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Exploring America’s Cinematic Heritage through the National Film Registry

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This post was written by Tom Bober, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Audio-Visual Teacher in Residence.

Which films represent the range of America’s cinematic heritage? On December 16, Acting Librarian of Congress David Mao announced the addition of 25 films to the National Film Registry, showcasing the richness and diversity of American film heritage to increase awareness for its preservation. The films selected for the Registry are deemed to be culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. This year’s selections span more than a century, from 1894’s Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze to 1997’s L.A. Confidential.

Gertie on tour
Gertie on tour–excerpts

Dickson Experimental Sound Film
Dickson Experimental Sound Film

Including analysis of some of the most important films of a period can add depth to students’ understanding of the time. Challenge students to consider why the films qualify for the Registry as being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. Some of the 675 films in the National Film Registry are available online from the Library of Congress. Students might watch Newark Athlete, Dickson Experimental Sound Film, The Kiss, President McKinley Inauguration Footage, The Great Train Robbery, Westinghouse Works, San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire, Gertie on Tour, or the newly added Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze.

Ask students:

  • What was happening at that moment in history that may help you understand why the film is considered important?
  • How do you think people at the time reacted to the film? What may they have found interesting or engaging about it?
  • How is this film unique compared to the others of the time? How is it similar?
  • What else would you want to know about the film to understand why it was considered culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant?

Students may gain insight into technological advancements, cultural reactions, historical context, and other aspects by reading a brief description of the film. The bibliographic information included with each film, especially the summary, may also provide some context. Encourage students to consider which of the questions they generated are answered in these notes and what new questions they have.

To add perspective on a film’s place in history, students may view similar films made during that time period. For example, viewing other animated shorts from the time may help students understand why Gertie on Tour was selected for the Registry. Do they feel any other animated shorts from this time also deserve recognition on the Registry? Why?

Some films capture a moment in time. Consider Westinghouse Works. Why might these films that capture industrial life from 1904 be of interest to people today? Pair A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire and San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. Who may have seen them at the time they were made? What might we compare them to today?

Others were on the technological forefront of film. Exploring the advancements made by the Dickson Experimental Sound Film can help students see the role technology plays in film. Encourage students to think of more recent films. Can they name any that were the first to make technological advancements?

What is your favorite film on the National Film Registry? Is there a film that you expected to see that is not yet named to the Registry?

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