Tuesday, December 22, 2015

National Film Registry Class of 2015

Actually, I'm a few days overdue reporting on the latest selection for to the Library of Congress's National Film Registry. The 2015 list was announced last week, and predictably enough, some of the least deserving films dominated the headlines. Those are the relatively recent Hollywood hits that are recognized not so much, necessarily, for quality as for broadly-defined cultural significance. With some of these we can have an interesting debate on their worthiness for eventual inclusion in the Registry. Ghostbusters? I can see that. Top Gun? Maybe down the line its purported "deft portrait of mid-1980s America" would be an argument, if not a cause for argument. But if it's too soon to think about Top Gun, it's way too soon to have canonized still more recent films like The Shawshank Redemption and L.A. Confidential. The great flaw of the Registry, I think, is its commitment to chronological diversity. I can understand the thinking behind the inclusion each year of various documentaries, art films and educational films that will be little known to most people. "Historical significance" arguments can even be made, and have been made, in favor of home movies that capture important moments or aspects of American history. But when there remains such a massive backlog of older films, for which the government-subsidized preservation to which Registry films are entitled is obviously a high priority, an imperative to represent the 1980s or 1990s seems counterproductive. Of course, the real imperative behind such choices is to get the attention of the mass media and casual viewers who can't be relied on to know older films or care about their preservation. The Registry presumably benefits from this attention in some way, but the films from fifty or a hundred years ago that must wait another year while the quota of modern stuff is met are not.

There's still plenty to applaud in this year's selection. I was surprised to see the very short 1894 film once known as Fred Ott's Sneeze only getting Registered this year, since as the Register's own press release notes, it was long presented as the representative relic of movies' earliest days. Another ancient film that I haven't seen yet think overdue is 1914's A Fool There Was, the picture that made the once-legendary Theda Bara a legend and established the cinematic archetype of the "vamp." The earliest film in this class that I have seen is Fred Niblo's The Mark of Zorro (1920), which changed the course of Douglas Fairbanks's career, beginning his transformation into the period-costume swashbuckler he's best remembered as, when he's remembered at all and not confused with his son. An inspired choice this year is George Melford's Dracula (1931), better known, of course, as "the Spanish Dracula," filmed by Universal on the same sets as the "American Dracula" with Bela Lugosi directed by Tod Browning. The Registry can use a film representing that brief period after the advent of talkies, and before the advent of dubbing and subtitles, when the Hollywood studios tried to hold their foreign market by making alternative foreign-language versions of their big releases. Whether or not Melford's Dracula is superior to Browning's, as some claim, it may well be the best of this short-lived genre of foreign-language remakes. On purely artistic grounds my favorite choice this year is Anthony Mann's Winchester '73 (1950), the film that united Mann and Jimmy Stewart and marked the advent, without necessarily being the first of its kind, of the "adult" or "psychological" western, as well as the genre's golden age. As mentioned, there are many other films of which I confess myself unqualified to judge. I'll presume that experts have ruled on their worthiness, rather than the PR types who may have pushed for the most recent films. When you take a look at the list of films deemed eligible but not yet Registered, the inclusion or recent crowd-pleasers is even more infuriating. The Registry invites movie fans to nominate up to fifty films for inclusion every year. If I were to go through the list in chronological order, starting with the oldest film I can personally judge worthy, Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902), I wonder how far in time I or any real movie lover would get before reaching the limit. There'd be less clickbait in the headlines if everyone voted this way, but the Registry definitely would better serve its purpose.


qwertsquirt said...

Are there any films in particular you believe are long overdue for the Registry?

Samuel Wilson said...

Watch for a future post in which I make a chronological march through the Registry's list of eligible films until I hit 50 films. I took a cursory glance at it the other day and was shocked by how many worthy older films are still waiting while much more recent stuff gets Registered.

Bob-Bob Hardyoyo said...

As far as I'm concerned, every single Buster Keaton film ever made needs to be preserved. Too bad some of them are lost already.