As Milestone audiences probably know, when we prepare to restore and/or release a film, we really “do our homework.” Frankly, research is one of the great joys of our work.
[And we do sometimes go to great lengths... our notes on Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers is 66 pages long! You can always access Milestone’s press kits for free here.]
Our home and office (and garage) are brimming with books on such sundry topics as Antarctic exploration, animation history, NYC’s Chelsea Hotel, ballerina Anna Pavlova, the LA Rebellion, Cuban cigar boxes, surrealism in cinema, and twentieth-century Persia. We even have an autobiography written posthumously by Rudolph Valentino!
But every now and then a book we consult for a particular film turns out to be so much more. That was my experience reading George Chauncey’s extraordinary Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. For background, when I picked it up and starting reading, my goal was to learn some context that would help me understand the city that Jason Holliday (born, Aaron Payne) inhabited. Holliday, the solo star of Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, actually lived in New York some time after the book’s focus, and at first I thought I would skip Chauncey’s volume and just focus on post-war histories. Thank goodness I decided to go ahead and reserve all the books in my Bergen County library system that seemed even remotely applicable.
Gay New York is a revelation — or more properly, a series of revelations — about a world whose very existence was previously all but invisible. Chauncey did an extraordinary amount of original, far-reaching, and undoubtedly back-breaking research — exploring existing oral histories, less-referenced periodicals (including black newspapers), police records, sexual histories collected at the Kinsey Institute, cultural references (cartoons, songs, movies, plays), and interviewing survivors of the pre-war city. He uncovered and brilliantly describes a history that was more vibrant, complex, and fascinating than the sad underworld many earlier writers had described.
Right from the opening pages of his introduction, the author tells us that he is going to challenge three widely-accepted truisms of about lives of gay men and women in the years before World War II — the myths of isolation, invisibility, and internalization. Despite very real and powerful societal, legal, institutional, and religious forces allied against them, gay people found ways to form communities, recognize one another (and at times assert their identities publicly), and feel joy and self-confidence. Chauncey quotes one physician who, after interviewing working-class “fags” in the New York City jails in the 1920s, found to his dismay that many were “proud to be degenerates, [and] do not want nor care to be cured.” Another doctor reported that one “loquacious, foul-mouthed and foul-minded ‘fairy’ [was] lost to every sense of shame; believing himself designed by nature to play the very part he is playing in life.”
Chauncey also boldly asks the reader to recognize that the terms and categories we now use to describe sexual and gender orientation have changed over time. Consider this: the term “the closet” did not exist until the 1960s. When gay men talked about “coming out” in earlier years, they were often talking about coming out into the gay world.
You know who else “comes out?” Debutantes. And in 1931 the Baltimore Afro-American reported on a celebration using the headline below:
And check out the terminology the newspaper uses! In the past, the press, police, and other societal arbiters referred to gay people as “neuter gender,” “inverts,” “the third sex,” “fairies,” “faggots,” “pansies,” (and other flowers) “degenerates,” and in one Greenwich Village paper, “short-haired women and long-haired men.”
It is worth noting that these categories described classifications we might not recognize today. “Fairies” were effeminate men who wore unusual and distinctive garb (sometimes women’s clothing, but often eccentric articles like red ties or brightly colored suits) and behaved in a distinctively “feminine” manner, including holding their wrists limply and speaking in higher-pitched voices. These stereotypical behaviors signaled their identity and sexual availability to “queers” and “trade.” Non-effeminate men attracted to other men self-identified as “queer.” “Trade” were men who identified as “normal” (and often had wives or girlfriends) but had sex with other men. There was no concept that would correspond with our idea of “bisexual.” Men were not defined by their choice of sexual partner, and many “normal” men “alternated between male and female sexual partners without believing that their interest in one precluded interest in the other.”
The first home to “notorious degenerate resorts [clubs]” was the Bowery on New York’s Lower East Side. There, at the turn of the century, female prostitutes, “fairies,” working-class immigrants, and even slumming uptowners rubbed elbows... and more. Newspapers loved to bemoan the depravity in clubs like The Slide, on nearby Bleecker Street. One New York Herald headline trumpeted “orgies beyond description” and followed with descriptions of rouged and powdered men who lisped and minced. But interestingly, many of the area saloons and dance halls catered to both “fairies” and “normal” men and attracted members of the working, middle, and upper classes — all of whom mingled socially and sexually.
Starting in the 1890s, the city was also home to huge and elaborate drag balls. By the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of “straight” New Yorkers attended these galas, which were held at such ritzy venues as Madison Square Garden, Webster Hall (seen above) the Astor Hotel, and the Savoy Ballroom. The popularity of the annual Hamilton Lodge Ball in Harlem grew from 600 guests in 1925 to 8,000 in 1937. The festivities there included celebrities like Ethel Waters, crossdressing by men and women, and (according to the New York Age): “all the the panoply of pomp and splendor to give Harlemites who stood in wide-eyed astonishment at this lavish display a treat that shall never be forgotten.”
At the same time, life for gay men could often be dangerous. Effeminate men, who were often seen as less tough and who could not go to the police for help, were targeted and brutalized by gangs. When middle-class men began to self-identify as “queer,” they sometimes chose to live double lives — keeping their sexuality and partners hidden. But having a secret identity made these men vulnerable to societal rejection, blackmail, abuse, and even arrest.
Moral reformers, identifying an increase in “perversion” during the first World War, waged a crusade against homosexuality that included police raids of theaters, bath houses, streets, movie theaters, subway washrooms, restaurants, and saloons resulting in mass arrests and prosecutions. In the 1920s, groups like the Society for the Suppression of Vice also targeted burlesque shows with homosexual acts and Broadway plays featuring gay characters. The NYPD made more arrests for homosexual solicitation — the number convicted rose from 92 men in 1916 to 750 in 1920 — and surveilled known gay meeting places.
I am old (and lucky) enough to remember New York’s great automats and cafeterias and was transported back to them when I read Chauncey’s accounts of the importance of these eateries for gay society. These were public spaces where men could “let their hair down” and meet in relative safety. Some restaurants became noted for their gay clientele — a 1931 guide to NYC told readers that the Child’s cafeteria at Broadway and 48th Street featured “a dash of lavender.”
But meeting places — especially gay clubs, bars, and dance halls — were also subject to raids organized by anti-gay reformers. The police, fire department, state legislature, and liquor authority worked with the courts to close venues and prosecute gay men — often for such degenerate conduct as camping it up or same-sex dancing.
This persecution of gay establishments picked up steam in the 1930s and accelerated in the postwar year, continuing unabated for decades. In fact, when I got the chance to meet Chauncey he told me that he had a copy of the paperwork depriving Jason Holliday of his cabaret license in the 1960s — an arrest record for solicitation in the name of Aaron Payne. It is worth remembering that anti-sodomy laws existed late into the twentieth century. New York’s law was overturned in 1980 and gay sex was illegal in many states until a 2003 US Supreme Court ruling.
Journalists and others love to quote George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But for me one of the most powerful lessons of Gay New York is how often cultures, historians, legislators, and whole societies do forget the past. Or more properly, how often the past is obliterated — both deliberately and inadvertently.
People really do have difficulty with the concept of change. Have you ever noticed how surprised folks are every year on the first cold day of winter? Every year the temperature goes down, and every year it seems to astonish shivering individuals who forgot their coats. Part of our historical amnesia is like that.
We grew up knowing that our elders were vilified and punished for same-sex love, so we believed that this was always the case. It wasn’t so. In fact, as Chauncey writes that “gay life in New York was less tolerated, less visible to outsiders, and more rigidly segregated in the second third of the century than the first, and that the very severity of the postwar reaction has tended to blind us to the relative tolerance of the prewar years."
Our prejudices and assumptions are reinforced by our institutions. Chauncey notes that “at a time when the federal government denied funding to gay-related research,” his own work was supported by private foundations and research centers. Gay New York was published in 1994, a time that may seem halcyon by 2017 standards, but even then he wrote, “any historian writing about homosexuality cannot help being cognizant of the potential professional consequences of working on a subject that continues to be marginalized within the discipline.”
So now I step up on my soapbox, in the the tradition of so many outside voices.
At this moment there are so many forces — including our federal government — working to marginalize, disenfranchise, discredit, and erase our past. And as rights are stripped away, we risk forgetting that we ever had them.
In some states, it is all but impossible for women to obtain a legal abortion — for any reason. Schools, and neighborhoods are more racially segregated than they were a generation ago. The Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act and the present administration is obsessed with preventing nonexistent voter “fraud.” The Citizens United ruling establishes corporations as individuals even as real people are losing their civil rights. Police departments are armed with combat weapons and people of color live in fear. University tuitions are as high as $57,000 a year while the Department of Education just ended a program to oversee student loan programs. I am sure we all can go on and on, naming the terrifying changes we are seeing.
Yet we must go on. So what must we do now?
I urge us all to learn, explore and remember all our history. In 1980, Isaac Asimov wrote: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States… nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” Don’t believe it! Make it a point to discover the stories of people often left out of mainstream history: children, women, people of color, gay men, lesbians, transgender people, Native Americans, slaves, factory workers, hoboes, soldiers, prostitutes, suffragists, scientists, servants, tattoo artists, performers, and even politicians.
Support organizations that continue the work to research and preserve our past. This includes everything from the Association of Moving Image Archivists, the Zinn Education Project, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to your town’s public library and historical society.
Preserve your own memories and mementos of past. Hang on to those photos, home movies, and diaries! Keep your concert stubs (you can see how old I am), books, political pins, video games. Check out and support Home Movie Day!
Talk about your past in an honest way. Try not to hide the good things you remember, nor sugar-coat the bad.
Here at Milestone, we hope that we are doing the kind of preservation and education that will offer a wider, bolder, and more inclusive view of the art of cinema and of our history. But we also want to foster a community of people who cherish the power and beauty of motion pictures and honor and respect one another. With that in mind, we invite all of you to consider contributing your thoughts to our blog page. If you have something you would like to share, please send it along!
“If you think about film in the bare sense it is nothing but space and light and the placement of people inside these two illusions.” Kathleen Collins said in a filmed lecture to Howard University film students in 1984. To listen to Collins speak is to learn a great many things about life from a person who recognized the white world’s limitations in seeing her. “Their ability to asses me is entirely dependent on the packaging. You see because I am a packaged person to them.” A few years earlier the American Playhouse had commissioned a play by Collins. She felt that as the only black woman among seven white women playwrights, they were inclined to stage her play if it fit their quota not because of how the play made them feel, think, respond. “It is important to understand one’s role in society but also one's emotional role. For the role of the insider to have the outsider to project their sins on. Black people in America are classic outsiders.”
Whatever obsessed Kathleen Collins, she wrote about. The breadth of her work is expansive but always resides “in ideas, in how human beings evolve which is true to how they are in the center of their being.” As a young playwright, she began with where people lived and what their habits were. Collins was born in New Jersey; her maternal family dates back 300 years to Gouldtown, a settlement begun by an interracial couple. She held a BA in philosophy and religion from Skidmore College, attended Harvard Graduate School and in 1965 won a scholarship to study in France at the Paris-Sorbonne University. Her first film class in Paris required her to watch a film 15 times and analyze its relationship to literature. In her 1984 lecture at Howard, Collins said, there is a “false assumption that if you do good work people are going to pat you on the back.” Collins’ work was beloved among her fellow black filmmakers and academics, but not seen by the broader American audience. Her second film Losing Ground in 1982 never had a theatrical release in the United States, though it did play once at the Museum of Modern Art in 1983 as part of their Cineprobe series. To see Collins on film speak at Howard is to see a person undefeated by a world encouraging inauthenticity because it is easier to sell. We learn from her that she walks a lot and reads a lot; she doesn’t eat meat or white flour. She runs to clear the mind, and she meditates. She writes everyday in her diary. “The two words you should have down on your paper if you are an academic are real and symbolic.” To Collins, real was the conscious mind and symbolic was the unconscious. Both must be worked not just for writing but for living.
In one of its non-theatrical screenings, Losing Ground was shown at a retirement home in Harlem and Collins remembers everyone was over 80. There was a man who wandered in off the street. Moved by what he saw he spoke back to the film. Losing Ground is the story of Sara, played by the exquisitely voiced Seret Scott, and Victor, played by boyishly good-looking Bill Gunn. They are two people in a marriage, Victor looking out and Sara looking in. Their places in the end finally switch with Victor seeing Sara not as a symbol of wife or a subject to be painted, but as the real woman he has missed. The film had not found distribution because in 1982 upon its release the distributors who saw it incredibly told Collins “black people don’t speak that way.”
“Is he someone who dreams a lot?” Collins asks at Howard of a student describing a character he is at work on. At 19, she read the philosophical novel The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky to understand why certain people were oppressed. “Why were we outsiders?” Collins asked. The influence on Collins at 25 of Jean-Paul Sartre opens Losing Ground and it is not the questions themselves but the act of questioning. Sara questions intellectually and Victor instinctually. Sara is for Collins “Real” and Victor “Symbolic.” Both have their mentors. For Sara it is the academic and philosophical books that she reads. For Victor it is Carlos a painter friend who is an abstractionist and paints from images in his mind. Victor believes Carlos is pure, though he himself paints the world around him. In one scene Victor draws us. Standing on a street in upstate New York. Framed by a sign with yellow arrows going in two ways. He looks into the camera and sketches. At Howard, three years before she would pass away at the age of 46 to cancer, Collins said “The pleasure of writing is imagining people laughing or being amused at your work.” She had an internal audience of all her literary and cinematic influences “those are the ones you really write to.” Collins was not a symbol of a black woman filmmaker but a real person and, if we are academics, humans, artists, interested in questioning the split in our society of outside versus in, we must internalize Collins as part of our audience and continue to write back to her.
We have been submitting our releases to Il Cinema Ritrovato DVD Awards for many years. Milestone is a company — it’s just my wife Amy Heller and me, to be specific — entirely devoted to the restoration and distribution of “lost” cinema: films that have been forgotten by audiences, critics, academics and sometimes even the archives themselves. Most are directed by women, filmmakers of color, those in the LGBTQ community, and usually of subject matter not represented by traditional Hollywood. We are restoring fifteen films this year, which is a lot for us and a large financial risk. We know there are very few organizations that promote the kind of work we do. Il Cinema Ritrovato, both in its festival and these awards, is the best of them.
We have already won an Il Cinema Ritrovato DVD Award in 2015 for Project Shirley Volumes 1-3, so I suspect this year’s entry has little chances of winning, but The Magic Box: Project Shirley Volume 4 is such a unique release that I wanted to enter it anyway. Shirley Clarke was not only one of the great independent directors of the 20th century, but also one of the most enigmatic. There are no biographies, documentaries, or any real investigation into her work. Luckily, with the help of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, we had complete access to almost every film she ever worked on — including a large number of never completed work and experiments — as well as her family’s home movies starting when she was nine years old. From Shirley’s daughter, Wendy Clare, we were able to borrow four volumes of family photos dating back to the 1890s when the Brimberg family was still in Russia. Therefore, we were able to not only create an almost complete overview of her brilliant work, we were able to create a personal and artistic diary of almost her entire life. With how many other filmmakers do we have this opportunity? This particular 3-disc volume took eight years to research, restore/digitize, organize, and produce. In many ways, it’s the best release we’ve ever produced. So yes, we definitely wanted to submit THE MAGIC BOX to the DVD Awards!
For the first time in many years, a sizable part of our income is coming from streaming, particularly from Turner Classic Movies’ Filmstruck. There are also hundreds of other companies around the world that are seeking the rights to our titles for SVOD. So the writing is definitely on the wall. However, we pride ourselves in doing the years of research for each film, finding the bonus features that put our films into context, and create learning tools for professors and their students to better understand our films. I think most of the companies that do this — such as Criterion, the BFI, Flicker Alley and the rest of our ilk — find this to be the artistic side of film distribution. So there are selfish professional reasons why I hope Blu-ray and DVD distribution will last. As a lover of great cinema and a collector of discs, there’s also selfish personal reasons as well. I love to see what is being produced by the other companies!
Milestone Film & Video
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!