Thank you to the Art House Convergence, Spotlight Cinema Network, and all of you here for this really incredible honor. I use that word, because I still can’t quite believe it. It has taken me weeks to come up with this short speech — I hope my words convey how much this means to me.
Back in 1985, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was a runaway grad student newly returned to New York City with absolutely no idea what to do next. A former boss sent me on to First Run Features where I began as an unpaid intern and met my first mentor in film, the amazing Nancy Gerstman, who remains my very dear friend. As Nancy’s assistant, I got all the glamorous jobs, like making cold calls (John Toner, I think you were my second ever call) and phoning for grosses. This was a simpler time, when there were no cell phones, no fax machines, no Internet… so if you wanted the box office numbers, you called. And the film I was phoning about, Michael Apted’s 28 Up was then screening all across the country — in 16mm only!
The thing is, I actually loved making those calls. I had previously worked in publishing, volunteered for progressive causes, and studied history, but while I was making those calls for grosses to exhibitors like Jim Emerson at the Market Street Theater, Anita Monga at Renaissance Rialto, Richard Herskowitz at Cornell Cinema, and Gary Kaboly at Pittsburgh Filmmakers I found my tribe, my community, you.The next year, 1986, I moved on to New Yorker Films where I first worked as assistant to Dan Talbot and Jose Lopez. Here again, I was so lucky to be learning from some of wisest and kindest people in this business. Part of my job was coordinating with the managers of the Metro, Cinema Studio, and Lincoln Plaza Theaters, so I also got the opportunity to be part of the day-to-day work of exhibition. Later I moved over to work as a nontheatrical booker at New Yorker, where my customers and friends included Brent Kliewer in Santa Fe, Hart Wegner at UNLV, Eleanor Nichols in Sonoma, California, Dan Ladely in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Ann Brandman at the Honolulu Museum of Art. I am grateful to them all, and to so many more.
Since then, my list of film friends and teachers has grown to include fellow distributors Wendy Lidell, Adam Yauch, Jeff Massino, Emily Russo, Dan Berger, and Dennis’s wonderful mentor, Don Krim. I have also had the privilege of working with so many great exhibitors, including Bruce Goldstein (the first programmer to book a Milestone series) and Karen Cooper at Film Forum, Peggy Parsons at the National Gallery, Connie White, Richard Peña, John Ewing in Cleveland, Toby Leonard and Stephanie Silverman at the Belcourt, Carol Johnson and her great team at the Amherst Cinema, Rachel Jacobson, Harris Dew and John Vanco at the IFC Center, Florence Almozini and Dennis Lim at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and Dave Filipi at the Wexner. I promised a short speech, or I could definitely go on and on…
My film community has also grown to include archivists, scholars, filmmakers, and journalists from around the world. I am grateful to David Bordwell, Ian Christie, Jean Jacques Varret, Christophe Terhechte, Jedrzej Sablinski, Margaret Bodde, Ronald Gray, Dan Streible, Ally Field, Richard Koszarski, Charles Burnett, Philip Haas, John Canemaker, Eleanor Antin, Ava Du Vernay, Richard Brody, Bill Gosden, and Billy Woodberry. Former colleagues and interns including Cindi Rowell, Fumiko Takagi, Michael Bellavia, Isabel Cadalso, Megan Powers, Zach Zahos, Anke Mebold, Peter Miele, Nadja Tennstedt, Maia Krivoruk, Lauren Caddick, Adrian and Dylan Rothschild, Sarah Lipkin, Victor Vazquez, Austin Renna, Vincent Mollica, Angeli Reyes and my favorite, Adam Doros, are still members of our extended film family. And I would like to also thank my parents, who would have loved this, my beloved sister Karen Key, and my guys, Dennis and Adam. Friends like these at once make life bigger and more interesting and make the world smaller and kinder. I am incredibly grateful to them all.
Which brings me to this room and why we are all here today. Despite storms and delays, we all made our way here to Midway, Utah. Why? To be a community and to celebrate and strengthen the ties that make this community strong. And we schlepped here even though in 2019 there are so many other ways we could communicate. So why aren’t we all home now, tapping away at SnapChat, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, LinkedIn, Signal, Pinterest, Tumblr, Reddit, or even just texting or emailing?
The answer is the same reason that we all work to get people into movie theaters. Because all these media absolutely pale compared to the power of actually being in the presence of another person and sharing space and experiences with them. However convenient it may be to post a birthday greeting on a friend’s wall, it can never be as meaningful as a phone rendition of Happy Birthday (in my case, off-key) or actually sharing a celebratory dinner (with cake and candles).
Looking back on my decades in film, I have a few thoughts I’d like to share.
First, for me, networking is okay but collegiality is better and friendship is much better still. Over the years, I’ve been able to work with so many people I esteem and love — and it has been a privilege and a joy.
Second, all camaraderie requires intimacy which requires contact. Honestly, I miss the days of talking at length with my exhibitors. I just haven’t found that texts and short emails generally lead to new friendships. I became friends with many of my customers because we talked on the phone for hours and got to know one another. I knew if they were fans of Abba, or were recovering from shingles, or once lived in Elmira, NY, or had twelve-year-old twins — and they knew about my life too. I met other film friends in person, here at the AHC, at film festivals, and at conferences of the Association of Moving Image Archivists.
Third, I have become very wary of social media. I think it is so easy to get lulled into confusing social media interactions for real human connection. Also, we need to keep in mind that these are for-profit businesses run by huge corporations for the purpose of aggregating data — our data. And we know that they have repeatedly misused that private information to the detriment of individuals and to democracy. And I worry about the ability of hackers and bots to manipulate social media to polarize and alienate us from one another. I think we have all seen that happen.
Finally, looking forward, I really want to keep growing my worldwide film family! Cinema is a universal art form that embraces everything — literature, theater, dance, photography, comedy, animation, history, mythology, science, music — and my cinephile community is international, diverse, challenging, funny, crazy, thought-provoking, and the just, the best.
One of our international cinephile friends is Yvonne Ng, who serves with Dennis on the AMIA board, lives in Prague, and works for Witness, a great nonprofit organization that uses audiovisual technology to support civic participation and human rights around the world. We are immensely grateful to the wonderful team at the Spotlight Cinema Network for donating $2500 to Witness as part of our Lifetime Award. This donation will help Witness’s programs to create and archive evidence of military actions in Syria, to teach young people of color in Brazil how to document police violence, and to monitor the abuse of immigrants in the United States. We love that Witness is employing same technology that brings feature films to our screens to make the world safer and more just. The work that Witness does is incredibly tough and we hope that members of the Art House Convergence will check them out and support them.
[This section I managed to omit... I dropped my papers and got flustered...] And to close, let me say how much I love and respect the work that you all do, every day, in the real world, to bring people from different backgrounds and experiences together to share a passion, a movie theater, and maybe some popcorn. That’s not just building diversity, that is creating community.
We’ve written these speeches separately, so please forgive me if there’s some repetition. Just assume you’re watching a Christopher Nolan film.
Thank you to Alison, Ronnie, the Spotlight and Conference Leadership, and all of you for this wonderful award. Now, one doesn’t get too many lifetime achievement awards in ones… well, life. It sort of says it in its name. This honor really took us completely by surprise. And like most every one of my age, I completely forgot how damned old I’ve become.
There is something uncomfortable that I want to reveal publicly for the first time – because I think it is more valuable to discuss the struggles and the people who helped -- than to talk about any achievements. And there’s a specific reason why I’m telling you because it has to do with cinema… The fact is that I was a child of abuse. It was a life of frequently harsh, violent physical punishment and equally harsh criticism. For most of my young life, my self-esteem was zero – something I still struggle with even standing here today. My childhood terrors were a struggle that I hid from my teachers, my classmates, and my friends. I barely hung in there in high school, and by college, my life was slipping away from me. My college friends had no idea, but I was broken in so many ways.
Dennis: 1975 in Florida
Then it happened… at the advanced age of 21. One day, by complete accident, I was chosen for no real reason other than I could operate a video camera, to be the president of Ohio University’s Athens Film Society -- exactly forty years ago this year. My fortunes and my life completely changed for the better. It was instant karma in the form of 16mm celluloid. I found an art form that I loved above all the others, I found a career that has rewarded me time and time again – especially tonight – and I found my beloved wife and partner Amy and gave birth to Milestone, and even more important our son Adam, the joy of our lives. They, above all else, are why I’m here today
From day one in cinema, I also found surrogate fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers -- lifelong friends that I tend to call my cinematic family – that have helped me along the way. And they are from all phases of the industry, so please bear with me for a few seconds when I name a few of them. From the beginning, there was Dean Henry Lin at Ohio U and my first film boss Giulio Scalinger, followed by the animators Grant Munro and John Canemaker, the archivists Kevin Brownlow, Ross Lipman, and James Card, programmers like Anita Monga, John Ewing, Connie White, and Kyoko Hirano. The filmmakers Tony Buba (my personal favorite), Charles Burnett, Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker, Jonathan Demme, Michael Powell, Bill Greaves, and Manny Kirshheimer. The media librarians Bill Sloan, Lillian Katz and Joe Yranski. The distributors Lee Krugman, Ian Christie, and the ever-wonderful Nancy Gerstman. Then there are the film critics like Scott Eyman, Ann Hornaday, Melissa Anderson, Manohla Dargis, Richard Brody, and Dave Kehr. There are also the lab people like Janice Allen, Russ Sunewick and Jack Rizzo. There’s Turner Classic Movies’ Charlie Tabesh. I know… he’s television… but he’s our brother-in-cinema and Milestone owes its continued existence to him. Then there are all my friends at the Eye Filmmuseum and my two closest cinematic sisters, Wendy Clarke – that’s Shirley’s daughter -- and Letizia Gatti of Reading Bloom, she’s our Italian side of the Milestone family.
And lastly, there’s Laura Rooney and the entire membership of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Amazing people who I have loved and cherished these past twenty-two years and I’m lucky now to be in a position as President that I am able to serve them. They are the thousand people all over the world working without fanfare to preserve our moving image history.
And of course, many of you here In this room, I consider to be my cinematic family. And just to explain, I started to write this speech in the Netherlands after three glasses of wine, and I was shall we say… a little drunk, overly sentimental, and immensely nostalgic. And outside of the drinking which in retrospect probably would have helped get me through this speech, I’m about to get a little of all that once again.
My fellow old-timers probably noticed by now that I haven’t thanked somebody I worked for seven years — and are probably getting a little pissed that I’ve forgotten him. And many have, but I never will. Donald Krim has been left out of film history by too many. He was too self-deprecating, too sincere, and too honest to have books, articles, and theses written about him. So let’s flash back to 1983. It’s a long story but I hope you will be repaid in the end by listening to it.
I finally left Ohio University having been president of the film society and programmed their terrific Athens International film festival. I was in hell for two years working for the family business – selling Marlboros, Virginia Slims, Eve 120s and Newports in Irvington, New Jersey for a living.
So! In desperation and with fingers crossed and with lots of prayers, I sent out about 200 letters to just about everybody in the BoxOffice Distributors list of 1983 along with my resume and Giulio’s reference letter. Over the next few weeks, I got 176 rejection letters – I still have them all -- and two film production companies who wanted me to launder money out of Greece -- well they both assumed with my last name being Doros and coming from Athens (they skipped over the Ohio part) that I must be Greek… and since I was looking for I job in film, that I must be dishonest… I mean can you imagine telling somebody in the job interview that you’re hiring them to commit international money laundering?
Anyway, months after I had given up and resigned to my fate of smelling like tobacco for the rest of my life, I got a letter late in December 1983 starting off “pertaining to your letter of May 5th.” Don, I have to say, kind of worked methodically. It seemed his last nontheatrical salesman had to be fired for dishonesty – taking imaginary bookings but shipping real 16mm and 35mm prints to unsuspecting exhibitors. As you can imagine, that did NOT go over well with the theaters…
As shy as I was, he saw something in me. I was hired and a couple of weeks later, I had my own office on West 57th Street. It was a tiny company then -- Don’s wife Susan Krim and Paula Pevzner were the other two people there and I am still tremendously in their debt as well.
I should mention that when I joined Kino, my father stopped talking to me for a year. I had left Star Tobacco and went into the film world. I had truly disgraced the family. But Don’s kindness, his willingness to teach me the ropes, his taking me into his confidence about the business, and especially our lunches and walks together where he’d tell me the history of indie cinema in New York and the characters he knew are memories I hold dear. Even his criticisms when I didn’t live up to what he thought I was capable of were kindly. I can’t begin to tell you how much he meant to me. In the emotional vacuum that was my prior life, he became my substitute father, my mentor, and my lifelong inspiration.
So! How did I become a distributor and a film archivist? During my first year there, Don acquired two silent films from the Gloria Swanson estate, Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly and Raoul Walsh’s Sadie Thompson. Von Stroheim’s film had been completed in haste by others less talented than him after he was fired, and Walsh’s masterpiece was missing its last reel. Don thought of bringing them out as historical oddities with an explanation at the beginning and end of the film. I asked if he thought of restoring them as close as you could using stills and scripts. I was inspired by Bob Gitt’s work on Lost Horizon done a few years before.
Now, this is commonplace these days where there are so many outlets for silent films, but this was absolutely unheard of in 1984. I should mention that Kino was always in debt. Kino was threatened almost monthly by the man Don bought the business from – and who was still owed a lot of money. Don and Susan were working nights and weekends trying to figure out how to keep the company alive. Besides that, only the well-respected Kevin Brownlow and David Gill were restoring silent films with the kind of budget I proposed, and they had Thames Television corporate money to back them. I mean, I was asking Don to spend a boatload of money on the idea that a 26-year-old kid with less than a year’s professional experience could pull this off. All Don asked was, “Do you think you can do it?” And, let me say here, I completely lied. I definitely didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I said, of course, I could. And he trusted me.
Oh my god, That was when I discovered film restoration. As broken as I had been as a teenager, the art of putting something together again, to fix it and make it whole, to make it look new again, was a revelation. I’ve never discussed this before and perhaps I didn’t even realize it until I wrote this speech. But I suspect I’m not alone in this feeling of film restoration as rejuvenation of one’s own soul.
For the next two years, I was working at Kino every day in the city. And every night and on weekends, I would take the bus an hour ride home, then drive up an hour to Janice Allen’s lab in Park Ridge, New Jersey so I could work on these two films late into the early morning hours. Janice, by the way, taught me everything I needed to know. I was living on coffee, fast food, and doughnuts that I’d pick up on the New Jersey Parkway. And every morning, I’d arrive at Kino before anyone else and Don and I would go over what I did the night before. We also talked about what I was going to do, and he helped with possible ideas and on writing the new intertitles we needed. We sweated daily to make them better. As I recall, the intertitle “A Serenade” took two weeks before we finally came up with it.
Don was there to hold my hand when I needed it. All together, it cost a lot of money to restore these two films, most likely money he had to borrow. Don never mentioned it, so I never had to think about it. Hell, I was probably too young and too self-involved to care. When by some miracle the first one neared completion, Queen Kelly was to premiere at the Berlin Film Festival and to follow was a huge opening in Los Angeles. There was a lot of excitement about the film and It looked like it was going to be a tremendous success. Don told me that I was to be credited as the archivist. I suggested that Don also would take a restoration credit. He said, no thanks, the Kino International logo was all he needed. That was his. And that was Don.
Now for my inspirational part of my part of the speech and the reason I told this long story. It’s the secret why Milestone, run by two short but adorable Jewish people out of their home in New Jersey is 29-years-old and has outlasted a lot of bigger companies. No matter how broke we were, we took some really big risks on films that really mattered to us. That could make lives better just by watching them. We went for the home runs because no one remembers the singles the next day. Our films may seem like obvious choices now, but I promise you that everybody thought we were crazy to spend $450,000 to release a film shot in 16mm about an African American working at a slaughterhouse in Watts — or to risk all our savings on a 141-minute 1964 propaganda film celebrating the Cuban revolution — or taking ten years to restore the films of the uncommercial and forgotten Shirley Clarke. We took these risks because we believed in the power of cinema, in the films themselves… and we believed in all of you.
Our secret was to build our company taking risks — to be honest, the more degree of difficulty the better… because it’s not just about today, it’s about building something of value to last for generations. Don taught us this.
So! let’s say down the road, you distributors and exhibitors alike, finding that you need to take a big risk on something really wonderful and worth fighting for … I want you to remember Don Krim. By the way, Queen Kelly netted over half a million dollars and played in over forty countries. Don took great risks not only on films and directors but also on a person that 176 other companies wouldn’t hire -- and here I am today with my lovely wife and this rather nifty award. This year, Amy and I are going to restore Queen Kelly and Sadie Thompson once again, this time in Don’s honor. This time, his name will appear in the final credits.
So in conclusion, when you hear me say — and I do so frequently — that I believe in the power of cinema to change lives, well, here I am.
Now, I’ll dry my tears over lost friends and I’ll get that drink with my amazing partner and wife, and here will be my toast, “Here is to all of you.” Thank you.
The 17th annual AIFF brought a wonderful selection of films, filmmakers, and cinema experts to town — including some old friends of Milestone… and some new! We were very happy to get the chance to hang out with pals Jonathan Marlow (filmmaker, musician, and self-described “purveyor of moving images’); filmmaker and activist Helen De Michiel; Claire Aguilar, programming director of the International Documentary Association; and Courtney Sheehan, the wonderful head of Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum. It was great to reconnect with artist and animator Stacey Steers, who we first met a few years ago in Houston, and to see how she is continuing to use silent film imagery in her gorgeous, hypnotic films. Other old friends we didn’t get to schmooze with, but were happy to see included Clemence Taillandier, Laura Thielen, and Betsy McLane.
We even “met” a wonderful British composer we first collaborated with many, many years ago — Joby Talbot, who wrote the wonderful score for one of the Evgenii Bauer melodramas on Milestone’s Mad Love DVD. Now living in Ashland, Joby and two wonderful musicians, performed his score accompanying Bauer’s The Dying Swan. And we were happy to meet festival juror Cameron Swanagon —nontheatrical and festival coordinator at Oscilloscope Films, which is Milestone’s partner for streaming and video distribution. It’s amazing how often we run into fellow NYC-area friends in far-flung festivals.
(George taking a photo of the audience at a screening).
A highlight of our festival experience was the amazing reception that the festival goers gave Milestone’s restoration of No Maps on My Taps and its effervescent filmmaker, George Nierenberg — who made it a point to shake the hand of every person on a line for a special screening for school kids. The crowds loved the joyful dance documentary and the tap dance demo by local hoofer Suzanne Seiber and her students.
(Dennis sitting far left next to Joby Talbot and others on a panel about commissioning and composing scores for films.)
Another great treat was discovering Saving Brinton, a documentary about a real-life cinema hero — Michael Zahs. The film brilliantly chronicles one year in Zahs’s decades-long quest to save and preserve a collection of pre-1908 films, lantern slides, wax-cylinder audio recordings, and papers from the estate of two Iowa promoters, Frank and Indiana Brinton. The documentary is wonderful and we were absolutely thrilled to meet Zahs and filmmaker, Andrew Sherburne. The film will be screening in New York at Cinema Village in May and at the Monica Film Center in Los Angeles in June. Catch it if you can!
Other new friends include Dan Miller and Suzanne Clark, the creators of the documentary, Citizen Blue: The Life and Art of Cinema Master James Blue, and Richard Blue, the brother of the filmmaker (who died in 1980). We also really enjoyed meeting trans activist, artist, and filmmaker, Zackary Drucker, who turned out to be a fellow fan of Portrait of Jason. Erica Thompson, the festival’s Filmmaker Liaison, was incredibly welcoming and lovely — she is one of those festival angels who keeps things going smoothly and does so with real grace and kindness. And her volunteers were also wonderful — we send special thanks to Vicki Augustine and Nicole Gullickson, who drove us around and made us feel like Oregonians. We look forward to keeping in touch with all these wonderful folks!
Finally, we had a blast at the closing night Awards Ceremony, which Courtney Sheehan MC-ed like a boss. And we were very moved when Thom Southerland, whose film Fort Maria won the juried award for Best Narrative Feature, came up to us and told us that his experience seeing Killer of Sheep and meeting Charles Burnett in 2015 had been a powerful inspiration for his own filmmaking — he even shot his feature in black and white in tribute.
Dennis and I were really thrilled to be honored by such a wonderful film festival and community. And, if you have time next spring, we heartily recommend planning to spend April 11–15, 2019 watching films at the Ashland Independent Film Festival... maybe you want to mark you calendar now!
It has been a long time since I first met Dan Talbot — almost thirty-one years. In the late spring of 1986, Dan interviewed and then hired me as his assistant at New Yorker Films. It was just my second job in film, after working for a few months at First Run Features. I remember being wowed by the spacious sun-lit offices and by Dan, who was elegant, patrician and avuncular. Even at that first meeting I understood that he was a sophisticated man of culture. In fact, I got the impression that he was more impressed by my graduate work at Yale than my experience in film. Whatever did the trick, I was very happy to join the company.
I only lasted about a year in that role of assistant (as Dan later observed, I seemed to have a problem with authority… and still do), but I stayed on at New Yorker for another three years as a nontheatrical film booker. During those years, I learned so much of what I know about film distribution.
And so when it came out in 2009, I was excited to read The New Yorker Theater and Other Scenes from a Life at the Movies, the memoir that Dan’s wife Toby wrote about their life together. And this month I eagerly turned to Dan’s article in the Spring 2017 Cineaste magazine: “Fragments from the Dream World: Reminiscences of a Film Distributor and Exhibitor.” And I also read Cynthia Rowell’s article: “The New Yorker Stories: Dan Talbot’s Life in Film” on the magazine’s website
In the Cineaste article, Dan writes brilliantly about his memories of the world of international and repertory cinema and about his relationships with of some of the great auteurs he has encountered. His descriptions of life at the New Yorker Theater, which he ran until 1973 (when I was still a NJ high school student) make me wish I had been in the audience for the incredible series and premieres. Truly, our cultural landscape would have been much emptier without his heroic — even herculean — efforts to introduce American audiences to such great filmmakers as Zhang Yimou, Ousmane Sembene, Alain Tanner, Louis Malle and so many others.
New Yorker Films honored those and other filmmakers, not only in the company’s gorgeous printed catalogs but also in a long line of photographs that stretched many yards down the right-hand wall of the company’s office when I worked there. These 8x10 photos were covered by long sheets of lucite that could be opened so that the order of the images could be rearranged. If Claude Lanzmann were coming by, his photo would quickly be moved to the number one spot.
The appreciation by Cynthia Rowell (a good friend, who worked with us at Milestone Films for years before joining New Yorker and now Cineaste) updates and contextualizes Dan’s great contributions to cinema in the US. She writes about how New Yorker helped fuel the flowering of film societies and independent cinemas because programmers could rely on the “New Yorker seal of approval.” And she rightly highlights the importance of Dan’s work in promoting films with strong political messages from around the world.
And although I really enjoyed these narratives, I came away asking one question:
“But, where is Jose Lopez?”
Because when I think about the New Yorker Films I worked at — and later worked with for decades — my very first thoughts are about Jose.
When I started at New Yorker, I worked as assistant to Dan and Jose — and as liaison between the distribution company and the three theaters that Dan owned or was partner in: the Cinema Studio, Metro, and Lincoln Plaza. The New Yorker Films office was on the top floor of a building at 16 West 61st Street between Broadway and Amsterdam and featured high ceilings, skylights and an open floor plan. In a previous incarnation, the space had been an automobile assembly facility. After being buzzed in the door, you faced a long reception desk and to your left was a cubicle featuring a desk, some filing cabinets and partition walls — which is where Jose worked. I sat at the assistant’s desk — just beyond the wall on the far side of Jose’s area. Facing me was Dan’s office, a separate room that featured a large glass window and a door.
When he was in the office, Dan had me working on contracts, correspondence, and sending telexes (Google this if you haven’t used one. And here is a photo of one.
This was before the Internet when international communication was a challenge. I was working at New Yorker when the company acquired its first fax machine, years later). But Dan came and went on his own schedule and even as his assistant, I often did not know when or if he would be in. In fact, that picture window into Dan’s office could be deceiving. It was not floor to ceiling, so several times I (and others) walked in to what looked like an empty office with the lights out, and almost stumbled on the six-foot-plus Dan Talbot, stretched out for a nap on the carpeted floor.
Jose was always, always there and always moving. When he stopped by my desk, I would assist him by writing marquee copy; contacting the theater mangers to make sure they had trailers, one-sheets, and 35mm prints; reporting box office; or proofreading ad copy. Then he would set off at a trot to check on problems in accounting or the office screening room or the shipping department or with the catalog layout. Very often, when we all left at the end of the day (there were eight or nine of us on staff at that time) he would still be at his desk or rushing off to the theaters to solve other problems. Jose lived on the Upper West Side and came in evenings, weekends, and holidays. He was the hardest working person I have ever known.
He was also funny and kind. Jose grew up in Cuba and although his English was excellent, he occasionally made mistakes that were both brilliant and hilarious. If you had to get over something, it was “water over the bridge.” My favorite was one that took me a while to figure out. When we started dating, my future husband Dennis was working at rival film company, Kino International. Jose heard about our romance and suggested that I might “pull a Camille.” It was only my familiarity with the films of Greta Garbo that allowed me to decipher that one. Jose was not suggesting I die of consumption, but was hoping I would take on the role of Mata Hari and learn a bit about Kino’s acquisition plans.
I am tempted to say that Jose was like the energizer bunny or that he was the heart of the company, but both those metaphors fail to account for how incredibly smart, competent and just encyclopedically knowledgeable he was about every aspect of film exhibition and distribution. Everyone relied on him all the time — for everything. Do you have a problem with the booking software? Ask Jose. Is there broken popcorn machine at the Cinema Studio? Jose will know how to fix that. Does a filmmaker need an advance on royalties? Jose will get a check cut. Is an exhibitor taking forever to pay? Ask Jose. Lab problems? Aspect ratio questions? Publicity concerns? Video production glitches? Everyone turned to him for everything.
Even years after Dennis and I had founded Milestone, we still would sometimes call Jose for advice. And he always welcomed our questions and really tried to help. That warmth and connection also made him a great boss and a great mentor.
When I was at New Yorker, I sometimes thought that in their partnership, Dan was the quintessential “dad” — both king of the castle and procurer of the household bacon (which for New Yorker meant attending festivals, meeting with filmmakers and sales agents, and acquiring new films). And Jose was “mom,” sensitive to the situations of all the kids/staff, constantly multi-tasking, incredibly hard-working, and somewhat unseen and under-appreciated by the outside world.
Well, decades later I am a mom — and co-owner of a mom-and-pop distribution company — so my perspective has evolved. I can see that both men loved the films themselves and that their dedication to cinema fueled their collaboration and gave their partnership tenacity. Dan’s role — representing the company and establishing it as a vital cultural voice and resource — was essential and suited his personality and many talents. I recognize too that Jose thrived on solving the million-and-one problems and challenges of keeping a business going.
I remember that despite his warmth and boundless energy, Jose is shy. I found exactly one photo of him online and it was taken another New Yorker alum, Reid Rosefelt (The photo above is a better image, also courtesy of Reid). I don’t really know if Jose will like that I am writing about him now
But as a working film distributor for so many years, I also know that what Jose did at New Yorker Films was absolutely essential to its excellence and success. And I know that I, and dozens of other working film professionals, owe him so much. I know that I can never fully thank him all his kindness and wisdom — but I offer this blog in partial payment.
As many of our friends and customers know, Dennis and I started Milestone Films shortly after our wedding in 1990. So, for more than 26 years we have been a team — with all that word implies: a romantic duo, a yoked pair pulling mightily to move our enterprise along, a merry band of players (sports or theater, you pick), parents, and allies.
Dennis has previously blogged about his “other love,” filmmaker Shirley Clarke. Over the last 8+ years, he has worked tirelessly to research the work and life of this brilliant artist — along with restoring her groundbreaking and transgressive feature films and a bonanza of amazing shorts (now available as The Magic Box). As a film fan, I have cheered on and supported his efforts (okay, I may have occasionally raised an eyebrow at the costs of his encyclopedic endeavor) and as a wife I was glad that my competition was cinematic rather than sinful.
Now, Dennis has a new sweetheart — glorious ballerina Anna Pavlova, star of Lois Weber’s 1916 epic, The Dumb Girl of Portici. I believe he has amassed some two dozen books on Her Loveliness, as well as other assorted ephemera. And if I have to have a rival, I am glad she was such a transcendent artist that Australian chefs created a luscious dessert in her honor. I’m not chopped liver, but I have yet to inspire a meringue and fruit extravaganza.
And Dennis too has a rival — and a living one at that. Like Dennis, my side guy, Bernie Sanders is brilliant, Jewish, moral, strong, passionate, articulate, and balding. I worked for the Sanders campaign, ran for Freeholder (a county-wide board) to insure he got a column on the primary ballot, and even represented Bernie as a member of the credentials committee at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July. And while I can joke about lovely ladies Clarke and Pavlova, I find I cannot be funny or glib about Bernie. My experience at the Democratic Convention was probably the most painful I had experienced since the death of my father.
But as difficult as I found Bernie Sanders’ defeat in Philadelphia, the election of Donald Trump has been a thousand times more devastating, heartbreaking, disappointing and frightening.
On the night of the Presidential election, Dennis and I were in Pittsburgh for the annual convention of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Since he had a presentation the next morning, we had gone to sleep around midnight, guessing but not entirely sure of the outcome. At 2:30 AM our son called from his college dorm room, terribly upset. And whether it because he couldn’t fix things for our kid or because he was half asleep, Dennis fainted, hitting his head on a granite sink surround. Long story short: hotel security called the EMTs and we ended up in an ambulance to Mercy Hospital where Dennis’s head wound was glued and he was given a clean bill of health.
And strangely, this surreal night was actually a great reminder for me of what is most important. Because while I may be unable to change the course of our country (although I tried!), I do have allies, partisans, comrades with whom I can try to face the coming days — foremost, my husband/partner, Dennis and our son, Adam.
It was also inspiring to be among the great members of AMIA — folks who have dedicated their lives and careers to preserving precious records of the past and who are idealistic, quirky, and wonderful.
At Milestone, Dennis and I have tried to choose films that are great cinema, enjoyable entertainment and exciting history, but that also reflect our own ethics, politics, and values. So, come what may, we will keep pulling at that harness together to advance our company and all that we hope it represents and preserves.
And we want you to know that you, our friends, colleagues, and customers are part of that effort. So, “Vive la résistance!”
And while we are at it, “Long live cinema!”
The real Shirley Clarke
In the twenty-five years that we have been running Milestone Films, we have never before reviewed or commented publicly on anyone else’s film—except to recommend it. But we have now encountered a new feature film that purports to “satirize” a film and a filmmaker we represent and have spent years researching. While we are absolute believers in freedom of speech and artistic expression and do not dispute that the producers, writers and stars of Jason and Shirley have every right to make their “re-vision” of the making of Shirley Clarke’s great documentary Portrait of Jason, we feel we must go on the record about the film’s inaccurate and simplistic portrayals of a brilliant filmmaker and her charismatic subject.
Director Stephen Winter (and co-writers Sarah Schulman and Jack Waters) have created a fictitious drama that imagines what might have happened on December 3, 1966 when Shirley Clarke spent twelve hours with Jason Holliday, Carl Lee, Jeri Sopanen, Jim Hubbard and Bob Fiore shooting Portrait of Jason. The filmmakers claim the right to re-imagine the events that took place in that Hotel Chelsea apartment, but they fail to understand something that Shirley Clarke knew and conveyed in all her films: the need for integrity.
Clarke’s first feature, The Connection, a fiction film based partly on real people, has enormous respect for all its characters, an understanding of humanity, and a love for cinema. Shirley knew that a genuine artist values inner truth, whether the film is a documentary or a dramatic feature. And of course, Shirley did not use real names. She knew that when you use real people’s names and identities, you need to seek and explore the truth in all its complexities. Ornette: Made in America, a film that she and Ornette Coleman were very proud to create, is an example of Clarke’s quest for meaning and authenticity.
We at Milestone are now in the seventh year of “Project Shirley,” our ongoing commitment to learn everything about Clarke as a director, an artist and a person. With the cooperation of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater and the Clarke estate, we have digitized nearly one hundred of her features, short films, outtakes, unfinished projects, home movies, and experimental films and videos. We have gone through thousands of pages of letters, contracts, and Shirley’s diaries. We have interviewed and talked to dozens of people who knew and worked with her.
We have heard wonderful stories, tragic stories, and stories of such real pain that they are almost unbearable. Shirley Clarke was a sister, wife, mother, dancer, lover, filmmaker, editor, teacher, and yes, for a sad period, a junkie. It wasn’t intended, but along the way we fell in love with Shirley and came to feel that we owed it to her to create a portrait of a real woman and an artist. Shirley’s daughter Wendy Clarke and her extended family have supported our efforts every step of the way, encouraging us to reveal what is true, for better or worse. We have shared our discoveries with the world in theaters, on television, on DVD and Blu-Ray, in lectures — and in our exhaustive press kits (available on our website, free for everyone).
We have strived for the highest levels of accuracy, knowing that critics, academics, bloggers, and the general public deserve and depend on our research. We corroborated all the oral histories we conducted using primary sources, including original letters, interviews, and contracts. Finally, we asked people who knew Shirley to check and proof all our work. We have shared this research with every filmmaker, scholar and critic who has asked us for information.
So it was truly agonizing for us to watch Stephen Winter’s Jason and Shirley, a film that is bad cinema and worse ethics—that cynically appropriates and parodies the identities of real people, stereotyping and humiliating them and doing disservice to their memory. The filmmakers may call it an homage, but their complete lack of research and their numerous factual errors and falsehoods have betrayed everyone who was involved in making Portrait of Jason.
Winter and his team call their film an “imagination” of the night (although they stage the filming during the day) of December 3, when Shirley Clarke shot Portrait of Jason. But interestingly, they only use the real names of those participants who have died: Clarke, Jason Holliday and Carl Lee (perhaps because you cannot libel the dead). They did not interview the people who were on the set that long night and who are still around—filmmakers Bob Fiore and Jim Hubbard.
They also chose not to work with Shirley’s daughter, artist and filmmaker Wendy Clarke, whom they never bothered to contact (and go out of their way to mock in the film). Jason and Shirley even features a title card in the closing credits thanking Wendy, implying that she has given her approval for the film. In truth, Wendy’s response, when she finally saw Jason and Shirley, was: “I don’t want people seeing this film to think there is any truth to it. This film tells nasty lies and is a parasitic attempt to gain prominence from true genius.”
Similarly, the filmmakers never asked us at Milestone for access to the reams of documents we have discovered from the making of Portrait of Jason. Instead, they preferred to pretend to know what happened, to create their own “Shirley Clarke,” “Carl Lee,” and “Jason Holliday,” rather than try to create honest and respectful portraits of these very real people.
Lazy filmmakers make bad movies and Jason and Shirley is false, flaccid, and boring—unforgivable cinematic sins. Perhaps its most egregious and painful crime is taking the strong, brilliant woman that Shirley Clarke truly was and portraying her as a lumpy, platitude-spouting Jewish hausfrau—an inept cineaste who doesn’t know what she is doing and eventually needs her boyfriend to “save” the film for her. In service of their alleged investigation into race relations (a topic Shirley explored far better with her powerful and intelligent films The Connection, The Cool World, Portrait of Jason and Ornette: Made in America), they reduced her to a sexist cliché—the little woman—and a tedious cliché at that.
Shirley Clarke was wild, creative, brilliant, graceful, challenging, incredibly stylish, vibrant, and alive with the possibilities of life. At home at the center of many creative circles in New York City and around the world, she was adored by countless admirers—despite (or sometimes because of) her faults and failings. And Shirley is still loved by those who remember her—the people who worked on her films, her friends, her family, and the audiences who are rediscovering her great films. She was incredibly special. The misshapen caricature of Clarke in Jason and Shirley insults and trivializes a great artist and pioneer.
We also find “Jason” in Winter’s film to be a one-dimensional and disrespectful distortion of the very complicated man who was born Aaron Payne in 1924. Jason Holliday’s life was difficult in many ways—as a gay black man he experienced police harassment, poverty, family rejection, imprisonment, painful self-doubt, and innumerable varieties of personal and institutional racism. But he was also vibrantly an original, a self-invented diva, a survivor, and a raconteur of the first order who was the inspiration for his own cinematic Portrait. Shirley decided to make her film in order to explore this extraordinary Scheherazade’s 1001 stories—and the fragile line between his reminiscences and his inventions.
And truly, it is not easy to tell what was real and what was not in Jason’s life. In his “Autobiography” (reprinted in Milestone’s press kit), Holliday talked about appearing on Broadway in “Carmen Jones,” “Finian’s Rainbow,” and “Green Pastures” and about performing his nightclub act in Greenwich Village. And while much of his narrative may seem improbable, the Trenton Historical Society found newspaper articles from the 1950s corroborating Jason’s claim that he was a performer at New York’s Salle de Champagne. So did he study acting with Charles Laughton and dance with Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham? We may never know. But the man who spun those marvelous yarns was not the alternately maniacal and weepy loser in Jason and Shirley.
Here are just a few of the other things that are obviously, carelessly and offensively wrong in Jason and Shirley:
The filmmakers have labeled Jason and Shirley a satirical work of fiction. We are just not sure who or what they claim to be satirizing. The film is not ironic, humorous, sardonic or tongue-in-cheek. We can only surmise that they are deliberately parodying the idea of cinematic integrity.
On behalf of Milestone, Wendy Clarke, and Shirley Clarke’s extended family and friends, we respectfully ask film fans not to base their appraisal of Clarke and her filmmaking on the unkind depictions in Jason and Shirley.
Yours in cinema,
Amy Heller and Dennis Doros