UNT professor helping to preserve American films

Ben Levin
Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Radio, TV, Film
Thursday, November 20, 2003

Very few Americans have seen or even heard about Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther, a 1939 film from the Minnesota Historical Society that depicts a German-American town in the state.

But Ben Levin had, and he didn't want the film to fade into obscurity.

"It's a beautifully done film that looks at a culturally importantpart of American history," he says.

As a member of the National Film Preservation Board, Levin, a University of North Texas professor of radio, television and film, joined others in lobbying for Cologne's inclusion in the National Film Registry. The board's 20 members make recommendations to the Librarian of Congress on possible feature, documentary, experimental, amateur and other films for the registry.

Levin, a documentary filmmaker himself, got his wish two years ago, when Cologne joined blockbusters Jaws and National Lampoon's Animal House, two Best Picture Oscar winners — 1949's All the King's Men and 1965's The Sound of Music — and 20 other films in the National Film Registry.

The number of films in the registry, which was created in 1989, now totals 350. The Library of Congress will add another 25 films by the end of 2003, and Levin is now making recommendations for that list. He submitted his choices in June before the National Film Preservation Board's annual meeting. He then submitted another list of recommended films based on discussion during the board meeting, ranking the films.

He's been making his recommendations for 13 years.

"It's been a great experience for me," he says. "Partof my role on the board is to make a case for documentaries, but I've recommendedother films, too. It's not enough to say that a film should be includedon the registry because it's a cool film. The film has to be culturally,historically or aesthetically important."

He points to From Stump to Ship, an amateur film shot in New England in 1930 which was included in the 2002 selections for the National Film Registry.

"The film focuses on how wood is harvested, which is an important partof New England history," Levin says.

The National Film Preservation Board was created in 1988 by Congress and has been reauthorized three times since 1992. Levin is one of the charter members of the board, which includes representatives from organizations in the film industry and academia.

"The organizations nominate those who are passionate about film, and nomineesare appointed by the Librarian of Congress," he says.

Levin represents the University Film and Video Association. He served as president of the association from 1989-91.

Other university faculty members on the board represent the Society for Cinema Studies, New York University's Department of Film and Television in its Tisch School of the Arts and the University of California at Los Angeles' Department of Film and Television in its School of Theater, Film and Television.

The board also includes representatives from the Directors Guild of America, the National Association of Theater Owners, the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild of America, among other organizations. Several at-large members are also on the board.

"The Society of Composers and Lyricists was just added in 1996. I thinkthe only important group in the film industry that is not currently representedis the film editors," Levin says. "The board works very well together.I usually want to come home and watch all of the films we talk about at the meetings."

Films must be at least 10 years old before they can be considered for the National Film Registry. Levin says most films that are considered, however, are at least 15 years old.

"Films are sometimes recommended for several years before they are included," Levinsays

He notes that Star Wars, a 1977 release, was among the first 25 films placed in the registry. Do The Right Thing, a 1989 release, was included the first year it could be considered. Two additions in 2002 – Beauty and the Beast and Boyz N the Hood, were both included just 11 years after they were released.

But Levin says these were exceptional cases.

"The argument for including Star Wars was that it had such an impact onan entire generation. And Do the Right Thing captured something that was happeningin America at the time, and did it in an artistic way," he says.

The 350 films in the registry date to 1893. Only 19 were released after 1980. Most are classic feature films. Twenty-six were selected for Best Picture Academy Awards. Fourteen other movies with Best Actress or Best Actor winners are also in the registry.

But Academy Awards don't guarantee inclusion, Levin says.

"In the early days of the registry, there was a lot of pressure to turnit into a best-films-of-all-time list, with emphasis on commercial feature filmproduction," he says. "Instead, the Librarian of Congress has beenurging us to consider the widest range of our film heritage as long as they arehistorically, culturally or esthetically significant."

In 1997, Congress created the National Film Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit charity affiliated with the National Film Preservation Board, to restore films that have been kept in archives and make them accessible to the public. More of these orphan films — films without owners — will eventually be included on the National Film Registry, Levin says.

The non-feature films in the registry include footage from the 1901 inauguration of President William McKinley, the Hindenburg disaster newsreel footage, a documentary about the 1961 John F. Kennedy-Hubert Humphrey primary in Wisconsin and the Zapruder film of the 1963 Kennedy assassination.

Among the films that Levin has supported are Don't Look Back, a 1967 documentary of Bob Dylan's tour in England, and The House in the Middle, a 1954 Cold War film about what would happen if a nuclear bomb hit a typical American town.

Levin cannot discuss his final recommendations for the 2003 registry list until the list is released later this year. And he's reluctant to predict which of this year's Hollywood movies will ultimately be placed in the registry.

"Without the 10-year test, it's very difficult to tell what willstand the test of time," he says.

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