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.
Every now and then I read something that just makes me mad. Well, actually, it happens all the time. For instance, when North Carolina voters outlaw gay civil unions, or the state of Virginia mandates ultrasounds for women seeking abortions, or Mitt Romney talks about understanding black people because his forefathers owned slaves…
But then occasionally I will read something that totally pisses me off. And that happened last Sunday. My husband (and partner in crime and Milestone), Dennis Doros, pointed out an article in the New York Times by Steven Greenhouse about unpaid internships, entitled “Jobs Few, Grads Flock to Unpaid Internships.”
Reading Greenhouse’s article, I learned that thanks to a jobless rate of 9.4 percent for college graduates ages 24 and under, many folks are taking unpaid work. The rationale behind these internships, Greenhouse explains, is that in exchange for volunteer labor, the employer provides education and connections. But (BIG surprise spoiler here) this is not always the case!
Greenhouse writes about one unpaid intern who worked 60 hours a week for a fashion designer doing what was essentially grunt work — ordering lunch and cleaning closets. Another former intern sued Fox Searchlight for violating minimum wage laws.
The article concludes with the story of Joyce Lee, a Wesleyan grad now working at a coffee shop in NYC while she makes her own film. Lee worked six internships in LA, including one where she read scripts and picked up mail for a Hollywood mogul. “Scott Rudin is made of money. I don’t think it would be so hard for him to pay five interns the minimum wage,” she noted, adding “If I ever become a famous filmmaker, I promise I will pay my interns.”
This practice of unpaid internships makes me crazy. Companies “hire” smart, talented and qualified grads for free and these highly employable young people take these internships because there are no real jobs. And why are there no jobs? Because employers can get people to work for nothing.
This is madness on so many levels. And it is just plain wrong.
As you may know, Milestone consists (at the moment) of the aforementioned D. Doros and myself. We work in the basement of our home. In the past, we have had staff, but right now, we just can’t afford the overhead (and if you saw how low the ceilings are in this basement, you would laugh at the irony). So, guess what? We do all the work ourselves! We pick up the mail, ship out the packages and scrub the john. Paraphrasing Arlo Guthrie in “Alice’s Restaurant,” we’re not proud, or tired…
We do hire summer student interns, and guess what? We PAY them. Yup. Why? Because it is wrong to ask people to work for free. Period.
And do we ask our (admittedly, not very highly) paid interns to do the least interesting most menial work at Milestone? Nope. We figure that they are with us to learn and we do everything we can to make their time with us educational and productive. Even fun, sometimes.
We ask our interns to do things like research and write press materials, design websites, edit trailers and produce DVDs. And when they do (we have had amazingly bright and talented interns!), we give them credit for their work. We also invite them to press screenings, introduce them to filmmakers and other film folks, ask them to screen film submissions and (often) buy them lunch.
Of course, we can be annoying and boring and not all our interns have loved their time at Milestone. Hell, we annoy ourselves (and each other) sometimes! And sometimes we do ask interns to file invoices or move boxes. Hey, it’s a job.
It’s a job that we have been working at for almost 22 years. And somehow, we still love our work — even the mundane stuff. Okay, maybe not cleaning the cat boxes…
By the way, if you haven’t guessed, Dennis and I are somewhat lower down on the financial and industry totem pole than Scott Rudin. In fact, I would guess we are pretty close to the bottom of that pillar. But saving a few thousand dollars by ripping off high school and college students doesn’t seem like it would rocket us to the heights of the film business.
Let me end by thanking the many terrific young men and women we have had the opportunity to employ and get to know over the years. Some have gone on to work in the film business (a DVD producer in NYC, head of an animation company, an independent filmmaker in LA) and others are improving the world in other ways (administrator of post-Katrina school in New Orleans, a nursing student organizing a “Rebellious Nursing” conference). We are grateful for all they have added to our company and our lives.
You know, paying your employees can be very rewarding…
Once upon a time (1990), Milestone Films
operated out of a one bedroom apartment in Manhattan — which we (my
husband/partner Dennis Doros and I) also lived in. Then, after five years in
the distribution business, we decided it was time to go into production. Our
first, and only creation is now a sixteen-year-old high school student.
As my pregnancy advanced, we realized that the only way we would be able to add a crib to our cozy abode would be to get rid of the photocopier. So, since we were going to need to reproduce in more ways than one, Dennis and I rented an apartment in the charming (and not too pricey) Riverdale section of the Bronx — keeping our Upper West Side apartment as the Milestone office. After four years, we examined our ever-rising (non-stabilized) rent bill and decided that we could buy a house for the amount we were paying for the two apartments.
We were wrong about that calculation, as it turns out, and it took us a long time to find a house, but eventually we did. So we moved both home and office to the semi-wilds of New Jersey.
And with the added space (and a growing son too), the stuff expanded... more furniture, more tchotchkes, more bookshelves and of course, more books.
Now cinephiles are often bibliophiles as well, and alas, Dennis and I both have a weakness for bookstores. And of course we also amassed VHS tapes and later DVDs and more recently Blu-rays. Our son shares the book bug and has his own library as well as an impressive natural history display of minerals and other exotica. And sadly, when my father died two years ago, we had to make room for boxes and boxes of photos of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, siblings, and a few unidentifiable folks.
Our new digs also had a finished basement for our business and two garages — one for the obligatory suburban car (later cars) and another for business supplies and records.
Now, there is an accumulation that naturally (or unnaturally) comes from running a business. You have files of research materials, designs, ads, reviews, contracts, invoices, bills, letters and all kinds of miscellany. Now imagine the ephemera generated by some 200+ films over 22 years. And remember, we here at Milestone are infamous for our insanely over-researched press kits (click here to check them out for yourself). So yes, we have generated — and kept — a lot of STUFF.
People generally said to come in contrasting types: cat people vs. dog people; Republicans vs. Democrats; Mets fans vs. Yankees fans; Occupy Wall Streeters vs. Tea Party members and collectors vs. dumpers. And in our family, we are united on pets (both cats AND dogs), politics (Democrats/Occupiers), and baseball (Mets no matter what), but we are divided on STUFF. The esteemed men in my life love to collect, while I (usually) want to dump, recycle, and purge.
However... I studied to be a historian and I have put in my time in archives going through boxes of old letters and press clippings. Recently, I helped raise awareness to get preservation status for a 100+ year-old church in our neighboring town. And our company, Milestone is dedicated to rediscovering, restoring and reintroducing old films.
Dennis and I know full well and personally that bits of paper can radically change the way we understand the past and even the present. Going through the papers of Lewis Allen, the producer of our latest restoration release, The Connection, Dennis discovered that the independent film was financed by a bevy of small investors. And guess who put money into this film adaptation of a notorious downtown play about junkies and jazz — a play that included the word "shit” and was banned by the NY State Board of Regents? The parents of uber-conservative ex-presidential candidate Rick Santorum!
You can't make this stuff up. And we
only know this because Lewis Allen meticulously kept his business records, all
Which leads me to my quandary. Where is the line between junk and treasure? How does one distinguish between garbage and precious historical material? And how can you tell if you are acting as an archivist or a hoarder?
And in some ways, the Internet make this even more complicated to navigate. So, okay, I feel justified in tossing mass-market objects like film magazines and catalogs, with the idea that there are copies out there in the world that other folks can digitize and put up online. But what about the (possible) monetary value of an old film festival catalog? Is it worth the time to list it on eBay?
And most pressingly, what do I do about
business records and correspondence? Do I shred it? Keep it piled up in our
storage space? Donate it to an archive? These pages may look to me like
candidates for the recycling bin, but will they be useful or even instructive
to researchers in years to come?
One final thought: garage sales. Here in the burbs they are everywhere and our family enjoys them. While it can be fascinating to peek into other people’s homes and lives, mostly what you find at these sales is a dreary collection of outdated objects — most worn, faded and sad. But, once in a while you find treasures for a song. Here are photos of two artworks I discovered at garage sales in our sleepy neck of northern NJ.
The first drawing, of the disassembled telephone, I discovered hidden under a black piece of paper after I opened up the frame I had purchased to put a photograph in. The lovely illustration on the right I found in a pile of discarded artworks by the daughter of the family running the sale. These were objects no one valued (I probably paid less than $10 for both), but now bring me pleasure every day.
So, I remain in limbo... and a most uncomfortable spot indeed (although perhaps less painful than being on the horns of dilemma). But if you happen to know of a nice archive looking for documentation of late 20th century film distribution, please send them our way. I have quite a few boxes they might like…
DANCER, bride, runaway wife, radical filmmaker and pioneer — Shirley Clarke is one of the great undertold stories of American independent cinema. A woman working in a predominantly male world, a white director who turned her camera on black subjects, she was a Park Avenue rich girl who willed herself to become a dancer and a filmmaker, ran away to bohemia, hung out with the Beats and held to her own vision in triumph and defeat. She helped inspire a new film movement and made urgently vibrant work that blurs fiction and nonfiction, only to be marginalized, written out of histories and dismissed as a dilettante. She died in 1997 at 77 and is long overdue for a reappraisal.
On Friday a new print of her first feature, “The Connection,” gorgeously preserved by the U.C.L.A. Film & Television Archive, opens at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village. The film is the first release in a multiyear endeavor by Milestone Films called the Shirley Clarke Project or, as the archivist and distributor Dennis Doros likes to put it, Project Shirley. Over the next few years Mr. Doros and Amy Heller, his wife and partner at Milestone, will distribute new and restored copies, followed by DVDs, of Clarke’s three documentary features: “Robert Frost: A Quarrel with the World” (1963), “Portrait of Jason”(1967) and “Ornette: Made in America” (1985), about the jazz great Ornette Coleman. A selection of her shorts will be included on the DVDs, giving viewers a chance to dig into Clarke’s legacy.
Her story is complex and contradictory and her life shot through with strange fissures, one of the biggest being “The Connection.” The original play, written by Jack Gelber and first performed at the Living Theater in 1959, partly turns on a writer and producer who are mounting a theatrical experiment in which the actors are ostensibly played by real addicts, some true philosophers of the needle. The addicts, including a jazz quartet, are waiting for their heroin “connection,” the silky smooth-talker Cowboy. “If everything goes right,” says the producer, who also brings in two cameramen, “you will be able to see the film version of this play.” Clarke must have loved that line.
The play was savaged by most of the mainstream critics when it opened but soon became a downtown hit and crossover sensation. Leonard Bernstein, Anita Loos, Salvador Dalí and Lillian Hellman, who likened it to “a fine time at the circus,” were among those who trooped to 14th Street to watch a pustule-ridden addict called Leach slide the needle in. There were those who were doubtless attracted by the noise and notoriety, the twitching addicts, scatting expletives, gutter realism and cool jazz. Some spectators wondered if the dope was real. The painter Larry Rivers related that it was. Perhaps the drama’s most important admirer was the theater critic Kenneth Tynan, then at The New Yorker, who found it “the most exciting new American play that Off Broadway has produced since the war.”
At the time Tynan was married to Clarke’s middle sister, the writer Elaine Dundy. In her blunt 2001 memoir, “Life Itself!,” Dundy, who died in 2008, recalls that Clarke was fascinated by “The Connection” but couldn’t see how to make it work on screen. Her idea was to turn it into a film within a film featuring a white director, Jim Dunn (William Bedfield) who, with a black cameraman, the ponderously named J. J. Burden (Roscoe Brown), is making a documentary about addicts. Much would remain the same — most of the cast, the patois (“you dig”) and an addict shooting up — but now would be immortalized in shimmery celluloid.
The eldest of three daughters, Clarke (née Brimberg) grew up in New York with chauffeurs and governesses, and “The Connection” looked as if it were as far from her world as the moon. Her maternal grandfather, Heyman Rosenberg, invented the self-tapping screw, and her father, Samuel Nathaniel Brimberg, became rich first in clothing and later in metal and steel. Dundy wrote that their life was privileged but scarcely contented because of their father’s temper and physical abuse. “Coming home every afternoon was like returning to a prison where my father was the warden, we sisters the inmates and my mother the snitch.” Clarke stood up to their father, but his disapproval led her, Dundy maintained, “to seek more and more dangerous ways of rebelling against him.”
Art was a way out. Clarke became a dancer in her teens, switching from ballet to modern. She gave college a try, more than once; studied with Martha Graham; performed here and there; and, at 21, became the president of the National Dance Association. She married a lithographer-publisher, Bert Clarke, and in 1944 had a daughter, Wendy. By the early 1950s her interest had gravitated to cinema, and she made her first short, “Dance in the Sun” (1953), with inherited money and a 16-millimeter camera that had been a wedding present. She must have cut quite the figure, to judge from a profile of the “petite and dynamic young Manhattan matron” that ran in The New York Times in 1955.
“Why, mused Mrs. Clarke, shouldn’t a trained dancer, with an itching curiosity about movies, energy galore and no experience, try her luck?” Why not, indeed! Sitting in the garden of her apartment, she explained to the reporter from The Times, Howard Thompson, her newfound artistic bent. “I wanted to learn film technique, so Bert, my husband, and I and some friends decided to organize our own class and hire one master.” She sounds a little silly, this “lady with a lens,” but she was a talented learner, and ambitious. She took film classes at City College and directed more shorts, including “Bullfight” (1955), with the dancer Anna Sokolow. Another short film, “Skyscraper” (1959), which she made with two documentarians, earned her an Oscar nomination.
That same year Jonas Mekas, writing in his increasingly influential journal Film Culture, inaugurated an anti-Oscar called the Independent Film Award, which he created to signal “the entrance of a new generation of filmmakers into American cinema.” There had always been independent cinema in America, an off-Hollywood; now there was also a movement. Equipped with more portable film tools and faster stock, and influenced by foreign cinema and the world beyond, filmmakers like John Cassavetes (Clarke lent him equipment for his first feature, “Shadows”) were changing the way movies were made in America. In September 1960, 23 movers and shakers — Clarke was the lone woman — founded the New American Cinema, an American New Wave. By November she was shooting “The Connection.”
Ingeniously Clarke and her co-producer, Lewis Allen, a theater insider and another New American Cinema dissident, bankrolled the film by selling limited partnerships to around 200 small investors, a practice common in theater though not in film. “We feel,” Allen and Clarke explained in a prospectus, citing the French New Wave as an example, “that there is a relatively large market in this country (there certainly is in Europe) for unique and different motion pictures, with an individual point of view, made on a very low budget.” Among the investors were Norman Mailer ($250), the architect Philip Johnson ($5,000) and, curiously, Rick Santorum’s parents, Dr. Aldo Santorum and Catherine D. Santorum ($500). (Both worked at veterans’ hospitals and might have treated addicts.)
Clarke shot “The Connection” in 20 days, coming in under the $177,000 budget, a relatively modest amount in the predigital era. She edited it herself, punctuating the talk and nodding, shuffling action with swish pans that blur the visuals and look like what you might see as a dancer when you execute a turn. The swish pans call attention to the filmmaking, underscoring its artifice, as do the way the addicts talk directly into the camera, like belligerent drunks. As one drones on in what feels like a parody of documentary tedium, the camera shifts to a roach crawling up a wall, a harshly comic encapsulation of an addict scuttling after the next fix.
The early reviews were promising, and “The Connection” was shown out of competition at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival to acclaim and some notoriety because, Clarke said, “the ‘Beat’ Americans in Europe came to Cannes to support us.” Allen Ginsberg’s biographer Bill Morgan writes that one of Les Beatniks, Gregory Corso, arrived with his pockets full of heroin. (They were soon empty.) Whether Clarke was doing drugs is unclear, but after Cannes she ran off with Carl Lee, an African-American, who plays Cowboy and was, Dundy wrote, a drug user. According to Dundy, Clarke said she took drugs to be on the “same glorious wavelength” as Lee.
Clarke began working on “The Cool World,” about teenage toughs in Harlem, in the fall of 1961, right around when “The Connection” was busted by the smut police. At that time New York State required movies to be licensed by a board of censors before they could be publically exhibited. The board refused to issue a license to “The Connection,” deeming it obscene because of a peek at a girlie magazine and a vulgarity that’s a synonym for heroin. A year later it was shown without a license and promptly shut down. Perhaps bored with the fuss or just contrary, the critics sank their teeth into the film. The Court of Appeals reversed the decision, but the damage was done.
“My backers had to be satisfied with sponsoring artistic successes,” Clarke said years later, “because they never saw their money again.” Then as now distribution was one of the most intractable obstacles for independents, the difference being that Clarke was working at a time when there was nothing like the indie film infrastructure that exists today. She and Mr. Mekas tried to address this lack when they helped form the film rental library, the Film-Makers Cooperative, and the more commercial, shorter-lived Film-Makers’ Distribution Center. In truth, as the dud box office for “The Cool World” suggests, she didn’t make movies that could hit the white art-house sweet spot. (The rights to the movie are owned by the documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who, alas, hasn’t put it out on DVD.)
That didn’t stop Clarke. After a detour with Robert Frost, she made “Portrait of Jason,” a stunning nonfiction film about a black gay hustler that’s nearly all monologue and is alternately a confessional, a burlesque and a tragedy, and followed that up with “Ornette: Made in America.” She tried to make more movies, fell hard for video, lived in the penthouse at the Chelsea Hotel, visited Los Angeles (and stayed), taught film and got herself clean. She was rediscovered and celebrated anew and later developed Alzheimer’s disease and died after suffering a stroke. She was forgotten by too many, and not a single book has been written about her. “The Connection” signaled the beginning of a new period in her life, and just maybe it will again bring her the acclaim she has always deserved.