Registering the Register 2020 — RECAP
Irregularity still defines Registering the Registry’s publication schedule, and likely will for a long time until I can land the series a larger publisher willing to finance its creation, assuming such a step is possible or desirable in the first place. Until then, we persist at our own pace, taking nine months marked by frequent breaks to cover the twenty-five films inducted in December 2020, only finishing right at 2021’s announcement period. All to say: welcome once again, pat yourselves on the back, cause we did it. Another year registered, considered, digested, discussed. And yes, we, because I count each and every one of you reading along as part of this project. Film must be a collectivist art in creation and consumption alike, so if we do not acknowledge and thank one another for a wonderful time in watching, we miss on part of the beauty encapsulated by the medium as a whole. So, ‘fore the year’s out and we start the whole thing over again, how bout we make like last round and shuffle out some bullet-pointed wrap-up thoughts on the 2020 inductees? I’ll spit mine you, you lot spit yours out in the comments, and we’ll have a gay ol’ time all round!
- When last we broke bread in this manner, I made brief note of how 2019’s Registry class contained seven films directed by women, a record number at announcement time, only to determine it best to wait on making a bigger deal because 2020’s class contained ten such films. Here we are, and in all this time my mind keeps harkening back to the social media takes from reactionaries, all these people jawing off about, “It’s just the liberals trying to advance an agenda and give honors to females who don’t deserve it.” If you’ll forgive the incoming rant that certainly will not reach anyone it’s directed towards: exactly WHO here wasn’t deserving induction? Lois Weber providing an artistically cohesive early example of the thriller in Suspense, three years before the long-cited first visually mature film from DW Griffith? Ida May Park, last holdout of female directors in 1910s Hollywood before corporate interest cost her and so many others their jobs, survived by insightful fragments like Bread? Aloha Wanderwell, first woman to circumnavigate the globe by car and proud exhibitor of With Car and Camera Around the World, a live-narrated travelogue of her journeys personally exhibited for decades after? Ida Lupino, the only woman to helm a Hollwyood narrative picture between the 1910s and the 1980s, directly dealing in the subject of sexual assault and its following trauma smack in the midst of the Hays Code’s reign with Outrage? Julie Dash, the UCLA student turned prominent LA Rebel who reexamined the place of silent black voices in 1940s Hollywood with her short Illusions? Kathleen Collins, the long-forgotten CUNY professor whose recently rediscovered work in Losing Ground provides a clear-eyed glimpse into the woes of upper-middle class black Americans and their complex emotional struggles at a time when even independent film ignored such tales? Lourdes Portillo grappling with the tangled webs of Mexican familial and criminal culture alongside the dangers of documentary filmmaking divorced from clear purpose after her uncle’s possible murder in the self-reflective The Devil Never Sleeps? Vicky Jenson’s work in bringing 21st-century American animation icon Shrek to life? Joan Lander’s collaboration with her husband Puhipau to raise awareness around ongoing neo-imperialist misuse of a sacred mountaintop against local Hawaiians’ wishes through Mauna Kea: Temple Under Siege? Kathryn Bigelow endeavoring to examine what makes a man love war more than his own health or safety with the rare thoughtful Iraq War movie The Hurt Locker? Of these ten, who amongst them was selected solely for their gender, because they tell and teach us nothing about our country’s past, because their work is lacking in merit, because leftist forces want to deny the REAL worthy movies their day in the sun? Fucking reactionaries, I swear…
- Somehow, 2020’s Registry inductees place an even greater emphasis on the presence and power of music when paired with the moving image than 2019's! We’ve our obvious examples — Cabin in the Sky as a representative of Golden Age Hollywood’s rare all-black musical featuring Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, and Lena Horne amongst others; Wattstax and its huge one-day only concert of soul, gospel, funk, blues, and jazz singers such as Kim Weston, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, and Isaac Hayes; Grease exploding all over late 70s American culture with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John leading the charge as they sing “Greased Lightning” and “You’re the One That I Want”; The Blues Brothers Jake and Elwood showing how music is literal, actual magic by overcoming impossible odds through their fancy singin’ alongside Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, James Brown, and Ray Charles; and Buena Vista Social Club’s son revival by documenting and celebrating such old Cuban masters as Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Omara Portuondo, and Pio Leyva, to sell the lineup far, FAR short. An enormous multitude of talent in just the five films with music as a central concern! Expand outward, though, and you find the thump of instruments and the warmth of the human voice driving so many other fresh inductees: Elmer Bernstein’s crazed jazz compositions reflecting Frank Sinatra’s battle against demons in a needle throughout The Man with the Golden Arm — Sidney Poitier’s voice turned spirit-elevating hymn-singing on rounds of “Amen” in Lilies of the Field — Melvin van Peebles’ hurried, frantic song-poetry as backbeat to his seizuring images of a man on the run during Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song — Wendy Carlos turning the old masters into cold, warbling reflections of the same evil mind that croons a mocking twist on “Singin’ in the Rain” in A Clockwork Orange — Ella Fitzgerald’s voice made representative for a generation of talent who made the movies sing without ever enjoying fame’s light on their face in the stylistic centerpiece from Illusions — the old standard “Frankie and Johnny” rendered embodiment of cold, heartbreaking ecstatic revelation in Losing Ground — “All-Star,” “Bad Reputation,” “My Beloved Monster,” “I’m a Believer,” and goddamned John Cale’s “Hallelujah,” the pop-oriented soundtrack standard-setters for a generation thanks to Shrek — even Freedom Riders gets us some musical points thanks to its brief examination of the prison guard-nettling song “Buses are A-Comin’.” Under this consideration, over half our inductees have some major notable component centered around those sweet airwave vibrations, and it is just lovely to have each one stuck in my head.
- ’Twas yet another fine year for independents! From Wanderwell’s late 20s globetrotting work in With Car and Camera to Lander and Puhipau arguing their land’s right to self-determination in Mauna Kea, the indie spirit spans the century, and sees quite a few self-funded filmmakers tackling societal issues through their movies. Van Peebles, Dash, Collins, Portillo, all documenting the cultural problems close to their hearts, necessary portraits of African- and Mexican-American life through the seventies into the nineties. Matters of minority societal concern also touch the majors through Outrage’s look at rape, Golden Arm’s heroin addiction, A Clockwork Orange’s prison abuse, and Freedom Riders’ look back at the Civil Rights Movement; odd bullet point to mention these in, but I’m always happy when major government entities are capable of addressing the nation’s weaknesses and shames in celebrating its artistic triumphs. Keeps us all honest. Of course, we mustn’t forget Robert Beavers out in Greece, the underfunded artist’s artist toiling away at movies that challenge conventional subject, structure, and meaning in honor of a dead artist and fellow lover with 1993–2001’s The Ground. Although, speaking of Beavers…
- I remain frustrated by the Library of Congress’ inability to ensure all films selected for a Registry class are not readily available to the public on or close to announcement. The blockbusters and public favorites receive such disproportionate attention when announced, it worries a body to realize there’s lacking distribution for films like The Devil Never Sleeps, which is at least available through Potillo’s website. With Car and Camera, being in the midst of a restoration process, is MIA for the foreseeable future, and it’s ever-so-slightly miffing for LoC to do nothing in the way of raising its profile. In Beavers’ case, though, a body understands his desire to treat film as an art capable of inspiring pilgrimage to far-flung places for the privilege of seeing a work under the exact right circumstances. For him, I do not implore any governmental body for help in increasing access to a rare and valuable film, but rather encourage the public to see their voting habits and choice in policy-makers reflect a move towards a future when such egalitarian artistic privileges are within the grasp of all. At least the once-thought lost Laurel and Hardy pie-flinging short The Battle of the Century is readily available if you know where to look.
- Once again we go to war at the movies, and once again I’ve mixed feelings on the twin results. As already noted in the film’s piece, The Hurt Locker suffers an opposite problem to previous year’s Registry entrant Platoon, doing an admirable job of portraying life during wartime (plus or minus a slew of technical errors), but seems reticent to pull away from the battlefield long enough to make the hell of having been out there and wanting to go back truly sink in. Strangely enough, it’s The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s near-completely unrelated superhero action-thriller, which examines the fear, mistrust, and poisoned relationship with leaders that marked the decade following 9/11 and the start of many endless wars in response. Please do pardon the joke: it seems Batman and the Joker are better equipped to encapsulate the larger state of things than Hawkeye and Falcon. I had to make the observation at least once, please don’t draw and quarter me.
- This year’s class also brought us Charlie Chaplin’s first filmed appearance in the actuality-turned-comedy Kid Auto Races at Venice, which furthermore stands as an example of cinematic collectivism thanks to its genuine public crowd reacting to the Tramp’s antics, placing it in good standing alongside Wattstax, Mauna Kea, and Shrek’s post-release fandom. Oh, and since this wrap-up post is just a thinly veiled excuse to collect links to all the articles one last time while providing a forum for general discussion, and I’m writing by the seat of my pants to keep a bad mental storm at bay with little concern for structure or formality (in case the twenty links in the first two bullet points didn’t make either obvious), I should also use this bullet as a general “other” to note The Joy Luck Club, the first Hollywood film featuring an Asian-American majority cast in several decades, and the last in several following. Do better, Hollywood, Jesus.
So, what to take away from the experience this time round? Same thing I keep emphasizing over and over again: cinema is an inherently collaborative artform, requiring voices from many walks of life in both the single production and the total culture to thrive and survive and mutate and permeate. Our filmic diets ought come from as broad a source set as possible, our opportunities should be open to as many persons as possible, and our movies must be free to change the world in all manner of strange ways. Be we sparking a long-standing love for confections in the face, leaving iconic images of Malcolm McDowell battling the camera with his eyes, reveling in the power of blues and son to bring people together, documenting injustices and grassroots triumphs alike, doing elaborate blockbusters or simply examining the relationship between Chinese mothers and daughters, blazing trails or maturing others’ work, or remixing something beloved into something infinitely stranger, the American cinema and its National Film Registry are at their best when they acknowledge and boost absolutely, positively everyone. Either we all soar together, or we all fall apart.
For this round’s five absolute essential watches, I choose Wattstax, The Blues Brothers, Illusions, Shrek, and Mauna Kea: Temple Under Siege, with honorable mentions to the excellent A Clockwork Orange and The Dark Knight in case you worried I didn’t think them greats for not putting them on the short-short list. And Shrek Retold which belongs in the Registry much as anything else this year. And be sure to give Robert Beavers a pilgrimage if you can ever manage. I and everyone in this nation will do our best to raise the populace’s circumstance enough to make such things possible.
And with that, say goodbye to 2020! When we reconvene, it’ll be time to dig into 2021’s offerings, a strong mixture of major audience favorites, works of great social import, and curios from across American cinematic history! Look forward to race films, blockbusters, horrors undreamt, grim reminders of longstanding police violence, The Big Suit, and Divine eating dogshit. For the time being, I mean to keep a two-week cycle going, so this’ll last us the entirety of 2022, excepting any unplanned bouts of mania or depression accelerating or halting progress. Either way anyhow, I’ll catch you lot New Year’s Day to talk about an anonymously-directed Ringling Brothers parade film, which captures a snapshot of an African-American neighborhood in the early 1900s, and which you can watch with commentary right below! See y’all then!