Ed. Note: Since 1995, the National Film Registry has been sending out classics of American film on the road to be screened at museums and revival houses. The Tour's mission is to demonstrate how these movies were meant to be seenon a movie screenand to increase public awareness of the need for film preservation. Last April, the Tour was ensconced at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Ask your local museum or art house to host this important celebration of American film!
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The big screen hasn't dimmed.
Nearly 50 years after television was supposed to kill off cinema, and 20 years after VCRs, cable TV, and tiny-screen multiplexes seemed poised to do the same thing, movie audiences are speaking with their feet and their wallets, and they're saying something simple: Where movies are concerned, bigger is better.
Of course, proper movies in proper movie theaters never went away. Hollywood has set one box office record after another in recent years, and summer blockbusters like Attack of the Clones would be unthinkable without a big silvery canvas. But a long-simmering trend of another sort is gaining steam: the return of classic films to the big screen.
Although film executives have for years assumed audiences want only the flashy and neweven if that means a new Steven Segal punch-'em-up or some Disney thing about a dog and a dolphina series of small successes and one big bang suggest otherwise.
The big bang, of course, is the original Star Wars, which blasted back into theaters in 1999 on the heels of an advertising campaign that explicitly played on the inferiority of the small screen. But even before the resurgent Lucas-fest, the past decade had seen successful, if limited, re-releases of classic films ranging from Casablanca to Taxi Driver.
The most encouraging sign to date is the National Film Registry Tour, a Library of Congress extravaganza that reunites classic films with movie screens around the country. It's a chance to celebrate the re-emergence of old-fashioned movie magic in a big way.
On the Register
David Francis, chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress, says he hopes the Tour will both capitalize on and bolster the growing demand for reissues of old masterpieces. With new prints made from studio master copies, he says the movies11 features and eight shorts that include everything from Roman Polanski's Chinatown to Chuck Jones' What's Opera, Doc?will look almost as good as they did when they were first released.
"We're trying to get particularly to the younger generation, who tend to see all these older movies either on TV or on video," Francis says in a mild British accent. "There's maybe a perception that cinematic techniques weren't as good in the old days, which isn't true."
The tour, which began in Madison, Wis., in October 1995, has a convoluted history that started with legendary director Martin Scorsese (whose violent opus Raging Bull is part of the Tour). In the mid-'80s, Francis says, a group of filmmakers led by Scorsese began raising concerns about old movies being lostcolor fading, prints deteriorating, etc.and about existing films being altered for television, airlines, and video releases. Congress responded in 1988 with the National Film Preservation Act, which did two things: It mandated labels for all altered movies to alert viewers they weren't seeing the original work, and it created a National Film Registry and National Film Preservation Board overseen by the Library of Congress.
The labeling proved difficult to define and enforce, with studios and regulators coming to loggerheads over what constituted "material alteration." It was dropped in 1992. (Interestingly, that's about the time most videotapes added that little notice at the beginning saying the movie has been "formatted to fit your television screen." Francis speculates those warnings are a bit of self-policing on the part of the film industry.) But the Film Registry and Preservation Board were maintained.
Unique in the worldalthough Francis says other nations are talking about similar projectsthe registry is kind of a hall of fame for American cinema. Each year the Librarian of Congress, currently James H. Billington, identifies 25 movies representing American film heritage to add to the registry. The Library then asks the studio or person who owns the copyright to each film for a master copy or new print.
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