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Sundance 2011 Review: THESE AMAZING SHADOWS

Joshua Brunsting

by: Joshua Brunsting
January 25th, 2011

Rating: 4/5

Writers: Paul Mariano, Kurt Norton (screenplay)
Director: Paul Mariano, Kurt Norton
Cast: Chris Nolan, Tim Roth, John Lasseter
Studio: IFC / Sundance Selects

Documentaries are interesting beasts within the world of cinema.

With most modern documentaries being more focused on the filmmaker’s own political, social or economical bent (Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, my eyes are staring you down right now), 2010 proved to be a massively respectable year for documentaries. However, none of them can truly compare to Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton’s love letter to one of the film world’s sole remaining bastions for film history and film restoration. In both the best, and the worst, possible ways.

The latest film from writer/directors Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton, THESE AMAZING SHADOWS tells the story of both the history of, and the influence of, the biggest leader in the world of film conservation, the National Film Registry. Focusing on a handful of films that call the Registry home, SHADOWS is a well-crafted, if slightly broad and schizophrenic, ode to the true treasure chest of American cinema.

SHADOWS’ greatest aspect is the reach of films that it covers. Where most documentaries of its ilk would simply look at the top names like THE WIZARD OF OZ or even IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, the film is like a true who’s who of classic American cinema. Name dropping the likes of Disney’s FANTASIA, the iconic SPINAL TAP, or even THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, the film shows that while many may think that the National Film Registry may focus on the biggest and most classic names within American cinema, it actually has unreachable depth within its canon. It is in these moments that the film truly shines.

The best documentaries have one thing in common: they enlighten you to something (a film, a part of the world, etc.) that you previously did not have all that much, or any, knowledge about. When SHADOWS shines its white hot light on pieces of history like the pre-film commercial LET’S ALL GO TO THE LOBBY, or the legendary picture THE EXILES, the film is absolutely engrossing. Featuring interviews with the likes of Chris Nolan, Tim Roth, John Lasseter, Rob Reiner, and more, the film is the truest cinematic equivalent of a love letter as one could imagine, and there is nothing more enthralling than watching iconic cinematic titans talk about classic films, and what they mean to not only them, but the American aesthetic and history as a whole.

However, this is also partially the film’s primarily flaw. The film does have an amazing breadth of information here, giving us the utmost top level pieces of information about each respective film. Often on screen for no more than two, three, or four minutes tops, SHADOWS leaves you wanting more. You get the understanding of why each film is in the Registry, but not in the detailed way that one would have hoped.

That all said, the film doesn’t leave you without a good sense of understanding, and the best compliment one can pay to this film is that while it was going on, your Netflix queue will be fired up, and hopefully filled to the brim, with all of the new and classic films you’ll not only want to rewatch, but will be introduced to in the first place. And for that one reason, this is just as important a piece of archival filmmaking as the Registry hopes to breed. In this world where a person is more interested in seeing what their friends are doing on Facebook than in sitting down to search through the great canon that is American cinema for new films to watch, THESE AMAZING SHADOWS lets its viewers know that it’s not such a fool’s errand.

Like the cinematic equivalent of a cinematically inclined grandparent, telling you to go dig through his or her collection of film reels, VHSs or DVDs, SHADOWS is a broad reaching documentary that may leave you wanting more, but ultimately, that may not be the worst thing in the world when it comes to what this film is hoping to inspire within its viewer. Simply put, this is a film that will make any film geek swoon, and will hopefully make a film geek out of anyone else.

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