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Living with history

Posted on March 23, 2012 by Amy Heller | 1 Comment

"History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future." — Robert Penn Warren

Here at Milestone, we are constantly grappling with history. Whenever we choose to restore a film, we try to research and explore every aspect of the filmmaker's time and work. We study the participants' biographies, the social mores and political landscape of the time and even the day-to-day minutia of the filmmaking process. It is exhilarating and exhausting and essential. 

When it all comes together, the end result is that a film—a sliver of the past—is restored and re-introduced to the public. And amazingly, that small act can have a powerful impact—on individuals and on current political debates. When we released Kent Mackenzie's great documentary THE EXILES, the film gave one of the participants the chance to tell her children and grandchildren about her own bittersweet experience of being a young Native American woman living in 1960s Los Angeles. Our release of WINTER SOLDIER introduced Iraqi war veterans struggling with PTSD to the Vietnam vets who confronted similar demons thirty years before. And inspired and empowered by the example of these men, Iraq Veterans Against the War went on to hold their own "Winter Soldier" antiwar hearings. 

But this is not a blog about films. This blog is about a church—a very special and historical church.



The Centennial AME Zion Church is located in the back of the K-Mart in our neighboring town of Closter, NJ. You could drive by it a thousand times and never stop to wonder what it is and how it got there—I know, because I have. But thanks to a few civic-minded residents, the church was recently proposed for landmark status by the town's Historical Preservation Commission. 

And the Church has an amazing history. The Centennial AME Zion Church was founded in 1894 by the descendants of freed slaves and is still in operation today. The church's founders had ties to the community of Skunk Hollow, an all-black community of freed slaves that began in 1806. And Bishop Alexander Walters, who went on become a leader of the NAACP, officiated at the church's dedication in 1896.

On March 7, the Closter Planning Board met and voted against historic designation of the church. They were, it seems, worried about the effect of the church's landmark status on the redevelopment of the K-Mart strip mall.

This was when Dennis and I first heard about the church's history, the preservation drive and the "no" vote from a friend on the plucky Historic Preservation Commission. 

A million years ago (or so it feels), I attended graduate school in history, where I mostly learned how to be a gadfly. So I took my education (at Yale, in film and in life), and got busy. First, I launched a petition drive on the website Change.org. Whenever anyone signs the petition online (at http://www.change.org/petitions/urgent-please-sign-today-to-help-save-the-centennial-ame-zion-church), the mayor and six council members of Closter receive an email. As of today, March 23, they have received more than 600. [So, please take a minute and sign it too. Thanks!]

I also emailed a friend and fellow survivor of Yale, now living abroad. She joined the cause with enthusiasm and wrote a series of blogs on the church for the DailyKos.com. She and I also both posted notices on an African-American studies listserve. 

Did this all have an effect? Boy oh boy. On March 14, after the mayor and council had been flooded with emails, the council voted unanimously to move the proposal to the next step. And the March 14 meeting was wonderful. Reverend Richard Collins vigorously voiced the Centennial AME Zion Church's support for landmark status. Dr. Arnold Brown, a local African-American scholar, spoke about the importance of recognizing the history of this church, noting that his own ancestors had lived in Skunk Hollow and were among the first members of the church. William Cahill, former borough historian and former chairman of the Closter Historic Preservation Commission, stated that when we think of history in this area, we often think of the Dutch sandstone houses, but we forget that these buildings were actually built by African slaves. He movingly pleaded with the council to preserve this church. I spoke too, and presented copies of the Change.org petition to all the council members. Maggie Harrer, director of the Waterworks Conservancy and notable historian from the nearby town of Oradell, spoke about the history of the church and the importance of preserving it.

And the council's go-ahead is great, but it does not mean that the property is currently designated historic, nor does it insure that it someday will be. So, we are continuing. At the meeting, several council members remarked on the flood of emails they are getting, so we see that we have their attention, and we want to encourage them to remain steadfast. 

I also decided to start a Facebook page for the cause and realized that I needed to see and photograph the church in action—which meant visiting at the end of a Sunday service. That was a great experience for me. It is one thing to see a nice little white building, but it is something else again to witness how much it means to the congregation that calls it home. When I was speaking with Jerald Furman, the usher at the church, he told me that he has been attending it since he was five. It turns out that we both graduated from the same high school—he's a couple of years older than I am (and I'm in my mid-50s), so you can do the math. Also, our hometown was not around the corner, so even as a young kid he was making the trek to attend the Centennial AME Zion Church. That said a lot to me. I hope my photos of capture a little of all that: (http://www.facebook.com/savecentennialamezionchurchcloster). 


Posted in Centennial AME Zion Church, historic preservation, history, landmark status

Green Acres vs. Big Apple?

Posted on March 23, 2012 by Amy Heller | 0 Comments

  

When we moved from NYC to NJ twelve years ago, we missed the excitement and creativity of the city. We still do.

But we have loved the beauty of the 'burbs. And while we enjoy the daffodils (springing up now and even occasionally deigning to bloom) and the deer (who eat everything except the aforementioned daffodils), the one local phenomenon that never fails to thrill me is the weeping cherry tree in our neighbor's yard. It is the largest cherry tree I have ever seen, easily three stories tall. And when the flowers fall (all too soon) wind carries them into our yard in a snowstorm of petals.

It is almost like living next door to the Grand Canyon or the Alps. But this natural wonder occurs just for a few days every March.

Posted in cherry tree, New Jersey, spring

Thoughts on a career in film (first published in November 2011)

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

 

Coming home after Ohio University (and leaving as head of its film society) in 1983, I found myself working in cigarette sales in Irvington, New Jersey. The work and the customers were somewhat devoid of the cultural leanings I had experienced in college and I longed for the days when I could rent a new 16mm print of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and run it again and again before the doors opened to the theater that evening. That's when I discovered the world of home video which was just reaching the suburbs at that time. There was a little store called Video Station in Summit, New Jersey and I would bicycle up a rather large hill (the reason for the town's name) every couple days to look at its wonders. There were VHS tapes of films by Truffaut, Pasolini and Kurosawa and I would take them home and watch them on the wonders of a big-screen 19" color television. And wonders of wonders, when I saved enough money, I was able to buy my very first video tape, Terrence Malick's DAYS OF HEAVEN for $79.95. Panned and scanned and with fairly bad sound, it was nowhere near my experience of seeing it for the first time at the D.W. Griffith Theater in New York ... but it was mine! I actually owned one of my favorite films! It has since become a tradition -- the first film that I ever bought on Laserdisc, then DVD and now on Blu-Ray. 


But that's not where the story ends. There's a dirty little secret about the origins of the indie video store movement. Many of the indies (and that's all there was back then) were first opened by the same people who had tiny back rooms behind "legitimate" stores. They offered 16mm, 8mm and Super 8 movies of a different form of foreign film. These films all promised to be of Scandinavian origin and of dubious moral value -- hence their attraction to the populace. These owners around the country, of course, were the first to recognize the hunger of people to watch films in the privacy of their own home and they did not differentiate between the wonders of Powell-Pressburger and the Mishkin Brothers. 


So here I was, rummaging through racks of foreign and indie films several times a week, completely unaware there was more stock in the basement below. And since I was living with my parents (and sporting a fairly un-sporting lifestyle as it were), it wouldn't have mattered anyway. But the young clerks at Video Station were film buffs like me and knowing of my 16mm past, suggested that there were films in the basement. The owner was selling off his entire collection of prints at bargain prices because VHS had taken over. And further, it seems that somehow, the owner had many years previously received a shipment of films that were totally worthless and they were taking up valuable storage space. Rather than BEDTIME FOR BRUNHILDE (a title I imagine, but it could very well have existed), there were 16mm prints of BIRTH OF A NATION, INTOLERANCE, CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, SUNRISE and a couple short films in 35mm. Since I was a favored customer (and remember that membership cost $79.95 a year so you could rent VHS tapes at bargain $4.95 rate), I could have two as presents. I immediately took SUNRISE, which turned out to be an exquisite print from MoMA's original material printed in the 1940s, and CALIGARI. Then I begged them to give me the short films as well. They were 35mm nitrate prints showing the building of St. Thomas Church in NYC. I don't know why I wanted them, but they were 35mm and I had never held nitrate before! 


The 35mm prints were immediately donated to MoMA. I still remember taking them on a bus to NYC, terrified that I was going to blow it up by a sudden jolt -- the misperceptions on nitrate were quite extensive back then. However, those 16mm prints of SUNRISE and CALIGARI remained with me and it sparked my interest in film preservation. Due to that rather "interesting" owner of Video Station, a life of abject poverty, vinegar syndrome and dealing with carcinogenic chemicals was started that day.  

Bruce Ricker (first published on May 21, 2011)

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



http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/19/arts/music/bruce-ricker-filmmaker-with-affinity-for-jazz-dies-at-68.html?_r=1

[Note: this blog was first published on May 21, 2011] "Bruce Ricker, a lawyer turned filmmaker who made jazz resoundingly visible in a series of highly regarded documentaries, died on Friday in Cambridge, Mass. He was 68..."

There are so many places I could have placed this news on the internet. Bruce was Clint Eastwood's advisor on his film music, created some amazing documentaries on film and jazz, and was the founder of Rhapsody Films, a wonderful company dedicated to bringing out films on jazz. He really had an incredible knack for finding rare films in this genre and bringing them out. And for knowing where the best jazz was in town on any given night.

Beyond the obituary I've linked to above, he was also a great friend to many in the industry whom he helped without ever asking anything in return. When Amy and I started Milestone, he did the incorporation papers and refused any payment. Everybody I know in New York has a Bruce Ricker story. 

I first met him early on when he walked into the door of Kino one day (he and Don Krim were longtime friends) and I was THRILLED to meet the director of The Last of the Blue Devils, one of my favorite films. Naturally, we became friendly and later on, when I helped him with a loan of a video, he came to the office one day and presented me a poster of BIRD autographed to me by Clint Eastwood. I thanked him and said that I would be just as happy to have a poster of one of his films signed by Bruce. And yes, I did get a signed poster of one of his films a few days later. :-)

 

Don Krim (first published on May 21, 2011)

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



[Note: this blog was first published on May 21, 2011]

Don Krim, longtime owner of Kino International, died this morning. He had been dealing with a very serious illness this past year with courage and good humor, but it finally caught up to him. I've known this was coming for some time now, but it still is a shock that he won't be around to laugh about the rise and falls of our businesses and talk about our families.  To me, Don was my first boss in distribution and he was a fantastic mentor and a good friend. He gave me opportunities that few ever get in life and I'll always be grateful. When I told him I was leaving to start Milestone, he gave me a small smile and said, "welcome to poverty." And indeed, it was never about the money to him. 

Don was able to get films that no one else could have acquired. Because of his determination, hard work, honesty and good reputation, he was able to distribute WOMAN OF PARIS, METROPOLIS, PANDORA'S BOX, BALLAD OF NARAYAMA, DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST, DOGTOOTH and countless other great films that have enriched our lives. Back in the early 1980s, he told me that Kino had a "mandate" to release silent films -- this was at a time when few dared. And though he once joked that films have "the shelf life of milk," he also told me that he sought out films that would endure. That last lesson is something I consider every day.

My first restoration I did with Don was Queen Kelly. And though I did the manual labor, he was there every step of the way to hold my hand and gently guide me past my ignorance. There was one point where we "discussed" for three days over one intertitle until we got it right. But when I was writing up the final credits, he refused to share in any of them. He told me that the Kino logo was his credit and that was good enough. Although he sold his beloved company a year ago, Kino will always be his grand legacy. Our world owes a great debt to Don and his work.
 

Posted in Don Krim

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