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Filmfest honors medium’s history

Contributed photo"These Amazing Shadows," a documentary about the National Film Registry, screens at noon today, opening Aspen Filmfest 2011.

ASPEN – After Kurt Norton appeared on a panel at the Sundance Film Festival in January, his fellow panelist Steve James – the filmmaker behind the documentary “Hoop Dreams,” and thus one of Norton’s heroes – revealed that he didn’t know how his films were preserved, or even where the original copies were kept. Norton was aghast, but he also knew that, if James had been making movies some decades earlier, he likely would have had more precise information – namely, that his films were not preserved at all, and were “stored” in the trash.

Norton quotes what he calls some “pretty staggering and eye-opening numbers”: 80 to 90 percent of films from the silent era (before 1920), and half of all films made before 1950, no longer exist in any form.

“Film was not respected as an art form. It was a disposable product. Filmmakers were just following their instinct to make money, supply a product,” he said, noting that it was the filmmakers themselves, and the studios, who destroyed the films or let them disintegrate. “It’s not the marketplace’s duty to preserve our culture. It’s the duty of government and citizens to protect what we’ve developed.”

In the late 1980s, the people finally found the motivation to preserve America’s cinematic heritage. The advent of colorization – the controversial process of turning old black-and-white films into garish-looking color movies – mobilized filmmakers and -lovers to take seriously what had been created over the previous century. The result was the National Film Registry – a list of films “designated for protection” by the Library of Congress. The registry is simply a list, with 25 movies added each year since 1989 by the National Film Preservation Board. But that list, and the inspiration behind it, are celebrated in “These Amazing Shadows,” the documentary by Norton and Paul Mariano that opens Aspen Filmfest today with a noon screening at the Wheeler Opera House.

Norton points out that the movement to preserve film began in the mid-’60s with one man – MGM exec Roger Mayer (who makes a brief appearance in “These Amazing Shadows”). “He went to these vaults – not even vaults, really, but bunkers – they’d use to store Hollywood films,” Norton, a 57-year-old Oakland, Calif., resident who spent 20 years as an investigator on criminal cases, said. “And he saw they weren’t suitable to store the films. He made it his crusade that these be seen as cultural artifacts, and preserved not as commercial products. Not everybody saw it the way he did. But he fought.”

The fight became easier when colorization became, briefly, a major issue in the film business. (Norton says the reason the issue faded quickly was that the marketplace rejected colorized films: “It’s not like they were banned. The people spoke and said, ‘We don’t want colorized movies.'”) “These Amazing Shadows” (which will air in a shortened version on Dec. 29 on PBS) uses the colorization moment as a jumping-off point, and a way to state the thesis that America should and does care about preserving its films.

Norton makes the slightest apology for the love-letter tone of his film, but he needn’t. As clips roll by – classics like “Citizen Kane,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Star Wars,” but also less obvious ones like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Blazing Saddles,” both of which are on the National Registry – it becomes evident that America does have a love affair with the cinema. When director Rob Reiner gushes about his affection for the life-affirming qualities of “It’s a Wonderful Life”; and Stephen Peck talks about the performance by his father, Gregory, in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and also about the depiction of war in “The Deer Hunter,” “These Amazing Shadows” makes the case that the movies are not just about making a buck and entertaining the masses for two hours. As the film touches on racism and feminism, science fiction and war, we see films as reflections of a people, statements of their aspirations, faults and beliefs.

Norton doesn’t find fault with the filmmakers of the first half of the 20th century, who casually let their creations wither. (He does find fault, though, with the National Film Preservation Board, which is predominantly old, white and male. He says that makeup is changing, but slowly.)

“It’s the nature of our country, of human beings. We keep moving forward,” he said. “I don’t blame the people in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s for destroying their films. They were inventing a new art form, and nobody knew where it was going. They knew people would pay to see it. They didn’t know people would see these as our cultural heritage. Paintings, sculpture, literature – those were our culture. Not silly little lights flickering on a screen.”

While “These Amazing Shadows,” the documentary about the National Film Registry, celebrates America’s cinematic heritage, Aspen Filmfest ’11 celebrates 20 new films from around the world. Filmfest opens today and runs through Sunday, with programs in Aspen and Carbondale.

Today’s lineup opens with “These Amazing Shadows” (noon), followed by “The Matchmaker” (2:30 p.m.), a drama that measures the mood of Israel in 1968; “Building Hope” (5:30 p.m.), a documentary about the building of the first high school in a rural region of Kenya; and “Like Crazy” (8:15 p.m.), a romantic drama that earned the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones, stars of “Like Crazy,” will be in attendance for a post-screening discussion, and Yelchin will be presented with the Artist to Watch Award.

Thursday opens with the documentary “Wild Horse, Wild Ride” (noon), about a competition to train wild horses; “Young Goethe in Love” (2:45 p.m.), about the early days of writer Johann von Goethe; “The Women on the 6th Floor” (5:30 p.m.), a French comedy about a straight-arrow stockbroker and the Spanish maids who live above him; and “Take Shelter” (8:30 p.m.), starring Michael Shannon as a man haunted by apocalyptic visions.

Friday’s schedule includes “Hermano,” a Venezuelan drama about two brothers in a ghetto; the French romantic comedy “Romantics Anonymous”; “Somehwere Between,” a documentary about Chinese girls adopted by American families; and the Surprise Film.

Saturday opens with a pair of documentaries – “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey” and “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life” – followed by a sneak preview of a foreign film, and “The Artist,” a French film with no dialogue, set in the days of the silent films.

Filmfest concludes Sunday with “Coriolanus” first-time director Ralph Fiennes’ adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy; the Italian drama “Salt of Life,” about a man confronting his aged self; “Undefeated,” a documentary about a high school football team in inner-city Memphis; and “50/50,” a comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen.

For a complete schedule of events, go to aspenfilm.org.