We are what we watch.

Yesterday, I saw a fascinating documentary on Netflix called These Amazing Shadows, about the Library of Congress National Film Registry.  I would highly recommend it to anyone.

The Registry is not the AFI list of best films. Thankfully.  Yes, there are things on there which are artistic and which need to be seen by as many people as possible.  And there are films whose major impact was only on other filmmakers. But mostly, the Registry tells the story of us, as a people, through the lens of what we watch. (One of the requirements for inclusion is that it needs to be an American movie — made in America or by (or with the involvement of) an American company.)  As several people in the film discuss, the movies provide a framework for understanding who we are, not just to the extent that they show contemporary styles or environments (many or most don’t), but how what we watch says so much about who we are.

The Registry was originally an answer to the philistine colorization attempts of Ted Turner.  The documentary has a clip of Turner announcing that, since he had purchased the MGM film libraries, the movies were his to do with as he pleased.  (This included colorizing such films as the original King Kong and The Maltese Falcon.) Such hubris! Such a failure of understanding.

There was a huge outcry, including Congressional hearings that heard from actors and directors such as Woody Allen, Sidney Pollack, and Jimmy Stewart. The film registry was created to protect “enduring works of cultural, historic, or aesthetic value.”  That covers a great deal of ground.

When it started out, the Registry was very much a “let’s protect these treasures from the barbarians”  endeavor.  Look at the first year, 1989, or even the second 1990, and the movies selected were for the most part classics.  The oddest choice in the first year was, in some sense, Star Wars: it was certainly the youngest — only twelve years old at the time of its inclusion. (Actually, Star Wars brings up an interesting question: if a filmmaker opts later to go back and redo parts of his movie, as Lucas did with the Star Wars movies, which version do you keep?  I don’t know the answer, but my hunch is that it would be the version first seen on-screen.)  Movies have to be ten years old before they can be included: only a handful (Fargo, Toy Story, Do the Right Thing) made it the first year they are eligible, only a handful more (Beauty and the Beast, Schindler’s List) in their second or third year of eligibility.

But the registry quickly became about more than that.  Films were included that were essentially home movies: blacksmiths at work, soldiers at war, the murder of a president.  Yes, great movies were still included:  “aesthetic value” was still very much part of the equation. But movies were there because of historic significance, too: Topaz was a film of the lives of the residents of the Topaz internment camp  in Utah.  A Computer Animated Hand was a graduate school project that broke new ground in developing the concepts and tools for computer animation. Theodore Case Sound Test: Gus Visser and His Singing Duck was a test film showing a man making a duck quack on cue.

The Registry also came to be about preservation.  So many films, even well-known ones, are in danger of being lost due to the ravages of time and neglect.  The film stock on which movies were made is subject to degradation, and in the case of early films, are extremely flammable. Even relatively recent films, such as The Godfather, needed restoration to capture the original look of the film.  Colors fade, too many copies can be made from masters, scratches develop.  The archivists at the LOC keep the films as close as possible to what we would have seen.

Films are also subject to the desecration of censors: one fascinating section of the documentary was on the movie Baby Face, which as shot and originally edited by the filmmaker was for its time much more suggestive and racy than the version the studio allowed into theaters. By sheer serendipity, one of the copies which the archivists at the LOC were given contained the movie as originally envisioned with the missing footage intact.  Seeing the two, where the cuts were made by the censors, shows how much more watered down and less inflammatory the originally released version was.

But there are so many movies that can’t really be classified as aesthetically superior or historic that nonetheless had cultural impact.  These are the movies that we quote to death, or that have become touchstones for shared experiences.  My two favorite examples of this are The Rocky Horror Picture Show and “Let’s All Go To the Lobby!”

Let’s face it, Rocky Horror is, on its own, not a very good movie.  It’s stilted and over-acted and the plot is incoherent at points. But watch it with theater full of people dressed in lab coats or fishnets and corsets, throwing rice and singing along, and you have an experience.  For people of a certain age (and that’s a rather long span — maybe thirty years) you had to see Rocky Horror at least once — usually many times over. People who Monday to Friday 9 -5 worked as grocery clerks or accountants or baristas turned into thespians at midnight on Saturday, dressed in weird costumes and acting along with the people on-screen.  It wasn’t a movie, it was a movement.

(My favorite high school student project film was done by a friend of the Not-So-Little Drummer Boy about members of a Rocky Horror troupe and a Christian choir group.  It was fascinating to see the common desires that drove people in both groups (engagement, involvement, community), as the answers they gave to questions such as “Why do you do this?” mirrored each other.)

“Let’s All Go to the Lobby!” is a piece of advertising played between movies on a double-feature to encourage people to go spend money in the snack bar. It has singing sodas and popcorn boxes, and a stupidly catchy melody.  I remember it dimly from my childhood, but it made enough impression on me that when I saw it had been included, I started humming the song.

If I have one criticism, is that there is historically significant news film that is not included.  The Apollo moon landing, for example, or the Challenger disaster. The footage of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center, and the subsequent collapse, is not there.  In general, with a few notable exceptions such the Hindenburg disaster, there is little news film.  As far I can tell, there is no television.  Actually, I take that back: one of the recent inductees is They Call it Pro Football, from NFL films, which would have been shown on t.v.  There are reasons for that, I suppose, given that most television is episodic, but there still should be room to include pivotal television moments.  “The Puppy Episode” from Ellen comes immediately to mind. Still, what they did select is amazing in its scope.

The new inductees are announced in December.  I can hardly wait to see what they selected.

I can hardly wait to see what stories about ourselves we elect to treasure forever.

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