The Library of Congress: What Is the National Film Registry?

Despite popular opinion, our government doesn’t entirely suck. In fact one of the coolest things they do is contribute a huge portion of the national budget to preserving, watching, and repairing film. Besides their normal routine of cataloging and storing every other piece of our popular culture, including; comic books, video games, novels (and any other literary form), music, and film. The Library has a special list they call The National Film Registry. Every year a panel of well settled people in the industry and education of film, come together to choose a list of 25 films they deem worthy of this prestigious honor. On Wednesday, Dec 19th the next 25 films will be honored. In tribute to the nominations, lets take a brief look a the fruition and legacy of the National Film Registry.

This isn’t just any other list, it doesn’t exist to prove anything, or express an opinion, it exists for a higher purpose; to preserve and honor those films that have questioned our human condition, captured an element of time and place, or simply been a lot of fun to watch. Films nominated must be at least 10 years old, suggesting that they have some sort of staying power or legacy. The films are chosen on the basis that they are either; culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant (which pretty much means anything). They must also be American films, understandable considering our government is the one preserving them. These films could be anything from the Zupruder Film to Ben-HurHarlem County U.S.A. or Back to the Future. That’s what’s so great about the list and it’s company. Some of the odder members are; the music video for ‘Thriller’, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the famous Let’s All Go to the Lobby Concession Intermission.

The other fascinating thing about the list is that so little people know about it. And even less know that they can nominate their favorite films to be put on the list. At this address you can submit your ballot for a nomination, public opinion is highly considered (“for the people”).

This process didn’t just sprout out of a hole in the ground though. And it wasn’t always concentrated on preserving and restoring nitrate film so heavily like it is today. Back in 1986 a very wealthy man by the name of Ted Turner purchased a large collection of films from the Warner Brothers vaults. He began to colorize the films for a younger audience and expectantly he angered some of the filmmakers, and purists. His response was “Last time I checked they were my films, you know. I was working on my films.”, Turners ignorance seemed to baffle the industry and many powerful figures in the industry went to Washington to fight it, including one Jimmy Stuart. The uproar and demand for preservation, forced congress to pass National Film Conservation Act and thus birthing The National Film Registry. Now along with cataloging written works, The Library of Congress now also catalogs film, mostly by copyright but the restoration of old decaying film is also high priority. Since we all know how well and popular colorized black and white films are, I can confidently say that the fight to preserve was won unanimously.

With this new branch of the government the opportunity to both protect and uncover cinematic gems of our past was opened. The discovery that studios had neglected, and destroyed their older films was shocking. They were viewed simply as product, not an art form, and certainly not a work of magic. The nitrate film they had shot one was in mass stages of decomposition. Nitrate is what they used to shoot film on before 1950, they got rid of the process when they realized that cellulose was just as good of quality if not better, it was also a hell of a lot safer. Nitrate film has the tendency to burn very quickly. For a crash course simulated demonstration check out Inglourious Basterds. And if you really want to did deep try and find the test footage of burning nitrate film in a silo that inspired Tarantino to end the film the way he did. You could also check out the Alfred Hitchcock film Sabotage that is sampled in Inglourious Basterds during that crash course in nitrate film scene.

The Library of Congress is also responsible for finding a ton of either lost or forgotten footage. Lost films or cuts fascinate me, the idea that there is a myth of a film out there keeps the art form sort of magical to me. For example, the film Baby Face, is about a small town girl making it to the big city and using what she has to get her way, especially with the men. While the 1930s censors did a number on the print, an original camera negative (which is basically what is printed out of the camera first) was found within the vaults. Today, because of this catalog, we can view the superior and uncut version of Baby Face. As well as numerous other lost films. Every Summer The Library of Congress Packard Campus outside of Culpeper, VA hosts an Unidentified Film Festival where film aficionados gather and for three days do nothing but sit in a dark theater and try to identify hundreds of forgotten short, film scenes, and promos. I was lucky enough to be one of the very few invited to last summers conference, and it’s something else. What makes The Library of Congress such an enjoyable place to be, is the wonderful people whom believe in the magic of film. When one enters the Packard Campus, they are surrounded by people whom know more about these films, then you will ever forget about them.

Find a complete list of films within The National Film Registry here.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Really interesting summery of registry!

  2. Taylor Ramsey

    Excellent article! I knew about the registry, but was unaware that us ‘Joe Punchclocks’ could actually contribute. Cool.

  3. BeccaMurphy

    Informative and interesting. Good job! Shared it on Facebook…

  4. Amanda Duke

    Great article!

  5. Rootbad

    You know… this is a great writeup.

    More stuff like this here please!

  6. Very interesting, and it sounds like something that is standard fare within government bureaucracy (the submissions would be the Archive’s equivalent of a public comment).

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