Once upon a time (1990), Milestone Films operated out of a one bedroom apartment in Manhattan — which we (my husband/partner Dennis Doros and I) also lived in. Then, after five years in the distribution business, we decided it was time to go into production. Our first, and only creation is now a sixteen-year-old high school student.
As my pregnancy advanced, we realized that the only way we would be able to add a crib to our cozy abode would be to get rid of the photocopier. So, since we were going to need to reproduce in more ways than one, Dennis and I rented an apartment in the charming (and not too pricey) Riverdale section of the Bronx — keeping our Upper West Side apartment as the Milestone office. After four years, we examined our ever-rising (non-stabilized) rent bill and decided that we could buy a house for the amount we were paying for the two apartments.
We were wrong about that calculation, as it turns out, and it took us a long time to find a house, but eventually we did. So we moved both home and office to the semi-wilds of New Jersey.
And with the added space (and a growing son too), the stuff expanded... more furniture, more tchotchkes, more bookshelves and of course, more books.
Now cinephiles are often bibliophiles as well, and alas, Dennis and I both have a weakness for bookstores. And of course we also amassed VHS tapes and later DVDs and more recently Blu-rays. Our son shares the book bug and has his own library as well as an impressive natural history display of minerals and other exotica. And sadly, when my father died two years ago, we had to make room for boxes and boxes of photos of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, siblings, and a few unidentifiable folks.
Our new digs also had a finished basement for our business and two garages — one for the obligatory suburban car (later cars) and another for business supplies and records.
Now, there is an accumulation that naturally (or unnaturally) comes from running a business. You have files of research materials, designs, ads, reviews, contracts, invoices, bills, letters and all kinds of miscellany. Now imagine the ephemera generated by some 200+ films over 22 years. And remember, we here at Milestone are infamous for our insanely over-researched press kits (click here to check them out for yourself). So yes, we have generated — and kept — a lot of STUFF.
People generally said to come in contrasting types: cat people vs. dog people; Republicans vs. Democrats; Mets fans vs. Yankees fans; Occupy Wall Streeters vs. Tea Party members and collectors vs. dumpers. And in our family, we are united on pets (both cats AND dogs), politics (Democrats/Occupiers), and baseball (Mets no matter what), but we are divided on STUFF. The esteemed men in my life love to collect, while I (usually) want to dump, recycle, and purge.
However... I studied to be a historian and I have put in my time in archives going through boxes of old letters and press clippings. Recently, I helped raise awareness to get preservation status for a 100+ year-old church in our neighboring town. And our company, Milestone is dedicated to rediscovering, restoring and reintroducing old films.
Dennis and I know full well and personally that bits of paper can radically change the way we understand the past and even the present. Going through the papers of Lewis Allen, the producer of our latest restoration release, The Connection, Dennis discovered that the independent film was financed by a bevy of small investors. And guess who put money into this film adaptation of a notorious downtown play about junkies and jazz — a play that included the word "shit” and was banned by the NY State Board of Regents? The parents of uber-conservative ex-presidential candidate Rick Santorum!
You can't make this stuff up. And we only know this because Lewis Allen meticulously kept his business records, all of them.
Which leads me to my quandary. Where is the line between junk and treasure? How does one distinguish between garbage and precious historical material? And how can you tell if you are acting as an archivist or a hoarder?
And in some ways, the Internet make this even more complicated to navigate. So, okay, I feel justified in tossing mass-market objects like film magazines and catalogs, with the idea that there are copies out there in the world that other folks can digitize and put up online. But what about the (possible) monetary value of an old film festival catalog? Is it worth the time to list it on eBay?
And most pressingly, what do I do about business records and correspondence? Do I shred it? Keep it piled up in our storage space? Donate it to an archive? These pages may look to me like candidates for the recycling bin, but will they be useful or even instructive to researchers in years to come?
One final thought: garage sales. Here in the burbs they are everywhere and our family enjoys them. While it can be fascinating to peek into other people’s homes and lives, mostly what you find at these sales is a dreary collection of outdated objects — most worn, faded and sad. But, once in a while you find treasures for a song. Here are photos of two artworks I discovered at garage sales in our sleepy neck of northern NJ.
The first drawing, of the disassembled telephone, I discovered hidden under a black piece of paper after I opened up the frame I had purchased to put a photograph in. The lovely illustration on the right I found in a pile of discarded artworks by the daughter of the family running the sale. These were objects no one valued (I probably paid less than $10 for both), but now bring me pleasure every day.
So, I remain in limbo... and a most uncomfortable spot indeed (although perhaps less painful than being on the horns of dilemma). But if you happen to know of a nice archive looking for documentation of late 20th century film distribution, please send them our way. I have quite a few boxes they might like…