Each year, the National Film Registry (NFR) designates up to 25 films for preservation because they are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” And this year, just to show what a sham it is, Ghostbusters, Top Gun, Shawshank Enter National Film Registry. Not one of those films deserve to be acknowledged in this way. It’s not that I think they are bad films. They all have notable aspects. But they are also all boilerplate creations. I’m sure the NFR uses the “culturally” part of its criteria to slot these in. But then all it means is that big hits are going to make the list because they were big hits.
I’m not just being an old crank who wants to see obscure films make the list. But what is the point of the NFR? Does anyone think that Top Gun will be lost to us? They just released it on Blu-ray two years ago. Meanwhile, old films are literally disintegrating as we make sure the existing print of utter pedestrian recent films get special treatment. It is appalling. Even in that year, 1986, there were films that are far more culturally significant: Platoon, Blue Velvet, and The Fly to name just three. Top Gun stands out for one reason alone: it was the biggest money maker of that year.
But I understand. The National Film Registry thinks that each year it has to include a certain number of “name” films. Last year they included Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Saving Private Ryan. Again: I’m not saying these films are bad. The question is whether they are significant. And they are significant in a way that doesn’t require the help of the government funded National Film Preservation Board. But I suppose there are a lot of would be fighter pilots in Congress who will be more willing to fund the program for another year because Top Gun was on the list.
But there are many worthy films that were added to the registry this year, and ultimately that’s a good thing. Perhaps most interesting is the inclusion of Fred Ott’s Sneeze. It was shot in 1894 and lasts a total of 5 seconds. Fred Ott was an employee of Edison, and in the film, he takes a pinch of snuff and sneezes (or pretends to — it doesn’t look very real to me). Of course, the film is already preserved by the Library of Congress. It is a wonder to me that we aren’t spending hundreds of millions of dollars finding old films like this, restoring them, and preserving them. It is our legacy.
Another worthy addition is the 1937 Disney short The Old Mill. It’s fabulous. But as you can see in the following print, it hardly needs preservation. But it deserves to be highlighted as an important moment in the history of animation. As usual with Disney, it is too cloying, but visually it is stunning.
Also on this year’s list is Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero. Although I’m not sure just how important the film is, I think that Sturges has received too little attention. His films on DVD are not in the best of shape, with the exception of Sullivan’s Travels, which I think is overrated among Sturges’s films. Typical. Comedians don’t get much respect in Hollywood.
The 1929 short film Black and Tan is on the list. It is hard to find fault in that. It isn’t much more than an excuse to highlight Duke Ellington and his band. But it’s wonderful. There is a segment in it that took me a moment to figure out. Two men show up to repossess Ellington’s piano. His wife offers them five dollars each to just go away. They refuse. Then she offers them alcohol, which they accept. I thought that was odd, given that $5 is upwards of $100 today. But then I remembered: Prohibition.
There are lots of others, of course. Some I think really are important. For example, Imitation of Life is a great film that most people just dismiss as 1950s fluff. Yet it is a deep film that deals with racial issues more honestly than most modern films. If you haven’t seen it, you should seek it out. So I’m glad to see it added to the registry, even if there is little concern about it being lost or forgotten.
I’ll admit that I am offended by the inclusion of Ghostbusters on the list just because I don’t think it is a very good film. Last year, the NFR added Rio Bravo to the list and it’s kind of the same thing: a opportunity for a bunch of stars to mug for the camera. But it isn’t just that. LA Confidential was added as well, and although I really like that film, it doesn’t belong here. Big budget hits don’t need to be preserved.
One of the great things about these lists is that they introduce people to films they’ve never heard of. In my case, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is new to me. And I see that my library doesn’t have it. But I suspect that now that it has been added to the National Film Registry, they will probably acquire it. But here it is on YouTube. I’ll give it a view tonight:
I realize that the people at the National Film Registry would claim that they have to include some “fun” films — that they want to present a variety of films. But surely there are far more worthy and equally fun films than Top Gun and Ghostbusters.