Leave it to Milestone Film & Video of Harrington Park to buck convention on their 25th anniversary.
Instead of getting a present, they'll be giving one. Their gift to film fans: Five classics of independent cinema from around the globe.
It's all part of TCM's Tribute to Milestone Film & Video, on Thursday. The festival, starting at 8 p.m. on Turner Classic Movies and running until after 5 a.m., is the second one TCM has built around the releases of the iconoclastic distributor, based in Bergen County since 2000.
"TCM is just amazing, so great to deal with," says Amy Heller, co-founder of Milestone. "They're the best."
This year is a double milestone for Milestone.
It's the silver anniversary of the founding of the company, which since 1990 has been tracking down, restoring, preserving, and perpetuating some of the world's great movie treasures (both for DVD release and for theatrical screenings). And it's also the 25th anniversary of company founders Heller and Dennis Doros, who started Milestone in their home on the Upper West Side just two months after they married.
Both had a background in film preservation and distribution: Heller had worked for New Yorker Films, Doros with Kino International. Theirs is a love story — both for each other, and for cinema. "We share a lot of ideals and a lot of passions, and we really enjoy working together," Heller says. "It's fun to get really excited about something with your partner, and then make it happen."
Both Doros and Heller will personally appear on TCM – the first time they have been featured along with their movies – to introduce each film, aided by regular TCM anchor Ben Mankiewicz.
"We're a very small company in New Jersey," Doros says. "We're not self-aggrandizing – at least, we try not to be. The fact that we are appearing is putting a face to the company."
The 150-plus films currently in the Milestone catalog are an eclectic mix: everything from early Mary Pickford silent films like "Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley" (1918) to the classic Marcel Ophuls documentary "The Sorrow and the Pity" (1969). But most of the offerings have a common denominator: they're the stuff other distributors tend to stay away from. Most are non-mainstream. And many represent the under-represented: African-Americans, the gay community, women.
"These films are important to the history of film, but many are important to the history of history," Heller says. "The history of the country, the history of race relations, the history of many things."
All five films on the TCM programming block Thursday fit this bill.
"In The Land of the Head Hunters" (8 p.m.) is a 1914 feature by famed photographer Edward S. Curtis – 65 minutes, at a time when feature-length films were still a rarity – that is a forgotten classic, not only of filmmaking, but also of anthropology. Curtis spent three years on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, among the Kwakwaka'wakw, a Native American tribe known for its giant totem poles and war canoes. In semi-fictionalized form, the film captures a way of life on the verge of disappearing (a Pacific Northwest screening of the film in 2014, Doros says, was attended by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the actors). And it has a local connection: it was released by Fort Lee's Lewis J. Selznick, father of "Gone With the Wind's" David O. Selznick. "It's gorgeous, it's really like walking through a window to another time," Heller says. "It's Dr. Who."
"I Am Cuba" (9:15 p.m.) was intended, in 1964, to be a pro-revolutionary Cuban propaganda film (it was directed by Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov, of the well-known "The Cranes are Flying"). However, the decadent capitalist haunts of pre-Castro Cuba were so stunningly filmed, and ended up looking so glamorous, that "I am Cuba" had to be shelved by the Castro government. Filmmakers, though, took notice: the film is reportedly a favorite of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights.") "It is gob-smackingly gorgeous," Heller says. "The camera moves down the side of a building and across the street, and it seems to be floating in mid-air. All of this was done without CGI. It's just amazing filmmaking. It's like 'The Battleship Potemkin' on acid."
"The Exiles" (11:45 p.m.) is a moody 1961 film by Kent MacKenzie about American Indians – not the war-painted extras from Hollywood movies, but actual American Indians, uprooted from their Southwestern homes and lands, who live a blighted existence in the seedy neon-lit barrooms of the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, gathering together for late-night drum circles that are their last link to the old ways. "It's this gorgeous sunset-to-sunrise film with incredible cinematography, and again, this look at a lost culture," Doros says.
"The Connection" (1:15 a.m.) is a 1962 film by Shirley Clarke, once renowned as both a pioneering woman director, and a pioneer in her subject matter (actual, un-fanciful African-American life, as seen in films like "The Cool World," 1963; and "Portrait of Jason," 1967). This film, based on a "Godot"-like stage play about a mixed-race group of junkies in a room waiting for a fix, is also a precursor to the "mockumentary" format familiar from "This Is Spinal Tap" and "The Office": the conceit is that these guys know they're being filmed (the actors include William Redfield; the late, great sax man Jackie McLean; and as the mostly unseen cameraman, Roscoe Lee Browne, later famous for "The Cowboys" and "Logan's Run"). "She was a great, great filmmaker," Doros says. "She could stand comparison to anybody. She was completely adventurous, she was courageous, she was a great editor, and none of her films look alike."
"Come Back Africa," (3:15 a.m.) is a moving 1959 release with a real-life back-story as harrowing as any in the film. Director Lionel Rogosin ("On the Bowery") risked arrest by shooting his drama of racial oppression on location in apartheid South Africa — he variously told the authorities he was making travel commercials, or a documentary about African music — and sneaking the incriminating footage out of the country twice a week by Pan Am flight to be developed. Singer-activist Miriam Makeba appears in the film, reportedly a favorite of Harry Belafonte's. "Think of the daring of making a film under the apartheid police," Doros says. "That's a brutal, brutal system. If he had been caught, who knows what would have happened."
Two of the films in this TCM festival, "The Connection" and "In the Land of the Head Hunters," are TV premieres. And all of them, premiere or not, are being exposed to an audience many times larger than the handful that would show up at a revival theater.
"Movies are for watching," Heller says. "So every time we can get people to see these films, it's exciting."