News | Milestone Films

National Society of Film Critics Film Heritage Award to Project Shirley!

Posted on January 06, 2013 by Dennis Doros | 0 Comments

January 5, 2013


• To Laurence Kardish, Senior Film Curator at MoMA, for his extraordinary 44 years of service, including this year’s Weimar Cinema retrospective.

• To Milestone Film and Video for their ongoing Shirley Clarke project.

Milestone is thrilled to win a NSFC Film Heritage Award (our sixth since we won the very first one in 1995 for I AM CUBA) and even more so, that the films of Shirley Clarke are getting recognized by the critics once again.

And we're just as happy that our friend Larry Kardish won as well! On graduating from college, Larry's first job was at the Film-Makers Distribution Center where he was responsible for the distribution of PORTRAIT OF JASON! He went on to become the head programmer of the MoMA Film Department and has been a friend of ours since we started Milestone. Congrats to Shirley and Larry!

Posted in Ac, Academy Film Archive, Amy Heller, Association of Moving Image Archivists, chelsea hotel, Dennis Doros, documentary, historic preservation, LGBT, milestone, Milestone film, Ornette Coleman, Portrait of Jason, Shirley Clarke, The Connection

Restoring a PORTRAIT, with some help from our friends...

Posted on October 13, 2012 by Amy Heller | 0 Comments


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.

Many thanks!


*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.

Posted in Academy Film Archive, Amy Heller, Association of Moving Image Archivists, Dennis Doros, documentary, historic preservation, Kickstarter, LGBT, Portrait of Jason, Shirley Clarke

A film archivist is… (first published January 9, 2011)

Posted on March 23, 2012 by Dennis Doros | 0 Comments

Amy and I went to a (lovely) party last night [note: this blog was first published on January 9, 2011] where we didn’t know that many people that well. At every party, sooner or later, after you find out how the other person came to know their hosts, who you want in the Super Bowl this year and how freakin’ cold it’s outside, you get to the adult variation of “what’s your major?” There was somebody writing a book on America’s 1940-1942 planning for postwar policies, who also sold pharmaceuticals and scooters. Another was a principal at a Jersey City charter school. As usual, there was the range of livelihoods one associates with these parties of our age group.

When asked, our usual answer is “we distribute classic films and sometimes we get to restore them.” People are usually surprised at this, as if this isn’t a real job (like accountant or lawyer) or that they can’t imagine that a job like this can exist.

A librarian’s job is easy to understand – one sees them all the time – though they don’t get nearly the respect they deserve. And a seller of widgets or watches is also easy – you buy an item and you sell it for a higher price. An archivist is perceived as some sort of nerd who collects “things” and doesn’t share. But if considered, they must deal with books, personal papers and art.

I perceive Amy and I as amateur film archivists. We lack the official training but have had plenty of learning at the feet of the masters. Through Milestone’s work and as a longtime member of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (I’ve been a board member for the last three years), Amy and I have had the pleasure befriending moving image archivists around the world.

The following is adapted from a speech I gave last year and it’s the best I can do to describe a film archvists’ work.

First, let me tell you what I think film does best. You may disagree with me, but I’ve come to believe that films are truly great when they can do one of three things.

1)    Films that take us to unknown worlds, time and cultures (where we completely forget about the uncomfortable seats or the rude ticket taker) and leave us with a better understanding of those outside of our own experience. Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis, Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery all do this. Avatar does the first part exceedingly well but James Cameron’s depth is little more than the level of cheap cowboy and Indian B-movies. Great as entertainment, but not on the level of true cinematic greatness.
2)    Films that are so universal in their sense of humanity that we can truly empathize and understand the characters even though they at first, don’t outwardly seem like us. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Maborosi and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep can seem half-a-world apart, but they share a sense of reverence for people able to endure when life is at its most difficult. And we share it with them.
3)    Films so truthful to their setting and situations that those most closely aligned to the story dosee themselves. Daughters of the Dust and Killer of Sheep were so successful because African-American recognized themselves or saw people they swore they knew. Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles and Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals did this for Native American audiences as well. And there are so precious few movies like this that when they do occur, they are to be treasured.

In truth, the greatest films take you in and make you a part of the story. And there are many, many great films that have been part of the canon since the Museum of Modern Art established the idea in the early 1940s. Films like Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai, The Red Shoes, Jules and Jim are (and should be) part of almost every cinema course.

But what if these films are threatened by deterioration or just as bad, forgotten to history. This is where a film archivist comes in.

1)    A film archivist is a librarian but with a fedora, a whip and a sense of discovery. He is an explorer.
2)    A film archivist is a time-traveler who can discover lost worlds.

There are numbers tossed about – created from an old American Film Institute propaganda campaign to separate your money from your wallet – stating that 90% of all silent films are lost and that around 50% of all sound films are missing. It’s all lies. No one actually knows the numbers – though the very number-oriented Jon Mirsalis has counted up the number of feature silent films that were created in the United States and compared it to a list of all those that exist today in the world archives and came up with 77% of silent films are lost. Admitedly, this is still a significant and tragic number.

What’s cooler, however, is that there are films being discovered all the time. Many, like John Ford’s Upstream or the complete version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis were known to exist within the New Zealand and Argentine archives respectively, but they weren’t really “discovered” until some film archivist put a cultural value on them and brought their existence to the attention of the world. Others, such as the marvelous Mitchell and Kenyon “reality” films from early part of the 20thcentury, were miraculously discovered a hundred years later almost perfectly intact in barrels of a building about to be torn down. And watching those M&K films are incredible. They are so immediate that the people in the films seem to be actually watching you as they view them. You can see the nine-year-old children coming out of the mills at the end of the day and feel their weariness.

Film and video archives catalog, label, preserve and restore these films all day long, all year round. Archivists are dedicated to ensuring that future generations will share our moving image heritage. And they do love to share!

Moving image archivists can take you into a world a hundred years old and make you forget about the auto mechanics’ report or the bad meal you just had. You can mistake archivists for tradesmen, but they are actually time-travelers and magicians. There is wonder and honor in what they do.

Some day, I’ll write to you about AMIA, the archives and archivists we know.

Posted in Association of Moving Image Archivists


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