Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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More on ‘These Amazing Shadows’

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Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman are filmed on the set of "Casablanca" (1942). (Warner Bros. / Photofest)

Archivist Liz Stanley and nitrate vault manager George Willeman examine damaged films as they’re interviewed for the PBS documentary “These Amazing Shadows.” (Gravitas DocuFilms)
Patrick Loughney, chief of the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, is interviewed by Kurt Norton, co-director of “These Amazing Shadows.” (Gravitas DocuFilms)
John Lasseter, director of “Toy Story” (1995), reviews the 550 films on the National Film Registry with “These Amazing Shadows” line producer Barbara Grandvoinet. (Gravitas DocuFilms)


Saturday’s edition of The Free Lance-Star carries my story on a PBS documentary that airs tonight on WHUT, which many viewers–on cable, satellite, FIOS and over the air–receive. (At 7 p.m. Saturday, and 12 a.m. Sunday, so set your Tivos, Rokus, Apple TVs and, yes, VHS recorders.)

The 55-minute program, on PBS “Independent Lens” program, is called “These Amazing Shadows” and is about the National Film Registry, a project of the Library of Congress that has at the Library’s Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper County.

Let me give this show, which is trimmed down from the full 88-minute documentary film, my own enthusiastic thumbs-up. Indeed, I’d call it one terrific piece of work. Plus, it’s enjoyable and uplifting, two qualities you don’t get in every documentary.

For anyone who likes movies, it will be a treat, full of many dozens of clips from classic films, as well as little-known or under-appreciated motion pictures. (Rotten Tomatoes, the movie-review aggregation site, gives “Shadows” a 75 percent Tomatometer rating.)

Every one of them is listed on the National Film Registry, a fairly recent invention of Congress that works to save what Dr. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, calls “America’s cinematic patrimony”–its collective memory in moving images.

The Packard Campus, tucked within Mount Pony along State Route 3 near the town of Culpeper, ensures that each title named to the National Film Registry is preserved for future generations and shared with the public.

In the production notes for “These Amazing Shadows”, director Paul Mariano said the idea for the documentary came to him about three years ago when he read a newspaper story about the registry.

“What was most startling was the statement by the Librarian that 50 percent of all films made in America prior to 1950 no longer existed in any form, and that 80 percent of all films from the silent era (prior to 1920) were gone forever,” he said. “Such a loss seemed unimaginable and truly tragic, and started me on this journey.”

“I became instantly fascinated,” director Kurt Norton recalled. “… I wondered how I could be such a big film fan and have never heard of such an important and, frankly, fun list of American’s most important films.”

“Film holds a special place in our culture due to its power to glimpse into our shared dreams, pose important moral questions and reveal what we aspire to be–as a country and as individuals,’ Norton said.

“The Amazing Shadows” notes how America’s still-unsettled history of race relations is reflected in such films as D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” John Ford’s “The Searchers,” and John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood.”

Women’s important role in filmmaking is revealed through the work of pioneers Lois Weber and Dorothy Arzner and, more recently, Julie Dash.

Filmmaker Rick Prelinger takes a lighthearted look at the impact of Cold War propaganda films such as “Duck and Cover” and “The House in the Middle.”

Shot in Culpeper, New York, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., “Shadows” was selected last year by the Sundance Film Festival and named best documentary at film festivals in Savannah and Louisville. It received the Golden Eagle Award at Cine, a widely recognized film and TV competition founded in 1957.