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!”
For release October 17, 2016
Mary Pickford Foundation and Milestone Films end distribution partnership
Milestone Film & Video, Inc. thanks Mary Pickford Foundation for the opportunity to distribute the films in the library of the Mary Pickford Foundation for the past twenty years.
All inquiries concerning the Mary Pickford collection should now be directed to Elaina Archer of Mary Pickford Foundation at 310-339-3921.
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
NATIONAL SOCIETY OF FILM CRITICS VOTES FORTY-SEVENTH ANNUAL AWARDS
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!
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…