America’s Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry, by Daniel Eagan. Trade paperback $39.95. New York: Continuum Pub. Group. ISBN 0-826-42977-7.
The National Film Registry has become the Supreme Court of filmdom. Created by Congress in 1988 to honor a broad swath of America’s historic films, it floats nobly above the barnyard commercialism of the American Film Institute. While AFI cranks out cookie-cutter TV specials extolling their mangy “best” lists of movies, stars, laughs, thrills, passions, heroes and villains, songs, quotes, scores, musicals, . . . (“Uncle!”), the Registry does its good work with a great deal more self-respect. It seeks to honor films over ten years old for priority restoration and preservation based on cultural, historic, or aesthetic significance. The key word is “or” — e.g. while the current esteem of Mrs. Miniver is tarnished, its inclusion in this year’s list confirms its place as doctrinaire World War II American populism. This Is Cinerama isn’t likely to enervate the way it once did, but its widescreen thrill ride was heady stuff in 1952, and reminds us when new technology like 3-D and funny glasses were really and truly new. Since titles in the Registry aren’t all “good” films by critical consensus, the list of 525 and counting avoids rewriting history. Unlike so many best lists, nothing in the Registry is subtracted once it’s added. If a film is judged historically significant, it stays historically significant. And the Registry encourages public input. To state your case for The Broadway Melody or Rosemary’s Baby, go to here.
Such are the lessons of America’s Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in The National Film Registry, Daniel Eagan’s visually dowdy but accessible 818-page tome. Like Mark Harris’ recent tale of 1967 Oscar nominees Pictures at a Revolution, this is brilliant high concept: the most important American films need a single reference book. Look no further. Each entry comes with producing studio, year, running time, credits, awards, and availability. And each has text to inform, comfort, or madden. Eagan, a film researcher and story analyst, acts as independent judge inviting the reader into an at-home dialog with his words. He unleashes estimable skills as critic, readily noting films that crack and fray with the passing of styles and custom. He has a particular knack for smoking out hypocrisy and class-based condescension in Registry constituents as disparate as A Face in the Crowd, A Woman Under the Influence, Nashville, Network, All That Jazz, and Do the Right Thing. He oozes contempt for certain titles such as Wild River, all but adding “Can you believe this is here?” He largely circumvents the party line on both sacred cows (Citizen Kane “was a delightful stunt with the appeal of an eager puppy”) and stale corn (Going My Way gets no scolding here). Repeatedly he goes up against films with legions of admirers. To Kill a Mockingbird “takes on an aura of piety that can be discomfiting,” while Dr. Strangelove’s “smutty names and jokes about orgasms are the stuff of a schoolboy’s daydream.” He gazes worshipfully on The Searchers, ignoring its ho-hum acting and lapses in continuity. And when he derides the opening scenes of West Side Story as rife with “an artificiality that is hard to overcome,” I puzzle at how anyone could suppose West Side Story ever attempted to be anything but artificial.
The Registry’s greatest service is protecting those films that are priceless records of history but would otherwise disappear from lack of commercial interest. Such entries make America’s Film Legacy foremost a dignified tribute to twentieth-century art. I like knowing Richard Barthelmess’ exquisite performance as callow Tol’able David is protected from the cruelties of time, as is the astonishing transhumance of Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life and Frederick Wiseman’s High School, a masterpiece of cinema verité. I’m even glad Andy Warhol’s Empire, all 486 minutes of it, has the Registry’s imprimatur. “Who would watch a single, basically unchanging shot for eight hours?” asks Eagan. Fair question. Empire’s inclusion is rather like keeping open a rarely visited National Park. With news footage, Eagan’s critical hat comes off and his historian hat goes on. After all, assessing the artistic merits of McKinley’s Inauguration, Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse, Duck and Cover, or The Zapruder Film would rather miss the point.
The Registry appreciates the protean in the prosaic, and Eagan responds in kind. There’s Our Gang in Pups Is Pups and the “home movie tour de force” Multiple SIDosis. Animation is well represented, and for a guaranteed nostalgic wallow, there’s Warner Bros.’s matchless What’s Opera, Doc? influencing generations of animators, high culture satirists, and anthropomorphized cross-dressing Wagnerian hares. Eagan can even call the Registry’s bluff and keep a straight face for Let’s All Go to the Lobby with its “hypnotic pull that is as compelling today as it was fifty years ago.” If that tempts giggles, well, has not that harmonizing quartet of candy, popcorn, gum, and soda burnt a hole in our collective mind? These films are us, our national celluloid scrapbook, and the first things to take in the event of a fire.