Paris is Burning Among 34 Nonfiction Films Added to the National Film Registry

The 2016 Library of Congress doc picks and where to see them.

Each year, the Library of Congress selects 25 American films to add to the National Film Registry, and today we received announcement of the 2016 entries. Seemingly there are fewer nonfiction works among this year’s choices than is preferred (last year there were eight), but one of the six items on this year’s list is really a collection of 29 films, so it’s also technically more nonfiction works than usual. Below are the added titles, accompanied by the quote from the National Film Preservation Board on why it’s considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” plus links to watch all but one of the 34.

The Atomic Cafe (1982)

Itself a kind of work of archival preservation, albeit for sardonic purpose, this compilation film by Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty is a collection of clips from old nonfiction films associated with nuclear weapons, presented in a way that makes the material darkly humorous, yet it doesn’t point us to such reaction through any narration, just in the way it’s edited.

Produced and directed by Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty, the influential film compilation “Atomic Cafe” provocatively documents the post-World War II threat of nuclear war as depicted in a wide assortment of archival footage from the period (newsreels, statements from politicians, advertisements, training, civil defense and military films). This vast, yet entertaining, collage of clips serves as a unique document of the 1940s-1960s era and illustrates how these films — some of which today seem propagandistic or even patently absurd (“The House in the Middle”) — were used to inform the public on how to cope in the nuclear age.

Stream it on Tubi TV with ads, or rent or buy the movie on Amazon.

The Beau Brummels (1928)

Although mostly just considered a comedy short, I qualify this early sound effort from Warner Bros. under their Vitaphone label as a kind of concert film documenting one of Shaw & Lee’s vaudeville routines.

Al Shaw and Sam Lee were an eccentrically popular vaudeville act of the 1920s. In 1928, they made this eight-minute Vitaphone short for Warner Bros. The duo later appeared in more than a dozen other films, though none possessed the wacky charm of “The Beau Brummels.” As critic Jim Knipfel has observed: “If Samuel Beckett had written a vaudeville routine, he would have created Shaw and Lee.” Often considered one of the quintessential vaudeville comedy shorts, the film has a simple set-up — Shaw and Lee stand side by side with deadpan expressions in non-tailored suits and bowler hats as they deliver their comic routine of corny nonsense songs and gags with a bit of soft shoe and their renowned hat-swapping routine. Shaw and Lee’s reputation has enjoyed a recent renaissance and their brand of dry, offbeat humor is seen by some as well ahead of its time. The film has been preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Watch it on Vimeo:

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

Penelope Spheeris’s entire Decline of Western Civilization trilogy belongs on the registry and hopefully one day will be completely represented there. This first installment showcases the Los Angeles punk scene of the late 1970s.

Director Penelope Spheeris’ controversial documentary about the Los Angeles hard-core punk rock scene circa 1980 was perceived as shocking by some, even prompting L.A. police chief Daryl Gates to request banning all screenings of the film. Despite the qualms, the work remains a bracing historical and musical record of that culture, mixing outrageous performances and whirling mosh-pits with far more restrained interviews. Featured bands include Black Flag, Fear, X, The Germs and Circle Jerks. Scenes of older club owners making game attempts to describe this new type of music prove comic highlights. Spheeris made two other musical documentaries in this trilogy, chronicling the hair-metal and gutter-punk scenes, and — in a definite change of pace — the 1992 “Wayne’s World.”

Available to stream on FilmStruck, or buy the whole trilogy on Blu-ray.

Paris is Burning (1990)

One of our favorite documentaries of all time here at Nonfics (and found on our lists of LGBT culture docs and New York City docs), Jennie Livingston’s showcase of New York drag ball culture is certainly an essential classic and a great addition to follow last year’s selection of Portrait of Jason.

In a 2015 article in The Guardian, Ashley Clark noted, “Few documentaries can claim to have sparked as much discussion and controversy as Jennie Livingston’s debut ‘Paris is Burning,’ the vibrant time capsule of New York’s ballroom subculture in the ‘80s.” The film explores the complex subculture of fashion shows and vogue dance competitions among black and Hispanic gay men, drag queens and transgender women in Manhattan. It shifts among ballroom contests and shows and interviews with contestants, who belong to different “houses” that are like families to them, sharing their views on wealth, notions of beauty, racism and gender orientation.

Hopefully it will return to Netflix soon, but for now you can rent it on iTunes or buy the DVD.

Solomon Sir Jones Films (1924–1928)

Here’s how the Library of Congress is able to slip in more than 25 titles, as home movie and travelogue and actuality collections such as Solomon Sir Jones’s get added as an extensive group of films as singular historical enterprise.

Solomon Sir Jones was a Baptist minister and businessman who also had an important career as an accomplished amateur filmmaker. Jones was born in Tennessee to former slaves and grew up in the South before moving to Oklahoma in 1889. As described on its website, Yale University’s collection of Solomon Sir Jones films consists of 29 silent black-and-white films documenting African-American communities in Oklahoma from 1924 to 1928. They contain 355 minutes of footage shot with then-new 16-mm cameras. The films document a rich tapestry of everyday life: funerals, sporting events, schools, parades, businesses, Masonic meetings, river baptisms, families at home, African-American oil barons and their wells, black colleges, Juneteenth celebrations and a transcontinental footrace. Jones also documented his travels. IndieWire termed these films “the most extensive film records we have of Southern and urban black life and culture at the time of rapid social and cultural change for African-Americans during the 1920s, the very beginning of the Great Migration, which transformed not only black people as a whole, but America itself.” The Smithsonian also has nine reels of film, comprising approximately two hours of footage. The films have been preserved by Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Stream all the films via Yale University’s Beinecke Rare
Book and Manuscript Library

Suzanne, Suzanne (1982)

Another lesser known work, Camille Billops and James Hatch’s short profiles a young black woman who grew up physically abused by her father and became a drug addict, and it’s this kind of otherwise forgotten work for which we owe so much to the National Film Registry.

This insightful 30-minute documentary profiles a young black woman, Suzanne Browning, as she confronts a legacy of physical abuse and its role in her descent into substance abuse. The film was conceived by Browning’s aunt, Camille Billops, as a sort of cinematic drug intervention. Family remembrances revealed the truth behind the addiction: Suzanne and her mother were victims of domestic abuse at the hands of the family patriarch. Armed with the key to her own self-destructive behavior, Suzanne struggles to understand her father’s brutality and her mother’s passive complicity. After years of silence, Suzanne and her mother are finally able to share their painful experiences with each other in an intensely moving moment of truth. Directed by Billops and James Hatch, this film essay captures the essence of a black middle-class family in crisis.

Through the National Film Registry’s attention, perhaps we’ll be able to see this one soon outside of the expensive for-educational-used DVD.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.