Dec. 27, 2000 -- 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 GradeBillington 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.
Tod Browning’s Dracula may seem creaky by today’s horror standards, but Bela Lugosi’s performance as the vampire honest enough to admit “I don’t drink … wine” set the standard for all later bloodsuckers.
Martin Scorsese, already represented on the Registry with Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, is honored once again for his thrilling portrayal of the inner sanctums of Mafia life and the paranoia affecting a mob turncoat in GoodFellas, one of the best films of the 1990s.
Why We Fight was a series of documentaries produced by the U.S. Government during World War II. Directed by veteran directors Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, these propaganda films told of Axis aggression and the need for America and her allies to pull together. Just as Leni Riefenstal’s documentaries of the rise of Nazi Germany used the power of cinema to craft a political image, these films helped mobilize a nation and assure the home front, and paint a more human picture on an inhuman experience.
‘I’m Mad As Hell And I’m Not Going to Take This Any More’
So funny it hurts, so prescient it’s scary, the 1976 film Network, in which a deranged network television newscaster is promoted as a “mad prophet of the airwaves,” is a biting satire of corporate greed, power trips, the battle of the sexes, and the influence of media on political and cultural life. Written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed with precision by Sidney Lumet, it stars William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall and Oscar-winner Peter Finch as the fiery Howard Beale.
George Cukor’s 1954 version of A Star Is Born, the definitive version of the oft-told tale of stardom and broken dreams, is a shining example of the necessity of film preservation. After the film’s premiere, the studio trimmed over a half an hour of footage (including musical numbers) to make a shorter film more palatable to theatre owners (who could book more showings per day and sell more tickets). Long lost, the footage was painstakingly tracked down by film historian Ronald Haver and restored (along with alternate takes and stills to replace missing footage) to recreate as closely as possible the lush original film — and Judy Garland’s exemplary performance. Adding some snap to the list is the original Shaft, with Richard Roundtree as a black New York City detective who didn’t take guff from anybody (and who had Isaac Hayes to sing his praises). The film helped to usher in a memorable era of “blaxploitation” pictures (such as Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song) that helped define images of urban life on the big screen, even if they more often were reduced to wishful thinking (getting back at The Man) or highly camp (pimps’ cars got bigger and bigger).
At the dawning of the MTV era of music videos, Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi stands at the apex of merging images and music to convey a philosophical or social message — in this case, the destruction of the environment. Mesmerizing photography (including time-lapse images of frenetic urban life) and an original score by Philip Glass make this an incomparable documentary experience, one only matched by Reggio’s followup of the Third World, Powaqqatsi.
First Person Singular
Filmmaker Ross McElwee was about to head down to his native South to film a documentary on Gen. Sherman’s destructive March to the Sea when his girlfriend left him. Distraught at the upset in his life, but with grant money to spend, McElwee headed south anyway, only half-heartedly documenting a Civil War disaster but in the process capturing the efforts by his family and friends to fix him up with the ideal southern woman. Sherman’s March (1986) is one of the most effective and funny first person documentaries ever.
And if any star of Tinseltown was deserving of long-overdue respect, it is Porky Pig. Bob Clampett’s Porky in Wackyland (1938), which is wild even by Looney Tunes’ standards, is an example of how experimental animators could be even within the confines of a Hollywood studio.
Other films added to the Registry this year:
The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), an avant garde telling of the Edgar Allen Poe story by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber;
Five Easy Pieces (1970), Bob Rafelson’s character study of a drifter starring Jack Nicholson and Karen Black;
The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912), an Edison company production about a New York waif searching for a better life, noted for its realism and lack of sentimentality;
Let’s All Go to the Lobby (1957), the toe-tapping, animated intermission film that lured millions of moviegoers to the concession stand. Admit it, you’re hungry for popcorn right now!;
The Life of Emile Zola (1937), one of the better Hollywood biographies of great figures, many of which seemed to star Paul Muni, as this one does;
Little Caesar (1930) featuring Tommy guns, Prohibition booze, and Edward G. Robinson in his seminal performance as a small-time hood;
The Living Desert (1953), a popular documentary of the American West by Walt Disney;
Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), perhaps the best entry in the long-running series of small town America, with a cast featuring newcomers Judy Garland and Lana Turner;
Multiple Sidosis (1970), an example of the thousands of experimental films created by amateur cinema clubs throughout the U.S.;
Peter Pan (1924), a silent version of the classic childrenЖs tale, photographed by master cinematographer James Wong Howe;
President McKinley Inauguration Footage (1901), perhaps the first presidential swearing-in filmed by newsreels;
The gangster picture Regeneration (1915), the first feature by Raoul Walsh, was filmed among the slums of New York;
Salome (1922), a silent telling of the Biblical story;
The Tall T (1957), a gritty western starring Randolph Scott and Richard Boone, based on a story by Elmore Leonard; and
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), starring Tony Randall and Jayne Mansfield that skewers television advertising which is (perhaps sadly) timeless.