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Moving History

If you love movies, consider this grim statistic provided by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington: more than half of all the movies produced in the United States before 1951 have deteriorated and are lost forever.

But wait, there's even worse news: for those films made during the first years of commercial film production --1910-20 -- the loss rate exceeds 80 percent.

If you find that hard to believe, just talk to the folks who book movies for the Rice University Media Center or the Museum of Fine Arts. Their tales of woe and frustration while programming film retrospectives are enough to make a film buff weep.

All of which goes a long way toward justifying the National Film Preservation Board, the cornerstone of a federally funded program designed to increase public awareness of the need for film preservation. The board in turn established the National Film Registry, a program to preserve a representative cross section of American cinema. Each year since, Billington has selected 25 films for NFR inclusion. His selections are not necessarily the best American films ever made, Billington notes, nor the most famous. But they are films that continue to have enduring cultural, historical or aesthetic significance.

Not surprisingly, some of Billington's choices -- made in consultation with a slew of industry and critical advisors -- have met with less than universal approval. When Birth of a Nation was chosen in spite of its offensive depiction of Southern blacks during the post-Civil War period, more than a few critics and historians were outraged. And last month, shortly after the announcement of the most recent NFR selections, Newsweek film critic David Ansen complained that "there are many different agendas going on [with this list]. Some of these are archival -- preserving early films -- and some, obviously, are culturally PC."

Well, maybe. Still, there can be few complaints about the significance of the NFR titles that have been chosen for a national tour now in progress. The traveling exhibition comes to Houston for a four-day marathon January 11 through 14 at the Museum of Fine Arts. Three offerings, chosen more or less at random, should give you some idea of the program's variety and scope: Sunrise, F.W. Murnau's exquisitely beautiful 1927 drama about a rural crime of passion; 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick's visionary science fiction masterwork; and Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese's lyrically brutal drama based on the life of boxer Jake LaMotta.

The inclusion of a Scorsese film seems altogether appropriate, given the director's status as one of the more outspoken activists in the campaign for film preservation. His interest in the cause dates back to a night in the mid-1970s when he attended a Los Angeles County Museum of Art retrospective honoring 20th Century Fox.

"There was a double bill of Niagara and The Seven Year Itch," Scorsese recalled in a 1993 interview. "And Niagara was in beautiful Technicolor -- it was gorgeous. But then they showed Seven Year Itch."

Scorsese knew he was in for a rough time as soon as the museum's film archivist appeared on-stage. "He was already apologizing to the crowd," Scorsese recalled. "He said, 'The print we have of Seven Year Itch is pink -- but we do have some color filters to put over the lens while we project it.' "

Scorsese suffered through some ten minutes before he left. "You could hardly see the actors' eyes, so you lost their expression. You lost their emotion," he said. "And that's the first time I realized what's happening to these prints."

In 1993, the 18 members of the National Film Preservation Board drew up an ambitious archival plan for congressional approval. Unfortunately, Billington notes, federal funds for such a project are growing increasingly scarce with each new round of budget cuts. At $800,000 in 1994, federal subsidies for preservation, he says, "have dropped by more than half in constant dollars since 1980." And meanwhile, with each passing day, dozens and possibly hundreds of American movies are crumbling to dust in neglected vaults.

Billington will be on hand to discuss the current state -- or, perhaps more accurately, the current crisis -- of film preservation when the National Film Registry program presents Chinatown, Roman Polanski's moody tale of life, death and water rights in 1920s Los Angeles, Friday at the MFA. But even if you can't catch that, there are a number of other film treasures worth getting a glimpse of. Among them are Out of the Past, a hard-boiled film noir with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, directed by Jacques Tourneur; Duck Soup, where Groucho Marx is named president of a mythical European country, and the country gets just what it deserves; Big Business, a 1929 Laurel and Hardy silent short; The Learning Tree, Gordon Parks' acclaimed coming-of-age drama; Gertie the Dinosaur, a 1914 animated short; Treasure of the Sierra Madre, in which Humphrey Bogart discovers that Mexican bandits don't need stinking badges; Shadow of a Doubt, Alfred Hitchcock's sly peek at the dark underside of small-town Middle America; Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick's darkly comic classic starring Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers and Peter Sellers; Eaux D'Artifice, a 1953 Kenneth Anger short; City Lights, Charlie Chaplin's masterpiece; Ninotchka, where Garbo laughs; and Within Our Gates, a silent drama by pioneer black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.

The Museum of Fine Arts can provide details on times (call 639-7515), and an all-weekend pass for the National Film Registry program is available for $25. Single-admission tickets range from $2 to $5. Such a deal. -- Joe Leydon

 
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