century”. The movie has so much to teach and while it’s a bit of an infomercial for the National Film Registry, it’s an organization worth celebrating and These Amazing Shadows is a fine tribute.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far: