The Library of Congress (LoC) added 25 movies to the National Film Registry this month, among them two documentaries with Massachusetts ties: Frederick Wiseman’s 1967 feature, “Titicut Follies,” and Liane Brandon’s 1972 short film, “Betty Tells Her Story.”
The registry includes works considered to be of cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance — “works of enduring importance to American culture,” according to the LoC. There are now 850 films in the registry, established by the National Film Preservation Act of 1988; the goal is to draw attention to the preservation of film.
Anyone can submit recommendations for movies to be considered using a form on the LoC’s website. The Librarian of Congress makes the final selections, after conferring with National Film Preservation Board members and LoC film curators.
This year, nearly 7,000 films were considered; the 25 films that made the cut span 124 years and include a Marvel movie (“Iron Man”); the rom-com classic “When Harry Met Sally”; Dee Rees’s superb 2011 lesbian drama, “Pariah”; the genesis of Disney’s animation renaissance, “The Little Mermaid”; and a key movie from the Chicano film movement, “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez.”
“Titicut Follies” stands out because for decades it could not be publicly screened in Massachusetts. Shot inside the Bridgewater State Prison for the Criminally Insane, the film exposed systemic abuse and was so controversial and damning that it was banned from general release. The Massachusetts court instituted the ban, saying the film violated the privacy of inmates being victimized. The ruling was amended shortly afterward to allow screenings for lawyers, doctors, and social service workers. In 1991, the court finally lifted the ban, primarily because the inmates in the film were all deceased.
“Titicut Follies” is one of the most disturbing documentaries I’ve ever seen, made all the more effective by Wiseman’s penchant for dropping viewers into his films with no narration and no guidance. You’re on your own in a Wiseman movie. “Titicut” is not for the faint-hearted; it depicts ugliness and cruelty with an unblinking eye. Like all great documentaries, it also forced change. (”Titicut” is available on Kanopy.)
The LoC describes “Betty Tells Her Story” as “the first independent documentary of the Women’s Movement to explore the ways in which clothing and appearance affect a woman’s identity.” Director Brandon, now professor emerita at UMass Amherst and a founding member of FilmWomen of Boston and Boston Film/Video Foundation, turns the film over to Betty, who tells a story, twice, about looking for the perfect dress, and buying it, but never getting to wear it to the Governor’s Ball. In the Globe, Peter Keough called the film “a groundbreaking classic of feminist filmmaking and a subtle and heartbreaking parable about disillusionment, the oppression of imposed gender roles, and the workings of memory.”
I had never heard of “Betty Tells Her Story” until it was inducted. When I watched it this week on Kanopy, I was riveted. We listen to Betty tell her story, filled with the excitement of recounting the tale. But when Brandon asks her to tell it again later, a more introspective version emerges. Since we know what happened, we can focus on Betty herself — her pauses, her face — and this version differs not in detail but in tone. At one point, Betty says she had never cried over any material thing, but that dress made her weep. Her story made me shed a few tears. I highly recommend “Betty Tells Her Story.”
What’s great about the National Film Registry is the eclectic mix of choices. Here are a few more 2022 inductees to check out.
As a lover of Blaxploitation, I’m happy to see 1972′s “Super Fly” included. After all, it’s the movie the term “Blaxploitation” was coined for, and its amoral take on the American dream still packs a punch 50 years after it was released. The success of Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack was a precursor to the decades-long trend of studios simultaneously releasing soundtrack albums with their films. Ron O’Neal’s impressively straight coif, and the film’s ostentatious fashions, like his signature trench coat and hat, remain iconic.
“House Party” (1990) launched the career of director Reginald Hudlin, who later produced “Django Unchained” and was once the head of Black Entertainment Television (BET). It’s a tale of two Black teenagers (rap duo Kid ‘n Play) sneaking out of their homes to attend, you guessed it, a house party. It’s as much fun as actually defying your parents. The party scenes are infectious, and Kid ‘n Play remain the best rap duo to ever have a movie career. The only downside? This film contains a homophobic rap number that’s lost none of its offensive cringe factor.
I was also happy the 1976 horror classic “Carrie” made the list. My favorite Stephen King adaptation is also my favorite Brian De Palma film. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie deserved their Oscar nominations for their roles as Carrie and her religious zealot mother, Margaret. De Palma indulges all his excesses as this story of teenage revenge unspools before us in garish, often hilarious fashion. Having been a bullied kid, this movie spoke to me. And along with “Alien,” “Carrie” caused the loudest audience scream I’ve ever heard — in both cases, thanks to a jump scare.
My favorite John Waters movie also made the list. “Hairspray” (1988) may be the director’s tamest film, but it still has everything we expect from the filmmaker behind “Pink Flamingos” and “Serial Mom.” It’s loud, rude, raunchy, hilarious, and it has a love for unsavory characters that society throws on the trash heap. Waters regulars Mink Stole and Divine star. The plotline about integrating a Baltimore teenybopper show (the equivalent of “American Bandstand”) is treated more seriously than in most prestige dramas, and Divine gives a career-best performance as the mother of Tracy Turnblad, played by then-newcomer Ricki Lake.
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.