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Film treasures shine in Sundance documentary

By Chris Robinson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Feb. 17 2011 6:34 p.m. MST

"THESE AMAZING SHADOWS" — ★★★ — documentary at Sundance Film Festival

Prehistoric man had his cave walls, the Egyptians had their papyrus and Gutenberg had his printing press. But where is the tale of our society being recorded?

According to "These Amazing Shadows," a documentary that recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, film itself has become the document of our cultural and artistic history. "Film is the art form of the 20th century," it says, and "movies are our culture's family album."

The film details efforts the federal government is making to preserve important films. Improperly preserved film can deteriorate much more quickly than photographs, and it is estimated that more than half of the films made in the United States before 1950 are gone forever, along with about 80 percent of silent films.

In 1988, Congress voted to establish the National Film Registry, with the goal of preserving "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films." Officially overseen by the Library of Congress, the registry selects 25 films each year to add to its collection in Culpeper, Va. Any motion picture recording is eligible, from Hollywood classics to home videos. The registry's list includes newsreels, silent films, shorts, documentaries, television movies and even music videos (Michael Jackson's epic music video "Thriller" was recently inducted). As of the 2010 listing, 550 films are preserved in the registry, and some titles might surprise you.

Satirical spoof "Airplane" (1980) was inducted just this year, joining cult classics "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975) and "Blazing Saddles" (1974), hood film "Boyz n the Hood" (1991) and teen comedy "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982). Of course, there are also many more traditional inclusions, including such unquestioned classics as "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), "Casablanca" (1942), and "Taxi Driver" (1976). The oldest film in the collection is 1891's "Newark Athlete," a 30-second clip filmed in a Thomas Edison studio.

Altogether, the registry has compiled an impressive collection. As Librarian of Congress James H. Billington proudly notes, "Taken together, the ... films in the National Film Registry represent a stunning range of American filmmaking — all deserving recognition, preservation and access by future generations."

Although public accessibility to a full list of films in the National Film Registry is as yet an unrealized goal, its directors are working hard to change that situation. Despite the legal complications involved, the Library of Congress recently announced plans to make selections from the registry available for streaming online.

As "These Amazing Shadows" points out, the registry's work is ongoing. Every year, new films of cultural, historical and aesthetic significance are being made — films that should be preserved for future generations. One of the most interesting aspects of the registry's selection process is anyone can participate. If you have a favorite film you think should be preserved, whether it's "Titanic" or "Donnie Darko," you can nominate it online at www.loc.gov/film/vote.html, as well as vote on others' nominations. Films must be at least 10 years old to be nominated.

Arthouse film aficionado Chris Robinson recently returned from an LDS mission to Seoul, Korea, and is currently pursuing a degree in English at BYU.