It has been a long time since I first met Dan Talbot — almost thirty-one years. In the late spring of 1986, Dan interviewed and then hired me as his assistant at New Yorker Films. It was just my second job in film, after working for a few months at First Run Features. I remember being wowed by the spacious sun-lit offices and by Dan, who was elegant, patrician and avuncular. Even at that first meeting I understood that he was a sophisticated man of culture. In fact, I got the impression that he was more impressed by my graduate work at Yale than my experience in film. Whatever did the trick, I was very happy to join the company.
I only lasted about a year in that role of assistant (as Dan later observed, I seemed to have a problem with authority… and still do), but I stayed on at New Yorker for another three years as a nontheatrical film booker. During those years, I learned so much of what I know about film distribution.
And so when it came out in 2009, I was excited to read The New Yorker Theater and Other Scenes from a Life at the Movies, the memoir that Dan’s wife Toby wrote about their life together. And this month I eagerly turned to Dan’s article in the Spring 2017 Cineaste magazine: “Fragments from the Dream World: Reminiscences of a Film Distributor and Exhibitor.” And I also read Cynthia Rowell’s article: “The New Yorker Stories: Dan Talbot’s Life in Film” on the magazine’s website
In the Cineaste article, Dan writes brilliantly about his memories of the world of international and repertory cinema and about his relationships with of some of the great auteurs he has encountered. His descriptions of life at the New Yorker Theater, which he ran until 1973 (when I was still a NJ high school student) make me wish I had been in the audience for the incredible series and premieres. Truly, our cultural landscape would have been much emptier without his heroic — even herculean — efforts to introduce American audiences to such great filmmakers as Zhang Yimou, Ousmane Sembene, Alain Tanner, Louis Malle and so many others.
New Yorker Films honored those and other filmmakers, not only in the company’s gorgeous printed catalogs but also in a long line of photographs that stretched many yards down the right-hand wall of the company’s office when I worked there. These 8x10 photos were covered by long sheets of lucite that could be opened so that the order of the images could be rearranged. If Claude Lanzmann were coming by, his photo would quickly be moved to the number one spot.
The appreciation by Cynthia Rowell (a good friend, who worked with us at Milestone Films for years before joining New Yorker and now Cineaste) updates and contextualizes Dan’s great contributions to cinema in the US. She writes about how New Yorker helped fuel the flowering of film societies and independent cinemas because programmers could rely on the “New Yorker seal of approval.” And she rightly highlights the importance of Dan’s work in promoting films with strong political messages from around the world.
And although I really enjoyed these narratives, I came away asking one question:
“But, where is Jose Lopez?”
Because when I think about the New Yorker Films I worked at — and later worked with for decades — my very first thoughts are about Jose.
When I started at New Yorker, I worked as assistant to Dan and Jose — and as liaison between the distribution company and the three theaters that Dan owned or was partner in: the Cinema Studio, Metro, and Lincoln Plaza. The New Yorker Films office was on the top floor of a building at 16 West 61st Street between Broadway and Amsterdam and featured high ceilings, skylights and an open floor plan. In a previous incarnation, the space had been an automobile assembly facility. After being buzzed in the door, you faced a long reception desk and to your left was a cubicle featuring a desk, some filing cabinets and partition walls — which is where Jose worked. I sat at the assistant’s desk — just beyond the wall on the far side of Jose’s area. Facing me was Dan’s office, a separate room that featured a large glass window and a door.
When he was in the office, Dan had me working on contracts, correspondence, and sending telexes (Google this if you haven’t used one. And here is a photo of one.
This was before the Internet when international communication was a challenge. I was working at New Yorker when the company acquired its first fax machine, years later). But Dan came and went on his own schedule and even as his assistant, I often did not know when or if he would be in. In fact, that picture window into Dan’s office could be deceiving. It was not floor to ceiling, so several times I (and others) walked in to what looked like an empty office with the lights out, and almost stumbled on the six-foot-plus Dan Talbot, stretched out for a nap on the carpeted floor.
Jose was always, always there and always moving. When he stopped by my desk, I would assist him by writing marquee copy; contacting the theater mangers to make sure they had trailers, one-sheets, and 35mm prints; reporting box office; or proofreading ad copy. Then he would set off at a trot to check on problems in accounting or the office screening room or the shipping department or with the catalog layout. Very often, when we all left at the end of the day (there were eight or nine of us on staff at that time) he would still be at his desk or rushing off to the theaters to solve other problems. Jose lived on the Upper West Side and came in evenings, weekends, and holidays. He was the hardest working person I have ever known.
He was also funny and kind. Jose grew up in Cuba and although his English was excellent, he occasionally made mistakes that were both brilliant and hilarious. If you had to get over something, it was “water over the bridge.” My favorite was one that took me a while to figure out. When we started dating, my future husband Dennis was working at rival film company, Kino International. Jose heard about our romance and suggested that I might “pull a Camille.” It was only my familiarity with the films of Greta Garbo that allowed me to decipher that one. Jose was not suggesting I die of consumption, but was hoping I would take on the role of Mata Hari and learn a bit about Kino’s acquisition plans.
I am tempted to say that Jose was like the energizer bunny or that he was the heart of the company, but both those metaphors fail to account for how incredibly smart, competent and just encyclopedically knowledgeable he was about every aspect of film exhibition and distribution. Everyone relied on him all the time — for everything. Do you have a problem with the booking software? Ask Jose. Is there broken popcorn machine at the Cinema Studio? Jose will know how to fix that. Does a filmmaker need an advance on royalties? Jose will get a check cut. Is an exhibitor taking forever to pay? Ask Jose. Lab problems? Aspect ratio questions? Publicity concerns? Video production glitches? Everyone turned to him for everything.
Even years after Dennis and I had founded Milestone, we still would sometimes call Jose for advice. And he always welcomed our questions and really tried to help. That warmth and connection also made him a great boss and a great mentor.
When I was at New Yorker, I sometimes thought that in their partnership, Dan was the quintessential “dad” — both king of the castle and procurer of the household bacon (which for New Yorker meant attending festivals, meeting with filmmakers and sales agents, and acquiring new films). And Jose was “mom,” sensitive to the situations of all the kids/staff, constantly multi-tasking, incredibly hard-working, and somewhat unseen and under-appreciated by the outside world.
Well, decades later I am a mom — and co-owner of a mom-and-pop distribution company — so my perspective has evolved. I can see that both men loved the films themselves and that their dedication to cinema fueled their collaboration and gave their partnership tenacity. Dan’s role — representing the company and establishing it as a vital cultural voice and resource — was essential and suited his personality and many talents. I recognize too that Jose thrived on solving the million-and-one problems and challenges of keeping a business going.
I remember that despite his warmth and boundless energy, Jose is shy. I found exactly one photo of him online and it was taken another New Yorker alum, Reid Rosefelt (The photo above is a better image, also courtesy of Reid). I don’t really know if Jose will like that I am writing about him now
But as a working film distributor for so many years, I also know that what Jose did at New Yorker Films was absolutely essential to its excellence and success. And I know that I, and dozens of other working film professionals, owe him so much. I know that I can never fully thank him all his kindness and wisdom — but I offer this blog in partial payment.
I just finished mailing a handmade valentine to our wonderful friend John Canemaker and his husband Joe Kennedy — and in my email comes the gift of John’s new blog!
And believe me, this is a treasure that will brighten your day... and many days to come.
If you haven’t discovered John’s amazing films, books, lectures, paintings... you are in for a glorious treat. John is an Oscar-winning animator (for The Moon and the Son), a great historian of animation, and a painter of some of the most graceful and joyful images I have ever seen.
John’s website provides an opportunity to explore his multi-faceted creativity, and now it also offers a chance to hear his invariably kind, astute and wonderful thoughts about a whole range of topics. His first entry covers two beloved institutions, Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor, NY and playwright/screenwriter/filmmaker/artist/writer/cartoonist Jules Feiffer. I won’t spoil your pleasure, go read it for yourself!
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.
Okay, it's not what you think. I'm still happily married to Amy after 26 years and we still love being together and working together.
But today, my eight years on Project Shirley came to a conclusion. Amy liked to call Shirley Clarke the other woman in my life. I never met her, but through her diaries, stories from her daughter Wendy and from all her family still around, I got to know Shirley better than any director I've ever worked on or worked for. Her films have utterly fascinated us. Twenty years after her death, they still remain ahead of their time. When the world finally catches up to Shirley Clarke, she will be placed way up there in that cinematic canon that has far too few women. Especially courageous women who didn't care about conventions of their time.
So what did I finish today? Collected from those eight years are nearly eight hours of absolute fabulousness – an Oscar®-winning documentary (Robert Frost), a lost children's film (Christopher and Me), the incredible Pennebaker and Clarke-led Brussels Loops, her complete output of short films (dance, experimental, industrial and narrative), and dozens of unknown and/or unfinished work that will boggle the mind. Project Shirley has involved dozens of archives (with special gratitude to Maxine, Mary, and Amy at the Wisconsin Center for Film & Television), hundreds of deeds of generosity from esteemed archivists and lab technicians, countless composers, librarians, professors, and of course, Wendy, to guide me through hundreds and hundreds of questions. Not to mention the amazing, creative people we've met who worked with or knew Shirley. (Martha Clarke, your Angel Reapers is magnificent and we'll never forget it!) We have no regrets.
Through it all, I've held materials in my hand that would thrill any cinephile. One-of-a-kind 16mm prints that haven't seen the light of day since the 1950s, prints of films that were never screened, personal letters, diaries, an original button from the 1967 Portrait of Jason premiere (gifted to me by the darling Max), and dozens of items that bugged my eyes out. However, perhaps the coolest thing ever, was Wendy shipping me the family photo albums. Imagine having in your hands, the actual physical history of a great director from literally day one. These are photo albums that Shirley and Wendy kept for nearly a century. The photo of Shirley's wedding day (above) came from one album. Needless to say, I spent the entire week scanning them, took a great deal of time going over them with Shirley's niece Liza and other Shirley experts, and then sending the back as soon as I could!
So when will you all get to see these amazing discoveries? I've just sent the hard drive to our authoring and compression lab, the wonderful Luminous 7. There will be some weeks of them doing their magic to make sure they look their best when they are shown on your TV or up onscreen. We'll have to proof them a number of times disc by disc. (Both Blu-ray and DVD.) Our former intern now professional artist Lauren Caddick will be designing the cover and the brochure. Then it's all on to CDA in North Carolina (and Germany) to put it all together and get them ready to ship to our offices and our sub-distributor Oscilloscope will get them to the right retailers. Soon, Amy and I will be announcing the release date The Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke, Project Shirley Volume 4. We hope to have them out before the end of the year.
So, am I really done with Shirley Clarke? Don't kid yourself. Definitely not. The WCFTR and Milestone digitized a huge number of Shirley's video output from the late 1960s through the 1980s and I'd like to help get them seen. Our friend Larry Kardish is also writing her biography and we'll be around if he needs us. We're also working with Immy Humes on a documentary on Shirley. Both projects will astonish the cinema world and give another boost to the rebirth of Shirley Clarke in history. And who knows? Perhaps Fred Wiseman will license The Cool World to us one day. (I hope so!) But for now, The Magic Box is our final treat; a brilliant gem that we have polished as much as we could. Is it the latest Star Trek? Of course not! But then, like Shirley, it's not about mass consumption and meeting expectations. That's too bleeping boring!!!
Shirley Clarke in 1919