Dec 31, 2009

a Banner Year for Orphan Films on the National Film Registry

Or, as Variety headlined it:
"Hip Mix of Pix Get Library Cards."

The announcement of the 2009 edition of the National Film Registry features one of the most interesting lists to come out of Washington in a long time.

Here's a biased sample of 10 of the 25 titles the Librarian of Congress identified as culturally significant.

The Exiles (1961) restored by UCLA Film and Television Archives, released by Milestone Films.

Heroes All (1920) The Red Cross made more than one hundred films between 1917 and 1921 -- now invaluable recordings of the era with footage from World War I and its aftermath. Wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

       The universe, worlds beyond number, God's silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man's own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man's conception, not nature's. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. . . . I still exist!

The Jungle (1967) With the guidance of Harold Haskins, a group of African American teenage boys in Philadelphia made this hybrid documentary dramatization of their lives in the 12th and Oxford Street gang. Shot in an original, naïve style, this 22-minute film was recognized with festival awards, but never theatrically released. In 1968, Churchill Films distributed The Jungle for the 16mm educational market. The production led some of the gang members to complete their high school and college educations. A community-based 12thand Oxford Film Makers Corporation followed. (It's on YouTube -- at the moment.)

Quasi at the Quackadero (1975) Sally Cruikshank’s wildly imaginative tale of odd creatures visiting a psychedelic amusement park careens creatively from strange to wacky. A popular midnight movie during the 70s, it's a trippy "head film" of the same vintage as El Topo, Eraserhead, and Sesame Street. Available on DVD-R from Sally herself at

The Revenge of Pancho Villa (1930-36) This extraordinary compilation film was made by itinerant border exhibitors. The El Paso-based Padilla family saved dozens of silent films – fact and fiction, American and other – related to Pancho Villa, then stitched them together with original bilingual intertitles. As they revised the print over several years they also added their own filming of an amateur cast recreating the assassination of Villa. Evidence of a vital film legacy in the Mexican-American community during the 1910s-30s, this film from the University of Texas El Paso collection, was restored by the (late) AFI with the Cineteca di Bologna.

There's also an in-depth Orphan Film Symposium success story here, much of it narrativized brilliantly in Gregorio Rocha's documentary The Lost Reels of Pancho Villa (2003).

Scratch and Crow (1995) Helen Hill's CalArts MFA thesis film. Consistent with the short films she made from age 11 until her death at 36, this animated short work is filled with vivid color and a deft sense of humor. Yet it also touches the sublime, a poetic, spiritual homage to animals and the human soul. The apotheosis of chickens.
If I knew, / I would assure you we are all / Finally good chickens / And will rise together, / A noisy flock of round, / Dusty angels.
Available on the recent DVD compilation, The House of Sweet Magic: Films by Helen Hill, distributed by

Stark Love (1927) Filmed on location in North Carolina's Smoky Mountains, director Karl Brown used local amateur actors. Bradley Reeves of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound reports the movie has played to full houses when revived in Knoxville and vicinity in recent years.

A Study in Reds (1932) An amateur film comedy by Miriam Bennett (daughter of photographer H. H. Bennett) shot in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. She spoofs women’s clubs and the Soviet menace. Listening to a tedious lecture, members of the Tuesday Club fall asleep and dream themselves laboring in an all-women collective.

Thriller (1983) A music "video" shot on film. You know the rest.