I don’t know about you, but I haven’t come across many movies actually featuring conservation work — real conservation work, that is. Perhaps it’s because the work can often be tedious, and not very interesting to watch. How long can you watch someone rub eraser crumbs across a piece of paper, after all, or observe a person in-paint some minuscule section of a painting?
These Amazing Shadows is a 2011 documentary about the National Film Registry, a project of the Library of Congress that selects twenty-five films a year for preservation. The films are selected according to their importance to and place in American history and culture, and range from home movies* to newsreels and Hollywood blockbusters. Anyone can suggest a film for inclusion.
I have to admit to being ambivalent about the documentary itself. These Amazing Shadows can read as an advertisement for the National Film Registry, highlighting the importance of film to American society and arguing for its preservation; as one Netflix reviewer comments, “Overall … it’s a little flat, and more like a promo for the Registry than a film of its own.”
At the same time, These Amazing Shadows is an interesting look at the way we approach the preservation of our heritage. Just twenty-five movies are chosen a year, and they must be at least ten years old before they can be included in the registry. Contrast that with the numbers of movies produced in the United States every year, and taking into account all the films produced before the registry was created in 1988, and you have a sense of how little of our audio-visual heritage is actually being preserved.
While the themes of the documentary resonate with me personally, as a conservator, I’m not sure whether they will resonate with others. To an extent, the movie seems to preach to the choir.
However! It features a real, live conservator! And as a member of the above-mentioned choir, I do encourage people, particularly those not in the conservation profession, to give These Amazing Shadows a chance. And when you do, let me know what you think. I’d love to know.
* I have no idea how home movies ended up in the registry in the first place, but some of them carry the most weight in terms of historic importance in this documentary, such as one made of a Japanese internment camp during World War II.