When Dennis and I started Milestone back in 1990, we approached the enterprise with all the naivete of ingenues in a 1930s movie. You know, one of those films where Mickey Rooney gathers a bunch of talented kids together and crows, "I know, let's put on a show!" And before you know it, a Broadway-level musical extravaganza is being staged in the barn.
In short, we were long on optimism and short on dough. And we have continued with pretty much that same model over the decades: self financing* and keeping the overhead low (that's why we work in the basement of our home) while keeping our enthusiasm and aims high. So we keep on with our work---rediscovering, restoring and releasing exciting cinema in beautiful and thoughtful editions--and keep hoping for the best. We feel really lucky that we've had the chance to work on so many wonderful films and--somehow--we're still doing it. Knock on wood.
But times change, technology progresses and new challenges--and opportunities--arise. So for our newest restoration, we are looking for a little help from the worldwide community of our friends and fellow cinephiles.
For the last few years Dennis and I have been working on a series of films that he has dubbed "Project Shirley"--a concerted effort to restore and re-release the films of an incredibly talented and largely overlooked pioneer of the American Independent Cinema Movement. Shirley Clarke started as a modern dancer and brought musicality and syncopation to all her creations--which she combined with fierce intelligence and the courage and wit to play with the medium to reveal--and conceal--all manner of "truths." Her films range from lyrical (like her early dance films) to profane and transgressive (her debut feature, THE CONNECTION), to kaleidoscopic (ORNETTE; MADE IN AMERICA and her groundbreaking video experiments), but they are never cliched or boring.
Working with the wonderful UCLA Film & TV Archive, we were able to create beautiful prints and digital elements for THE CONNECTION and ORNETTE, which we released in theaters in 2012 (to a chorus of rave reviews). But when we began investigating Clarke's astonishing PORTRAIT OF JASON, we quickly learned that releasing film was going to be a lot more complicated.
PORTRAIT OF JASON may be Clarke's boldest and most influential film--and it is certainly one of her funniest, saddest and most outrageous. Over the course of one evening, Clarke turned her camera on the Jason Holliday and let him tell his story--or more accurately, stories. Because, Holliday (born Aaron Payne) was a man of many tales. over the course of his film-long monologue, Holliday talks about his life as a black gay man--touching on love, work, drugs, and sex. A some-time cabaret performer, he spins hilarious tales, shadowboxes with candor, and breaks your heart. The film is one of the very first LGBT films made, and one of the most honest and self-revealing. It is simply amazing.
Initially we planned to use a restoration of JASON that had been completed by a US archive. But on closer inspection, we decided that the source material (a badly worn 35mm projection print, it turned out) was just not good enough. So Dennis set out on a search to find the original film elements for the film--a convoluted odyssey that many times threatened to devolve into a wild goose chase.
Doggedly stubborn, Dennis methodically reached out to dozen and dozen of film folks all over the world--including distributors, archivists, lab owners, writers, critics, filmmakers and editors. To give you a sense of his herculean efforts, here are (most of) the archives he corresponded with: Museum of Modern Art, NYC; Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin; Anthology Film Archive, NYC; UCLA Film & TV Archive; British Film Institute, London; Jerusalem Film Archive, Wisconsin Center for Film at Television at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the Swedish Film Archive and the Academy Film Archive at the Association of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood.
And what did he find after all that... well, not much. Or so it seemed for quite a while. Then one morning at 2:00 AM Dennis woke up and had an A-HA moment. Literally. He had done the math in his sleep and figured out the riddle. And last week (October 11) we learned that his hunch actually was a brilliant deduction. So now the game is afoot (as Sherlock said to Watson)! The elements are at the Academy Film Archive, and the only hitch is financial. Which leads inexorably to... KICKSTARTER!
We have launched a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter with the hope that you and other movie-minded folks will contribute to help fund this restoration. The whole thing is going to cost about $100,000, but the Archive has been kind enough to commit to paying some of those costs and we will come up with more (out of our pockets). It is the balance of $25,000 we hope you will help cover. We have some pretty nice bonuses for donors, so please check them out and give whatever seems right to you.
*The only time we didn't entirely self finance was when director Steven Soderbergh gave us a substantial contribution to help clear the music rights for Charles Burnett's KILLER OF SHEEP. It was a no-questions, no-conditions gift which enabled us to release that glorious film. We will always be grateful for his timely generosity and love for film.