Do you think the wiseguys from Goodfellas could ever be whacked into oblivion? The Library of Congress says, “Fuhgettaboutit.”
The Martin Scorsese gangster classic is one of 25 films added to the National Film Registry, which was created by Congress in 1989 to promote the preservation of motion pictures that were suffering decay — no small concern considering 90 percent of all silent era features are gone. This isn’t one of those movie-of-the-year lists. The Registry sorts through both big budget productions and documentaries to pick those deemed culturally, historically or aesthetically significant. That means a film doesn’t requre the casting of Tom Hanks to be singled out from the pack.
With such a broad range of criteria, the Registry in the past has run the gamut from Gone With the Wind, The Great Train Robbery, Citizen Kane, Duck Soup and Annie Hall, to Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm film of the Kennedy Assassination and “actuality” films depicting production works at the Westinghouse factory in 1904.
Disappearing Before Our Eyes
Each year 25 new titles are selected to be included on the Registry. This official acclamation is especially important given the discouraging facts that, because of poor storage, fire or commercial disinterest, 50 percent of films produced before 1950 are gone.
“Despite the heroic efforts of archives, the motion picture industry and others, America’s film heritage, by any measure, is an endangered species,” said the Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “Sadly, our enthusiasm for watching films has proved far greater than our commitment to preserving them.”
Fortunately, in the past decade, and with the boom in revenues created by home video distribution, studios have been much more aggressive in maintaining their archives. But while high-profile re-releases of restored classics like Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus and Rear Window have demonstrated the public’s appetite for great films of the past, there has also been an increased awareness that more and more films are lost each year due to the deterioration of original nitrate negatives, color-fading, and ‘vinegar syndrome’ (which describes the chemical breakdown that threatens acetate-based film stock on which the vast majority of motion pictures have been preserved).
The Library of Congress, which contains the largest collection of film and television in the world, is mandated to collect and preserve copies of every Registry title. In addition to preservation, the Library also promotes a national tour of films on the Registry, exhibiting pristine prints in landmark theaters in every state in the country.
Making the Grade Billington today announced his annual selection of 25 motion pictures to the Registry, bringing the total number of films to 300. Among this year’s honorees:
Francis Coppola’s hallucinogenic vision of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness transposed to the Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now, was a stunning modern fable of the insanity of war. Martin Sheen’s assassin travels into the deep jungle in search of his target, played by Marlon Brando. With a memorable turn by Robert Duvall as a surfboard-loving colonel (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”), the film boasted sumptuous cinematography by Vittorio Storaro, and a dense soundtrack by audio designer Walter Murch that made all previous stereo films sound tame by comparison.