Tuesday, December 30, 2008

National Film Registry Class of 2008

The Library of Congress has announced its annual list of additions to the National Film Registry, its hall of fame for landmark films. The wire service account I saw at my office emphasizes the inclusion of The Terminator on the list. It's a good film but an odd choice; I suspect it's there because of the star's subsequent political career as much as for any other reason. But maybe it's there because it's become part of the national folklore, even if people only know one line of its dialogue: "I'll be back." That's probably why Deliverance has also been admitted to the pantheon this time around.

The list as a whole is the usual eclectic mix of middlebrow classics, genre standouts, documentaries and art-film experiments. The unique film of the group from early accounts is Disneyland Dream, which happens to be a home movie of a trip to Disneyland in 1956 and is probably meant to serve as a document of what the place looked like in its original form.

I' m surprised that King Vidor's Hallelujah from 1929 is only just making it into the Registry, given its reputation as a pioneering location-shot musical with an all-black cast. Likewise, given its near-mythic status in film history, the 1914 serial The Perils of Pauline is just being enshrined. I don't know if Pauline is really any better than Hazards of Helen or Exploits of Elaine, but it's the one that most people know by name. The press release states that Pauline is being honored in part for its progressive portrayal of a female hero. By that criterion alone Helen or Elaine could also serve the purpose.

For me, the complete no-brainer on the present list is One Week, Buster Keaton's first starring short from 1920. Keaton's DIY nightmare is an amazing first effort and sets the tone for his entire run of short subjects. As a genre fan, I'm happy to see James Whale's The Invisible Man (1933) and the Juran-Harryhausen 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) make this year's list, and as a noir fan I'm equally enthused over the election of Robert Siodmak's The Killers (1946) and John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Other honorees likely to be recognized are A Face in the Crowd (1957), In Cold Blood (1967), Johnny Guitar (1954), The Pawnbroker (1965) and Sergeant York (1941), while silent buffs will applaud the inclusion of Von Stroheim's Foolish Wives (1922).

The one film I question is Flower Drum Song from 1961. I wasn't aware that this film was well-regarded even by fans of musicals. Is it even a good film? And if not, is its Asian casting reason enough to include it in the Registry, given that it doesn't really reflect Asian creativity? Whatever we think, the press release offers explanations for all the choices and a complete list of this year's group for you to judge for yourselves.


Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Flower Drum Song is a real stinker of a musical, but seeing as it does boast a mainly all-Asian cast that's probably why it made the cut.

Samuel Wilson said...

Here's what the Registry says on the subject: "This film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical marked the first Hollywood studio film featuring performances by a mostly Asian cast, a break from past practice of casting white actors made up to appear Asian. Starring prominent Asian-American actors Nancy Kwan and James Shigeta, this milestone film presented an enduring three-dimensional portrait of Asian America as well as a welcomed, non-cliched portrait of Chinatown beyond the usual exotic tourist façades."

Well, I didn't question HALLELUJAH's inclusion, and that film may be more offensive to some people than Flower Drum Song is. On the other hand, the 1929 film has its technical credentials to back it up. In any event, historical value sometimes trumps aesthetic considerations when it comes to the Registry.