A hundred years from now, future generations will look to various resources to learn about the history of America. Perhaps the most invaluable resource they will look to is our films. The history of American cinema is rich in diversity and is the truest replica of our past, present, and often future experiences as Americans. In 2011, These Amazing Shadows: The Movies That Make America, directed by Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton, gave audiences a first-hand account of the inception of the National Film Registry, while detailing the various intricate processes of archiving old film reels, the history behind some of America’s most important and impactful films that made the list, and the overall effect movies have on people. These Amazing Shadows is one of the best documentaries about film because of its message: American movies tell us so much about what we have thought, imagined, lived, relived, and lied about. The knowledge of America’s past through the preservation of American cinema is the key to enlightening our country’s future for years to come.
These Amazing Shadows begins with the passing of the National Film Preservation Act of 1988. This act created the National Film Registry, the system still in use today, as a way to identify films that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” As you can imagine, this kind of categorization is pretty broad. So broad, in fact, that it’s hard to discern how the films that are selected make the cut. These Amazing Shadows takes audiences behind the scenes of the selections, detailing how the films are chosen, the diversity of the Board Members who submit their choices, the debates and discussions with the Library of Congress, and much more. The National Film Registry currently holds 550 selections which cover every genre imaginable; from the classics of Hollywood, to westerns, film noir, avant-garde film, silent film, newsreels, and even home movies. 25 films are selected each year by the Librarian of Congress, based on submissions from board members and the general public. The films brought up for discussion are surprising, inspiring, and altogether unforgettable.
These Amazing Shadows shows audiences the low standards and lack of care the earliest film reels were subjected to by the studios that housed them, and introduces the many teams of archivists who work every day to piece these brilliant stories of our past back together. Many of the lab workers spend their days maintaining temperature-controlled vaults that hold some of America’s earliest film reels, removing bits of tape and using other adhesive methods to mend the reels. They also use color and lighting techniques to reassemble history itself. The role of women in the early years of film is highlighted, as many of the craft’s earliest directors and screenwriters were women, who generally received very little credit for their work.
Censorship is also discussed when one of the archivists discovers a raw-cut reel of the 1933 classic film Babyface starring Barbra Stanwyck. The archivist lines it up side by side with the reel that was released to audiences, only to find that some of the more provocative scenes were removed from the reel. Almost no one had knowledge of the raw cut’s existence until that moment. These Amazing Shadows also features interviews with a slew of directors and actors whose lives have been forever changed by the films that are listed on the Registry, including Christopher Nolan, Rob Reiner, John Waters, John Singleton, Julie Dash, Tim Roth, Peter Coyote, Zooey Deschanel, George Takei, and Debbie Reynolds, among others. Other testimonials that make up the documentary’s content come from Board Members, film critics, filmmakers, animators, studio executives, historians, and many others involved in the history of American film.
These Amazing Shadows was selected for over 20 film festivals during the year 2011, including Sundance. It won the CINE Golden Eagle Award in 2011 as well as Best Documentary for the Savannah Film Festival, and Louisville’s International Festival of Film for 2011. If you have ever wondered what Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Blazing Saddles, Casablanca, and the “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” reel from the heyday of drive-ins have in common, this highly acclaimed film does a great job of demonstrating just that. So take some time to relive the past through this great documentary, see if your favorite made the cut, and learn all the intricate and intriguing details about what goes into preserving our American cinematic history.