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The Library of Congress National Film Registry takes the classics on tour.

By Steve Vineberg

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  When I was in college and under the delusion that movies were forever, a film historian told me about a visit he'd once made to a studio vault that housed nitrate prints. Until the development of safety film, the material out of which all movie stock was constructed was nitrate, a doubly perilous substance -- it's highly inflammable and it disintegrates over time. For many years the studios took no notice of their aging product; they simply locked films away and let them rot. My historian friend said the stench that permeated the broiling, airless vault he'd been taken to in search of an early movie musical was so powerful that he could still call it up at will, years later.

The Library of Congress's National Film Registry, established not quite 10 years ago, is part of a nationwide effort to rescue movies endangered by the passing of time and their consignment to unstable nitrate. And not just those: after a couple of decades, the color fades badly on most movies, as you know if you've had the experience of seeing a vivid picture from your youth and wondering whether your memory has been playing you false all these years. (To pick an example that's always rankled me personally: almost none of the current prints of Robert Altman's Thieves like Us provide any evidence that, on its 1974 release, it was one of the most magnificent-looking movies ever to come out of Hollywood.) With a poor print of a great movie, you always have to do a certain amount of guesswork as to what once made it great. And videos can be baffling, as moviegoers who were introduced to Renoir's The Rules of the Game in the indistinct, low-contrast early video version -- the only one available until quite recently -- can attest.

The American films earmarked for preservation by the Library of Congress, at the rate of 25 a year, are deemed by the 18-member National Film Preservation Board to be of "cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance," and anyone can make a nomination. (You can send recommendations to Steve Leggett at the National Film Registry or e-mail them to sleg@loc.gov.) The National Registry Tour booked for a week at the Coolidge Corner is a way of publicizing this crucial project. It's a sampling of preserved movies -- eclectic, of course, since by definition the entire archive is eclectic. Cultural artifacts like the 1969 The Learning Tree (December 16), the first mainstream coming-of-age movie by an African-American, and historical artifacts like the 1938 March of Time newsreel "Inside Nazi Germany" (December 14) stand side by side with silent movies, classics from the '40s and '50s, and celebrated Vietnam-era pictures. What they share is the quality of restored films, the kind of visual sharpness you normally get only in this year's releases.

The project is so admirable and the selection so necessarily limited that you might feel uncomfortable criticizing the choices; after all, what we're seeing on this tour is less than 20 percent of what the Registry has archived thus far. But it does seem odd that of the half-dozen silent films (shorts and full-length features) included in the series, there isn't a single one by D.W. Griffith. Given that the racial content of Griffith's best known film, The Birth of a Nation, was controversial from the moment it was released, more than 80 years ago, the omission of Griffith's work feels like a politically safe decision. Historically and esthetically, however, it's a moronic one: Griffith virtually invented the movies and as a film artist he has yet to be surpassed. It would make a hell of a lot more sense to include a Griffith two-reeler like The Unchanging Sea or A Corner in Wheat than something like The Cheat (December 18) by his contemporary Cecil B. DeMille.

On the other hand, I applaud the tour (and Coolidge programmers Marianne Lampke and Connie White, who made their own choices from the touring repertoire) for bypassing Chaplin and Keaton, whose work is widely available and very familiar, in favor of Harold Lloyd's entrancing Safety Last (December 13 and 14). Lloyd was certainly Chaplin's equal, if not quite Keaton's; yet popular history has tended to undervalue his contribution to silent comedy -- fewer than half a dozen of his films, for instance, are available on video. Safety Last, one of his most invigorating vehicles, is a fine example of his Horatio Alger-style go-getter persona, and it contains the quintessential Lloyd image: the star hanging from a clock atop a skyscraper -- the 20th-century American both elevated and (comically) paralyzed by the machine age of which he's also the perfect embodiment.

The least interesting choices in the series are probably 2001: A Space Odyssey, Chinatown, and Raging Bull, though fans of these movies will be pleased to see first-rank prints. I'm more excited about John Huston's The Battle of San Pietro (December 14), Fred Wiseman's High School (December 15), and Max Ophuls's Letter from an Unknown Woman (December 15 and 17), and about the prospect of seeing a spanking new print of F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (December 12), one of the glories of the late silent period. One of the ironies of the passage from silents into talkies is that it didn't occur when silent movies were on the decline, though they'd become rather ornate and probably needed a kick in the pants. Sunrise, with its overlay of romanticism and its passages of expressionism, is an example of how breathtaking silent technique could be in the hands of a master. Murnau was a German, a refugee from Hitler who brought the legacy of the pre-Third Reich German Expressionism with him when he emigrated, and who worked in Hollywood until his untimely death in the early '30s.

The Battle of San Pietro is one of three documentaries John Huston made for the Army in the late days of the Second World War. It's one of a kind -- a depiction of a battle as it's being fought. And though its ostensible purpose is propaganda -- a tribute to the work of American soldiers in the struggle to liberate Italy, a glorification of the impulse to fight and die for one's country -- Huston is too much of an artist to ignore the ironies of patriotism or to sugar over its unreclaimable losses. Like all great war films, The Battle of San Pietro is at heart an anti-war film.

High School, from 1968, came at the beginning of the richest period of the documentarian Frederick Wiseman's career, which coincided with the hottest years of the Vietnam War. In these movies, Wiseman the complex humanist comes in contact with institutions that, by their very nature, stymie the humanistic impulse: the police force (Law and Order), the Army (Basic Training), the medical establishment (Hospital), the welfare system (Welfare). (Wiseman's contract with PBS calls for a new documentary each year; last week he delivered Public Housing, marking a return, after two decades, to the kind of subject matter that engaged him in those great old days.) What's most remarkable about these films is Wiseman's steady refusal to vilify anyone. High School is a tragicomedy about the futile efforts of adolescents to retain some scrap of dignity and individuality, but the teachers and administrators and guidance counselors who put them down aren't monsters. They're victims too, their most humane responses eaten out of them by the demands of serving a rigid, misbegotten system.

The National Film Registry Tour series includes such landmark documents as The Great Train Robbery (the 1903 picture that pioneered the use of editing), Gertie the Dinosaur (the first cartoon), and Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (the pilot film of the avant-garde movement of the 1940s). It offers a handful of movies that rank among the most memorable Hollywood has produced: Duck Soup, the best of the Marx Brothers farces; Ernst Lubitsch's enchanting romantic comedy Ninotchka; Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, a psycho-killer thriller that anticipates the themes of David Lynch's Blue Velvet; John Ford's My Darling Clementine; On the Waterfront, one of the movies that defined modern American acting; Orson Welles's film noir Touch of Evil.

But someone was also smart enough to include Letter from an Unknown Woman (December 15 and 17), one of four pictures Max Ophuls made during his brief, agonized sojourn in America in the late '40s. Ophuls, a German Jew, outran the Nazis through Europe, making films in Italy and France and the Netherlands before eventually crossing the Atlantic. His methods, like those of other gifted European filmmakers who ended up here in the '30s and '40s, were dramatically at odds with the modus operandi of the monolithic big studios; Hollywood had no respect for them, or for the movies he produced out of his tension with what he saw as bizarre, unfathomable priorities. Yet Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), which stars Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan, is exquisite -- a film that, like the best European work Ophuls did before and after his American interlude, views 19th-century romanticism with a tragic irony that's distinctly modernist. Letter from an Unknown Woman may not be the greatest of the movies on tour, but it's the one that, for me, underscores what's noblest in the Library of Congress project: the desire to preserve treasures that contemporary filmgoing has casually swept under the rug.

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