Milestone to the Rescue (via Restoration)
Dennis Doros on ten American independent films in need of restoration.
Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, partners in business and marriage, launched Milestone Films in 1990. They made a reputation for the company not merely for its restorations and revivals, but for rescuing and nurturing films that might otherwise have been drowned in the noise of the busy movie landscape, from Mikhail Kalatozov’s all but orphaned 1964 I Am Cuba to the 1972 documentary Winter Soldier (which was vilified in the 2004 presidential campaign) to, most recently, Shirley Clarke’s landmark indie The Connection. Dennis and Amy are currently raising funds to restore Clarke’s Portrait of Jason.
They are also members of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Dennis came to the 2012 convention in Seattle (Amy, unfortunately, was unable to attend), where I was able to meet up with him. In the interests of full disclosure, I have known Dennis for years and had the pleasure to be a part of the commentary track with Sherman Alexie on Milestone’s DVD release of The Exiles. I can also report that Dennis knows more about the history of American independent cinema, and the forgotten and neglected works that deserve resurrection, than anyone I know. So I asked him to name the ten American independent films most in need of restoration.
“It’s not my ten best,” he’s careful to explain, “just the ones that I could personally support with great enthusiasm. There are tons more that I could add, but if we’re doing a list of ten, this is a cool list to consider and they each have their own merits and different reasons.”
1. The Cool World (Shirley Clarke, 1964) and the short films of Shirley Clarke “We started with Shirley Clarke because we thought it would be a great project to do and I really wanted to do the complete Shirley Clarke. And the only thing we do not have rights to is The Cool World. I think that we have her best films, The Connection and Portrait of Jason are my two favorites, but to represent Shirley in her entirety and to consider her entirety, it would help to have a beautiful version of The Cool World, which hasn’t been available yet.”
2. Grass: A Nation’s Battle For Life (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1925) “The nitrate doesn’t exist anymore. We got our print from MoMA, which got their material from C.V. Whitney and Merian C. Cooper, but there are a lot of prints around the world and no one has compared them. I think this is one of the greatest films of all time and it’s one of my favorite films that we’ve ever done but nobody has done a real filmic preservation/restoration of this film and I think it can be improved.”
3. and 4. The Flower Thief (Ron Rice, 1960) and Queen Of Sheba Meets The Atom Man (Ron Rice, 1963) “These are films that were championed by Jonas Mekas and a lot of the great writers of the early sixties. From what I have been told, they don’t hold up, but everybody should have a list of films that they are dying to see someday and are inaccessible. And the Ron Rice films, because they had such critical esteem in the early sixties, I find that this is a major lack of my education.”
5. Spring Night, Summer Night (Joseph Anderson, 1968) “It’s a beautifully shot film and it’s interestingly made and a very important independent film that nobody has seen. When Anderson sold it, the distributor cut it and made it into a teen softcore movie. It is about incest, a sister and brother, but what was a poetic, somewhat-questionable-taste-even-for-poetic, evocation of Southern Ohio became Miss Jessica is Pregnant. UCLA recently found the original print of Spring Night, Summer Night, but they have not restored it yet.”
6. Lanton Mills (Terrence Malick, 1969) “Terrence Malick has a starring role in it as comic relief, which is why it’s not out. It’s about 25 minutes long, Caleb Deschanel was the cinematographer and it’s really a blueprint for Badlands and Days of Heaven. I find it very important and it has not been preserved or restored.”
7. Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story (Woody Allen, made for public TV, 1971) “Another 25-minute film. It’s a parody of Henry Kissinger, with Woody Allen as Kissinger: Zelig meets political satire. It’s a Woody Allen comedy in 1972; PBS pulled it and he’s never allowed it to be screened. It’s very funny and it’s Woody Allen, so why not?”
8. Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976, Barbara Kopple) “I know Criterion did a lovely release, but I’m not sure there are preservation elements. I think that’s one of the films I would put all my heart and soul into restoring. I love that area, I love the people she depicts, and god knows it’s one of the bravest films I’ve ever seen. When Sight and Sound did their top ten list, I did not include Harlan County and when Amy pointed it out to me afterwards, I was extremely embarrassed. This is one of those films that should be on my top ten.”
9. The Films of Tony Buba (Lighting Over Braddock: A Rustbowl Fantasy, 1988, and others) “His short films are amazing. Tony built his career on his short films and they are all evocative of a time and place. Braddock was an impoverished town that had once been built on the steel mills and even though it was down financial toilet, Tony saw his hometown with passion and love and the characters that he shot were real and amazing. He loved these people. I think Tony’s one of the great filmmakers of American independents.”
10. The Business Of Fancydancing (2002, Sherman Alexie) “Sherman [Alexie]’s producer is getting the rights back and he wants to re-edit it. He never got to finish it, the same way Charles Burnett never got to finish “My Brother’s Wedding.” He’d like to do a final cut and have us [Milestone] re-release it. It was shot on digital and it’s a case where the theatrical release was hurt by the primitive digital-to-35mm blow-ups that were being done at that time.”
Final words: “We like to work with people we admire. I don’t know Woody Allen, I’ve met Terrence Malick twice, and Barbara Kopple I greatly admire, Tony Buba I greatly admire, Sherman Alexie I greatly admire. You don’t have to love your filmmaker but it’s certainly a joy when you do.”