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Movie Review

These Amazing Shadows

Offering a valentine to film preservation

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 20, 2011

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Last week, Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre honored the efforts of the US film preservation community in the theater’s annual Coolidge Award ceremonies. There were panels, fetes, a screening of a restored print of “All About Eve,’’ and the area premiere of the documentary “These Amazing Shadows,’’ which begins its regular run today. A valentine to film preservation efforts in general and the National Film Preservation Board in particular, “Shadows’’ is a deeply heartfelt, if scattered, effort that plays like an Oscar-night clip show with a mission.

The board was established by Congress in the late 1980s — in this telling, as a direct result of the controversy over colorizing black-and-white classics — and since 1989 has chosen 25 movies per year for inclusion in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. The films must be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,’’ which leaves a lot of room to move beyond the “greatest hits’’ mentality of the American Film Institute and other cultural list-makers.

And in fact the most engrossing moments in “These Amazing Shadows’’ focus not on “Citizen Kane’’ and “The Godfather’’ (or “Alien’’ and “Back to the Future’’) but more offbeat choices that say as much, if not more, about the movies’ central place in documenting American culture for better and worse. The World War II-era “Topaz’’ is actually one man’s home movies of the US internment of Japanese citizens. A public-service documentary like “Duck and Cover’’ portrays 1950s nuclear fears with now-campy naivete. No one needs to be told what the Zapruder film means to the national psyche.

In addition to scenes from 160 of the 550 films in the registry, “These Amazing Shadows’’ rounds up an illustrious roster of talking heads: directors like Christopher Nolan, John Waters, Barbara Kopple, and Wayne Wang; film critics Mick LaSalle and Jay Carr (the former Globe critic, and a board member for a decade); actors Debbie Reynolds and Tim Roth; producers (Gale Anne Hurd), cinematographers (Caleb Deschanel). An unexpectedly poignant moment comes when Gregory Peck’s son, Stephen, says even he would have liked to have had Atticus Finch for a father.

The people you keep coming back to, though, are the preservationists themselves, dedicated young artisans with offbeat senses of humor and the passion to spend weeks at a time rebuilding a lost film frame by frame. George Willeman is exactly the sort of character you’d expect the Library of Congress’s Nitrate Film Vault Manager to be, and he’s great good company as he describes the joy of discovering a pre-censorship print of the acrid 1933 Barbara Stanwyck classic “Baby Face’’ and getting it out to the world.

The importance of recovering uncensored originals and plugging the holes in America’s consciousness is only one of the messages here. Truth to tell, codirectors Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton cover far too much ground for “These Amazing Shadows’’ to have the punch it could and should (especially when you consider that 80 percent of all silent films are now gone forever). The documentary surveys the genres covered by the registry, praises efforts to bring attention to women and minority filmmakers, considers the movies as social glue and cultural memory, and makes an implicit plea for continued congressional funding in these draconian times.

Yet the mission of this film, the board, and the registry is summed up most simply in an offhand comment by board member and film scholar Robert Rosen: “Why would you want to save movies? Why do we save family pictures?’’

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

THESE AMAZING SHADOWS Directed by: Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton

Written by: Mariano, Norton, and Douglas Blush

At: Coolidge Corner

Running time: 88 minutes

Unrated

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