Congress' decision last year to create a film preservation board failed to dampen Hollywood's internal brawls over colorizing black-and-white movies. Now those emotional battles have spilled onto the board itself.
At this week's meeting of the 7-month-old National Film Preservation Board, Jack Valenti, president of the powerful Motion Picture Assn. of America, continued his fight against the creation of the board--even though he was appointed as one of its 13 members.
Valenti, who opposes any government attempts to tell the film studios he represents how to handle their movies, complained about the preservation board's primary legal duty to designate 25 films annually as "national treasures." The films chosen must carry warning labels if they are colorized or substantially altered from the original version.
"I really don't think it's appropriate for governmentally appointed bodies to pick pictures," Valenti told fellow preservation board members at a Wednesday meeting on the UCLA campus. Because of his decades-long opposition to government interference in cultural matters, Valenti added, he is abstaining from voting on the list of 25 films.
Movie fans won't gain any insights into how those 25 films were chosen because the board cut short its public meeting to discuss its selections behind closed doors. The board's list of 25 recommendations--which it plans to keep under wraps--will be sent on to the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, who has final say over the selections. Billington, who will release his final decision in late September, attended Wednesday's meeting.
The board--which originally received 960 nominations from among themselves and the public--had earlier narrowed its choices to a list of 57 that included such classics as "The Grapes of Wrath," "Casablanca," "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Citizen Kane" and "On the Waterfront."
Valenti's decision to abstain from voting prompted protests from board member Charles Milne of New York University's Department of Cinema Studies, who urged Valenti to change his mind.
From the audience, director Elliot Silverstein, a vocal opponent of colorization, suggested that Valenti relinquish his seat to a representative from the American Society of Cinematographers, whose leadership was on hand to complain about their exclusion from the board.
"I'm disappointed to hear that you are abstaining . . . keeping one of the 13 seats inert," Silverstein told Valenti. "What is service if it does not include voting?"
Simmering beneath Valenti's stated political philosophies and Silverstein's procedural concerns is the ongoing debate over whether film makers should maintain artistic control over their movies after they are released.
Silverstein and other leaders of the Directors Guild of America have fought hard in Congress to gain the authority to prevent their films from being colorized or substantially edited over film makers' objections. Valenti has vigorously fought those efforts at every turn.
DGA's push for creation of the National Film Preservation Board was a first, if weak, step in that direction. This fall, the guild plans to press for legislation to give film makers the "moral right" to protect their work from changes that might damage their reputations.
Fay Kanin, former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and chairman of the board, defended the group's activities to Valenti. "I feel a great sense of pride that at last this country is honoring motion pictures," she said. "If nothing else, we're doing more to draw attention to the preservation of film."
Billington noted that government artistic support in the United States is a well-established tradition, citing the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. "The U.S. also picks a poet laureate, which seems on the whole a positive thing," he added.
Despite the response to his remarks, Valenti refused to budge from his position.
The board's discussion during its public session pointed up the difficulties of choosing 25 films as national treasures.
Robert Rosen, UCLA's film archivist, expressed concern that a list of 25 would "suggest that others which didn't make the list are somehow less worthy." He urged the board to strive to represent less popular categories such as documentaries, film noir and silent films.
But NYU's Milne argued for a more "populist" approach, "picking films that are loved by the public because of what those films have meant to the public--how they spoke to us when they were released and how they continue to speak to us now."
Arthur Hiller, president of the Directors Guild, said that the board should lean not only toward those movies that are in danger of destruction because of aging, but also toward those that "are not being seen in the way intended by the artist." The latter remark was a veiled reference to the growing colorization of classic films.