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Case Number 23085

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These Amazing Shadows: The Movies That Make America

PBS // 2011 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // January 7th, 2012

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All Rise...

Judge Adam Arseneau has yet to be deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress.

The Charge

"Don't let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons."—Orson Welles, two weeks before his death

Opening Statement

At a quick glance, These Amazing Shadows tells the story of the National Film Registry and the annual list of twenty-five films selected by the National Film Preservation Board for entry into the Library of Congress. A deeper examination reveals a documentary fully flushed with the love of film, barely able to contain its exuberance for all things cinematic. It is positively infectious.

Facts of the Case

Every year, the National Film Registry nominates twenty-five "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films" that showcase the range and diversity of American film heritage. These Amazing Shadows: The Movies That Make America interviews the actors, directors and archivists who help make these esteemed selections every year; a showcase of the diversity of American cinema and the constant challenges of its preservation.

The Evidence

The National Film Preservation Act (Public Law 100-446) was enacted in 1998, in part due to a public backlash over Ted Turner's mass acquisition and subsequent colorization of classic films. Since then, twenty-five films a year have been added to the Registry, forever cementing their place in the cultural zeitgeist of America. Two decades later, over five hundred films are now preserved, representing every avenue of cinema imaginable: documentaries, amateur productions, Hollywood blockbusters, animated films, short films, even avant-garde and art house.

Film is a tricky business; the actual physical medium itself, that is. Any film geek worth his salt knows about the volatility of silver nitrate. The vast majority of America's cinematic output before the 1950s has been forever lost. What remains must be preserved, like the way a museum preserves a canvas painting, in order to ensure posterity for future generations. These films measure our society, our values and hopes and dreams, decade after decade, year after year, like a hundred-year time capsule of a living, breathing America. Enter the National Film Preservation Board, a wing of the Library of Congress tasked with preserving every scrap of noteworthy cellulose they can get their hands on in a massive, climate-controlled vault.

The films selected for the National Film Registry is more of an honorary nod; an acknowledgement of the enduring worth and value of a film in the culture of America, and does not necessarily assure preservation in the library itself. However, the list itself gets all the press. People like lists. We like ranking things. An Oscar is an award of recognition from the Hollywood machine itself, but having your film added to the Registry is something else entirely. It means the film has stood the test of time.

The nice thing about the Registry is that it is democratic and eclectic. "Film" can mean anything—from Hollywood magnum opuses like The Godfather and 2001: A Space Odyssey to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" music video to the Zapruder film and everything in between. One of my favorite moments in These Amazing Shadows is one voting member who worked tirelessly for years to get his pet film added to the Registry: the "Let's All Go to the Lobby" snipe from the 1950s that preceded feature films in movie theaters. Citizen Kane, it ain't—but you can't argue against its cultural significance in American cinematic history.

Presented in anamorphic widescreen, These Amazing Shadows looks and sounds respectable for a documentary. As with most documentaries, the varying source material impacts the presentation, but overall, colors are clean, detail is sharp and black levels are solid. Audio comes in 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo, both presenting dialogue clear and centrally balanced. The rear channels give a nice environmental boost when the orchestral music swells, but is mostly superfluous and underutilized. Bass response overall is minimal.

Extras are solid. We get two featurettes: "Lost Forever," a look at film preservation and restoration, and "Live from Prague: Recording the Score." In addition, we get some footage of the film being shown at Sundance, some interview outtakes, and the obligatory deleted and alternate scenes.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

A balanced film, this isn't. These Amazing Shadows plays more like a 90-minute infomercial for the National Film Library than an objective documentary. You know what? I'm okay with that. You couldn't find a person even remotely interested in cinema who would argue against the cultural significance of American cinema. If a dissenting view exists, I have yet to hear it—especially around these parts on a DVD review website.

With well over five hundred films on the current list, the worst criticism you can throw at These Amazing Shadows is that it focuses on only a small handful of films during its short run time. Film geeks and scholars might shake their fists in fury, but what can you do? The runtime of 88 minutes isn't a lot, and frankly, I'm okay with spending a bit of time on films like The Godfather and Blade Runner.

Closing Statement

A gushingly warm overview of the zeitgeist of America viewed through its cinematic history, These Amazing Shadows is a heartwarming boost of enthusiasm and energy into appreciating how transformative film can be. It makes you thankful that people tend to vast cinematic archives in giant vaults, preserving our cultural history.

Hey, if nothing else, it shows Congress is good for something. Heyooo!

The Verdict

A love letter to film itself.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 87
Audio: 84
Extras: 35
Acting: 85
Story: 88
Judgment: 87

Perp Profile

Studio: PBS
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Historical

Distinguishing Marks

• Deleted Scenes
• Featurettes
• Outtakes


• IMDb
• Official Site

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