100 American Movies to Save: Epilogue

You can find the introduction and index for this series here.

I did it! I got two!

The new inductees for the National Film Registry were announced today. After writing about one hundred movies that I’d like to see saved by the National Film Registry or some hypothetical equivalent, two of them have actually been chosen for that preservation. Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, which has turned into one of my hobbyhorses, was inducted. So was When Harry Met Sally, which I definitely kvetched about not seeing brought into the National Film Registry less than a week before it did. I’m also so pleased to see that key films by John Waters, Robert M. Young, and Marlon Riggs (Hairspray, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, and Tongues Untied) were listed, even if I wrote about different pictures by those three incredibly different men. The NFR has also included some movies that got smiles (again, for totally different reasons) in Titicut Follies and House Party. And then there are some other movies that I’ve never heard of which I am now really amped up to see. First among them is Itam Hakim, Hopiit, a film about the Hopi tricentennial, and I’ve got the impetus I’ve needed to finally dig up Scorpio Rising.

On the other hand, any list that has two Disney entries has to be seen as a failure on some level, even if I actually had both of them in the back of my mind while I was doing my original planning for this project. The Little Mermaid and Iron Man have been brought on for fairly obvious reasons. If I wanted to make a historical record of American film in 850 movies, I think both are pretty strong choices to talk about because of their place in the blockbuster firmament, and stronger choices than some other like films at that. I’d rather have The Little Mermaid on this list than Sleeping Beauty or Shrek, which have both made it in since 2019. I’d much rather have Iron Man than The Dark Knight, which was inducted in 2020. Regardless, I find both of those to be such uninspired choices, probably because as stories rather than symbols I can think of other movies that I’d rather see on that subject. For example, if we want the story of a beautiful young woman seduced by another world to the distress of her family and nearly her own death, I’d rather have Dragonwyck. If we want the story of godlike American power wielded with great might and frequent personal missteps, you could drag Patton in. Both of them are much more complicated films than the basically facile inductees we have. I get it. People love The Little Mermaid and Iron Man. They’re just boring things for people to like. Not wrong, not immoral, not stupid, but boring.

The presence of those two films alongside stuff like Titicut Follies and Behind Every Good Man shows the strain that gets placed on the preservation board as they try to match their popular vote-getters alongside the art films, landmarks, and iconoclasts which are also included. People will get interested on Twitter or from local radio by noting the titles that I’ve seen in the press release headlines this morning: Iron Man, The Little Mermaid, Carrie, Super Fly, When Harry Met Sally. But of all the inductees from this year, the one I’m most excited about is Word Is Out, and given the number of LGBTQIA docs and stories that have been brought on, it seems that Word Is Out is probably more reflective of what the National Film Preservation Board is excited about too.

I think the thing that makes me saddest about this new set of entries, even more than Disney scaring up eight percent of the new members, is the continuing dearth of films from the 1940s and 1950s. Here’s the list of movies from the 1940s and 1950s that have been brought on in the past 100 entries (from 2019 on):

  • Cabin in the Sky (1943) — 2020
  • Gaslight (1944) — 2019
  • Cab Calloway Home Movies (1948-1951) — 2022
  • Outrage (1950) — 2020
  • Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) — 2022
  • Strangers on a Train (1951) – 2021
  • The Phenix City Story (1955) — 2019
  • The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) — 2020
  • Old Yeller (1957) — 2019
  • Sleeping Beauty (1959) — 2019

I talked around this idea a couple weeks ago when the new Sight and Sound poll dropped, particularly about silent film, but it’s worth noting that this yearly American ceremony has been giving hints on this front for years now. There are ten films of the one hundred which come from those two decades. Two of them are Disney movies, two of them are Oscar winners for actors (Gaslight and Cyrano), and one is a Hitchcock. Cabin in the Sky and Cab Calloway are both about Black music. That leaves Outrage (an Ida Lupino-directed film about rape), The Phenix City Story (a formally unusually film mishmashing documentary and narrative drama), and The Man with the Golden Arm (heroin). Honestly, this is a pretty good group. I can’t say that I’m terribly impressed by Old Yeller, and the 1950 Cyrano de Bergerac is wooden enough that they could have subtitled it “A Real Boy,” but the other eight are all at least pretty solid pictures. What bothers me is not the selections but the fact that they’re coming in at a trickle. (Part of me is really worried that this has something to do with this paternalistic vision of the past which pries films which are “ahead of their time” as opposed to films which are simply less obvious about being that way. I talked about this in Mirrors and Dismay, but the short retort is that if you don’t think the films of the past were discussing the issues that are near and dear to you now, you aren’t looking hard enough. American cinema needs to catch up to The Crimson Kimono and Strange Victory and Last Train from Gun Hill and With the Marines at Tarawa, not the other way around.)

Meanwhile, the films of the past fifty years (minus the ten years elapsed to gain eligibility!) are storming in. Fully a quarter of the films inducted between 2019 and 2022 are from the 1970s; seventeen more come from the 1980s. Again, this isn’t about the movies that have actually made it on the list so much as the proportion at which they’re entering. It’s a question of quantity, not quality.

Mathematically speaking, it seems like this should be fair. Other films have had more time to make it on this list than stuff released in the 1990s, when the National Film Registry had only existed for about ten minutes. On the other hand, there were eight or nine decades of American film history to work through when the National Film Registry brought in its first class in 1989. From the first, they already included movies of the 1970s; Star Wars made it in the inaugural class, and The Godfather, Killer of Sheep, and Harlan County, USA followed the next year. There just hasn’t been time to consider the movies of the now far-off past compared to the movies of the more recent past, and that’s not something I see reflected in either the National Film Registry or, less surprisingly, the citizen psychos who vote on this stuff.

I wish I had a better sense of why this is happening the way it is. The easiest thing to say is that people who vote on it just don’t watch earlier stuff and are more likely to vote for more recent and popular fare. But in 2019, Clerks was the most-nominated film, and future inductees like The Dark Knight and WALL-E and Fellowship of the Ring and Iron Man were already eligible, so I don’t know that that theory holds so much water. What I think is more likely is that we’re starting to lose those decades outside of more immediate memory, memory that is not passed down from parents but memory that must come from grandparents and beyond. It’s in the National Film Registry, and to some extent it’s in Sight and Sound as well. Without knowing everyone’s ballots, which we probably won’t know until next year, I don’t want to say it’s all younger people putting stuff from the 2010s onto that list. It just seems more likely that younger people are more likely to push for newer pictures, and the older people are only 70 or 80 years old. In other words, the older voters probably cannot remember seeing a Citizen Kane, a Casablanca, even an All About Eve in theaters. They have to know things from books and film courses, and the kind of stuff the National Film Registry has feels like the next steps once you think you have everything from the books.

There’s not a right answer to this question, even if I’m worried about losing entrants from the ’40s and ’50s for more recent stuff. I’d trade Word Is Out or Tongues Untied for The Philadelphia Story in a heartbeat, and that kind of hypothetical is the reason why I think it’s totally wrongheaded to look at this and say “Let’s not include this entire decade because we need to work through that decade first.” It’s also why I’m not stumping, at least in this post, for specific movies. What I’m wishing for is a perspective that’s a little more mountainous, a little more cognizant of what has come before and a little more humble about one’s own place in history. Someday, the ’70s will disappear just like the ’40s have, and so will the ’90s, and so will the ’00s. What will the defenders of those decades have to say? Will they have put themselves out there for the decades preceding themselves, or will they have believed the films of their preferred decade so self-evidently great that they never imagined they could be left behind?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s