Thursday, December 14, 2017

National Film Registry Class of 2017

The Library of Congress yesterday made its annual announcement of films added to its National Film Registry for permanent preservation. With more than 120 years of American film history to glean from, the Registry list is once again strangely heavy on films made after 1960. This has struck me as a dubious idea given the priority of preserving older films, but it always makes sense from a publicity standpoint, since websites can headline the fact that a film most people have heard of has been canonized by the government. For that audience, the highlights of this year's list are such pop blockbusters as Titanic, Superman, Die Hard and The Goonies. Older but still familiar, and with a remake in the works, is Dumbo from 1941, while 1960's Spartacus owes what fame it has less to disaffected director Stanley Kubrick than to potentially deathless star and producer Kirk Douglas; it'll be in the public consciousness at least as long as he is. Every list includes films that are more classics than greatest hits, and most classic move fans will applaud this year's canonization of Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole. They may not be as sanguine about Elia Kazan's Gentlemen's Agreement (1947) but that film may have an unassailable claim as a Best Picture Oscar winner, as all such may have eventually. As always, the Registry strives to compensate for its arguably excessive attention to pop hits by including documentaries, art films and other non-feature or non-narrative items, as well as films of ethnically specific historical interest. Of this year's crop, the film that elicits a "what took them so long?" response is Winsor McKay's 1918 wartime propaganda cartoon The Sinking of the Lusitania -- though I must confess that I neglected to include that when I compiled a list of eligible and deserving films in 2015. After three from that list were canonized last year, none of the remaining 47 were tapped this year. You can see the complete list for 2017 here.

Of course, my perception of the Registry's presentism is influenced by my age. My feeling has been that the Registry should prioritize older films, but there are plenty of people around today who think of films from 1978 or 1985 as "old" when I have a hard time doing so. From a certain perspective, all the films added to the registry, even Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000) are old movies, and given the attitude many people have today toward any entertainment option they can label as "old," I wonder whether the Registry's apparent strategy really has the effect its compilers hope for.

For historical and entertainment purposes, here's a copy of The Sinking of the Lusitania with an original soundtrack, as uploaded to YouTube by Tina Chancey:

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