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A film archivist is… (first published January 9, 2011)

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




Amy and I went to a (lovely) party last night [note: this blog was first published on January 9, 2011] where we didn’t know that many people that well. At every party, sooner or later, after you find out how the other person came to know their hosts, who you want in the Super Bowl this year and how freakin’ cold it’s outside, you get to the adult variation of “what’s your major?” There was somebody writing a book on America’s 1940-1942 planning for postwar policies, who also sold pharmaceuticals and scooters. Another was a principal at a Jersey City charter school. As usual, there was the range of livelihoods one associates with these parties of our age group.

When asked, our usual answer is “we distribute classic films and sometimes we get to restore them.” People are usually surprised at this, as if this isn’t a real job (like accountant or lawyer) or that they can’t imagine that a job like this can exist.

A librarian’s job is easy to understand – one sees them all the time – though they don’t get nearly the respect they deserve. And a seller of widgets or watches is also easy – you buy an item and you sell it for a higher price. An archivist is perceived as some sort of nerd who collects “things” and doesn’t share. But if considered, they must deal with books, personal papers and art.

I perceive Amy and I as amateur film archivists. We lack the official training but have had plenty of learning at the feet of the masters. Through Milestone’s work and as a longtime member of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (I’ve been a board member for the last three years), Amy and I have had the pleasure befriending moving image archivists around the world.

The following is adapted from a speech I gave last year and it’s the best I can do to describe a film archvists’ work.

First, let me tell you what I think film does best. You may disagree with me, but I’ve come to believe that films are truly great when they can do one of three things.


1)    Films that take us to unknown worlds, time and cultures (where we completely forget about the uncomfortable seats or the rude ticket taker) and leave us with a better understanding of those outside of our own experience. Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis, Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery all do this. Avatar does the first part exceedingly well but James Cameron’s depth is little more than the level of cheap cowboy and Indian B-movies. Great as entertainment, but not on the level of true cinematic greatness.
2)    Films that are so universal in their sense of humanity that we can truly empathize and understand the characters even though they at first, don’t outwardly seem like us. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Maborosi and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep can seem half-a-world apart, but they share a sense of reverence for people able to endure when life is at its most difficult. And we share it with them.
3)    Films so truthful to their setting and situations that those most closely aligned to the story dosee themselves. Daughters of the Dust and Killer of Sheep were so successful because African-American recognized themselves or saw people they swore they knew. Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles and Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals did this for Native American audiences as well. And there are so precious few movies like this that when they do occur, they are to be treasured.

In truth, the greatest films take you in and make you a part of the story. And there are many, many great films that have been part of the canon since the Museum of Modern Art established the idea in the early 1940s. Films like Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai, The Red Shoes, Jules and Jim are (and should be) part of almost every cinema course.

But what if these films are threatened by deterioration or just as bad, forgotten to history. This is where a film archivist comes in.

1)    A film archivist is a librarian but with a fedora, a whip and a sense of discovery. He is an explorer.
2)    A film archivist is a time-traveler who can discover lost worlds.

There are numbers tossed about – created from an old American Film Institute propaganda campaign to separate your money from your wallet – stating that 90% of all silent films are lost and that around 50% of all sound films are missing. It’s all lies. No one actually knows the numbers – though the very number-oriented Jon Mirsalis has counted up the number of feature silent films that were created in the United States and compared it to a list of all those that exist today in the world archives and came up with 77% of silent films are lost. Admitedly, this is still a significant and tragic number.

What’s cooler, however, is that there are films being discovered all the time. Many, like John Ford’s Upstream or the complete version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis were known to exist within the New Zealand and Argentine archives respectively, but they weren’t really “discovered” until some film archivist put a cultural value on them and brought their existence to the attention of the world. Others, such as the marvelous Mitchell and Kenyon “reality” films from early part of the 20thcentury, were miraculously discovered a hundred years later almost perfectly intact in barrels of a building about to be torn down. And watching those M&K films are incredible. They are so immediate that the people in the films seem to be actually watching you as they view them. You can see the nine-year-old children coming out of the mills at the end of the day and feel their weariness.


Film and video archives catalog, label, preserve and restore these films all day long, all year round. Archivists are dedicated to ensuring that future generations will share our moving image heritage. And they do love to share!

Moving image archivists can take you into a world a hundred years old and make you forget about the auto mechanics’ report or the bad meal you just had. You can mistake archivists for tradesmen, but they are actually time-travelers and magicians. There is wonder and honor in what they do.

Some day, I’ll write to you about AMIA, the archives and archivists we know.

Posted in Association of Moving Image Archivists

Hide and Seek: The Art that Dares not Speak its Name (first published January 6, 2011)

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

At the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, the elephant is not in the room. [note: this blog was first published on January 6, 2011]

The missing pachyderm is, of course, the David Wojnarowicz video “A Fire in My Belly,” which the gallery pulled in response attacks by the Catholic League and members of Congress for being “offensive to Christians.” And visiting the NPG last week, the ghosts of this artwork and its creator (who died of AIDS at the age of 37) haunt the galleries and the visitor. And, like all ghosts, these are frightening, terribly sad and a reminder of our own—and our culture’s—vulnerability. 

You could argue that this groundbreaking (and truly wonderful) show started out with impossible goals. Even if right-wing bullies hadn’t successfully attacked it, Hide/Seek was already trying to do so much that it might have been doomed by its own ambition. But somehow it does succeed—and in a way, the shadow of the missing video allows us to see the art, the artists and even ourselves, more clearly. 

For me the show, like its name, has two sides. The earlier section rescues the gay context of many beloved artists and their creations. It is a joy to look at paintings and drawings and understand what they meant to their creators. Some artists encoded their love and desire, as Marsden Hartley did in his symbolic memorial portrait of a lover who died in battle. Other artworks are more open—but a combination of homophobia, willful blindness and art history’s prudish sensibilities (and general aversion to social history) relegated many to minor status while stripping others of their sexuality. It is lovely to be able to look at a painting, like Larry River’s joyful, nude portrait of Frank O’Hara and recognize how sexy and celebratory it is, without feeling like you are somehow misunderstanding the painter’s intentions. The taboo against recognizing desire, especially gay desire, is so codified that it feels almost like misbehaving to see that two of Charles Demuth’s lusty “Dancing Sailors” are dancing with each other.


In later works, artists continue to mask their love and desire with symbols and private references, like the beautiful semi-abstract tributes lovers Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns created for one another in the 1950s. But with the flowering of gay pride and openness in the 1960s, creators picked up cameras and paintbrushes to celebrate each other and themselves. The gorgeous cheeky Polaroid self-portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe is as vibrant and beautiful as any Renaissance angel. 

All this makes the tragedy of AIDS all the more painful. I approached the rooms featuring the art of the 1980s, with a sense of sadness and dread. Keith Haring’s unfinished painting, with its charming playful figures disappearing mid-canvas and threadlike drips brought me almost to tears. (I still remember seeing his very first glowing baby graffiti in the subways stations along the Lexington Avenue line.) In Mapplethorpe’s second self-portrait, he is gaunt and grips a death’s head cane. It is hard to forget (and painful to remember) how AIDS patients were feared and hated and how under-funded AIDS research was—for years. And here is where David Wojnarowicz’s video belonged. 



Wojnarowicz, who was ill and mourning the death of his mentor and lover Peter Hujar, traveled to Mexico, where he explored his grief and anger through art. I watched the video that the Smithsonian had edited for the exhibition and then pulled (available online athttp://vimeo.com/17692112). With a soundtrack of crowds yelling slogans (“Black, white, gay, straight, AIDS does not discriminate!”), the film incorporates scenes of beggars, fire-eaters, mummies, religious statues (a saint holding her eyes in a plate, her sockets bloody), coins splashing in a bowl of blood, slabs of meat and (most controversially) ants crawling on a crucifix. For me, footage of Wojnarowicz sewing his mouth closed with yarn and scenes in which a dancing marionette is shot and burned were especially upsetting. The video is ugly, visceral, furious and painfully alive while confronting terrible violence and death. I think that Hide/Seek needed this intensity and political outrage. 

We all want to think that we are living in another time, another age. The “gay plague” was diagnosed and there are treatments that allow HIV-positive people to live long and healthy lives (at least in first-world countries). Ellen DeGeneres (who appears in the show in a photo by Annie Leibovitz) is a beloved entertainer who appears publicly with her wife. Glee is one of the most popular shows on television. The Internet is flooded with “It Gets Better Videos.” And there is a lotof reason for hope and optimism. But…



Some years ago (in the early 1990s—after we started Milestone but before we became parents), Dennis and I presented a silent film at an excellent and (usually) well-attended film series at a public library in an upscale town on Long Island. We had been to the library before and we were comfortable speaking about our films and answering questions. And, of course, we had seen this particular film many times. The intro went great, the projection was flawless and then we stood up at the front of the room started discussing the film and fielding questions. 

As usual, we took turns. After thanking the audience for coming, I talked about the film, and how it was made and mentioned that the director, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was gay. And I spoke about how the film, Tabu, a story of a sweet and innocent love that is forbidden under punishment of death. I said that I thought it was a metaphor, a retelling, of Murnau’s own romantic situation.

Well, that educated, middle-class audience did not like my comments, at all. You could actually see them react—the entire audience frowned and stiffened their backs. One man stood up to tell me so in no uncertain terms that I was needlessly ruining a nice story and that he didn't want to hear any more about it. Well, I got the message. After that Dennis and I talked about everything else we could think of—the music, the editing, the actors, the lovely island of Tahiti. 

But you know, I do believe that Tabu is gay love story told through straight characters. And that doesn’t make it less wonderful or joyous or beautiful for me. In fact, it makes me happy to think that Murnau (whose real name was Plumpe and chose his professional name because Murnau was a town where he and his boyfriend had stayed together) was able to celebrate his own romantic love through his art. So for my angry friend in the Port Washington Library, I am sorry I upset you, but let us continue to celebrate gay art and yes, to say its name. Out loud.

Anti-pictorialism: or, how a change of scenery can change your point of view (first published January 4, 2011)

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


Last week, [note: this blog was first published January 4, 2011] during a most refreshing trip to Washington, DC, Dennis and I had the opportunity to wander through two photography shows at the Phillips Collection, just off Dupont Circle. Both “TruthBeauty” and “Coburn and the Photographic Portfolio” explore pictorialism, a movement in which photographers created images that emulated oil paintings, pastels, drawings and prints. For a century, from the beginning of the medium until the 1940s, photographers played with a variety of techniques to create these “painterly” images. In some photos, they dressed their subjects in costumes or posed them in elaborate or evocative settings. In others, they chose to focus on one part of the image, allowing the rest to remain blurry and dreamy.

As we strolled through the galleries, I repeatedly had an unpleasant feeling of (literally) déja vu. These foggy streets with glowing, haloed streetlamps—hadn’t I seen them before? The pre-Raphaelite beauty with the flowing hair—isn’t there a painting of her somewhere, and in that very robe? The young girls in the field with the peaceful glowing sheep—surely they were also captured by Millais… or was it Corot?

It made me itchy, annoyed, and then… curious. Why would these intrepid and talented artists content themselves with replicating, or at least echoing works that already existed? Why did so many of them restage scenes—of home and hearth, handsome silhouetted youths, agrarian tranquility, foggy city rooftops—that had long been staples of artists in other media?


Okay, I thought, perhaps this is a phenomenon of a newly emerging technology. When confronting a new medium, artists naturally bring to it the practices and vision of their time. I thought about the earliest silent movies, which were often little more than filmed plays, shot with one camera and featuring hammy actors, theatrical lighting and stage makeup. Even as film came into its own as a fully-fledged art form, many screenplays adapted popular vaudeville routines and melodramas. It took time for filmmakers to begin to explore the potential of their new medium—to use it to do things impossible before: close ups, cross cutting, montage. Maybe it takes time before the artist can employ the medium to see things in a brand new way.


Or maybe this is a universal norm that I was only noticing because I was seeing it from considerable historical distance? To me, these pictorial photographed are clichéd—that’s true. But what about the images I see around me? Are they less conventionalized? Am I just inured to the conventions of my own time?

As I write this, I have (of course) the television playing silently. As I glance up, what do I see? Well, very clean, well-lit people—most of them white, thin and young. The women all seem to have long flowing hair. The footage is in color, in focus and well filmed. When people speak, the camera focuses on their faces. Captions identify participants. On the news stations, headlines crawl with additional information.

If a television show were filmed in the style of a pictorial photograph, it would look astonishing—a series of sepia-colored, fuzzy tableaux that would instantly be rejected for sub-standard technical specs. Only on our beloved TCM do you ever see footage that reflects those (and other) pictorial themes and images. [FYI: Dennis and I work as consultants to TCM and the station has shown many of Milestone’s films—something you probably already know if you are reading this blog.]

So new media reflect the art forms that precede them and we humans accept conventions—and conventionalized images—seamlessly. What light does that shed for me on the new year that has just begun? Well, things are going to look familiar, whatever the format. Blu-ray, streamed or 3-D, I expect that many of the “films” we will watch will have stories, actors, lighting and editing that remind us of the art, films, television and video games we have seen in the past. There will be blood and car chases, beautiful women with shiny hair, excellent cinematography and terrific sound editing. Crane shots (my personal bête noire) will raise cameras to scan rugged horizons. Suns will set in glowing reds and golds. Soldiers will be filmed from low angles as they stand silhouetted with the sun behind them. Animated figures will have big eyes, clean lines and bright colors. Pundits in suits will explain, exhort, inveigh. The west will be dusty. Oceans will sparkle. Tears will fall, slowly. And that doesn’t mean these will all be bad. We will be moved, frightened, delighted and amused by many of these films.

In fact, while we were in Washington, my sister, brother-in-law, Dennis and I went to a conventional and well-made film, The King’s Speech, and quite enjoyed it (I perhaps the least of all, but I am (as you might have guessed) a tough critic). It was very brilliantly acted, beautifully shot, intelligently written, well directed and absolutely predictable from the first frame to the last. It was also emotionally satisfying and well worth the ticket price and time.

But it was really the discussion we four enjoyed before the film that started my brain working and my eyes opening. We talked about the future and about our work. We talked new technologies, about the Internet, about the importance of blogging. That conversation was the spark that ignited this new Milestone blog, for good or for ill—or probably for both.

In the 100-plus years since cinema began, we can see that technological advancements have enabled filmmakers to revolutionize the art form—again and again. But what about the truly innovative technological wonder that is uniting us at this moment? The Internet is a not a highway, not a spigot, not a tool. Like the printing press (or maybe even the invention of language) it will (and has) reshaped every aspect of our world. From commerce, to publishing to filmmaking to… everything! And yet, doesn’t it look like crap most of the time? Websites are boring. Stock images and two-bit graphics predominate. And blogs!

Blogs indeed. So here I am, with my eyes well opened, but just as stuck in a conventionalized piece of narrative prose as those pictorialists were enmeshed in their gauzy Victorian finery. What should or can a blog be? A journal? An anecdote? A puzzle? Like the fine photographers I was so quick to criticize, I too must start with what I know… and hope that this marvelous medium will allow me to see how to begin to see and write and post… differently.

Let me end by adding a link to my favorite Internet innovation in 2010. Dennis had the great luck to meet Jonathan McIntosh at a film festival in the Dominican Republic this fall and returned home full of excitement and enthusiasm for his amazing video mashups, Right Wing Radio Duck and Buffy vs. Edward. These short films are just wonderfully funny, smart and insanely creative—and they are intrinsically Internet creations—they would make little sense or impact in movie theaters or on DVD. Please check out McIntosh’s marvelous work here

My First Sigh (first published January 3, 2011)

Posted on March 15, 2012 by Dennis Doros | 0 Comments

Everywhere we go, Amy and I are always asked questions about our work at Milestone and we usually answer them with stories. Simple “yes” and “no” replies really aren’t for us. It’s the way we communicate – with friends, with interns, with co-workers, with people we meet in the field. It’s just the way we are. And for those we don't drive crazy, this is sometimes followed by the suggestion that we write a book. Well, that’s just not going to happen. We are film archivists and distributors and it’s a lot more fun working at Milestone than to spend months writing about it. But Amy’s sister Karen convinced us that we should at least start a blog and here it goes.

Go!

Go!

Well, before I go, I should share my favorite line and my favorite story about memory. The first was from Bob Hope and it was simple. NEVER LET THE TRUTH GET IN THE WAY OF A GOOD JOKE. I think that is self-explanatory.

And then there was Luis Buñuel. He wrote a brilliant autobiography called MY LAST SIGH and he introduced it with a small warning. He remembers a wedding many years ago of his good friends. It was a beautiful wedding in a cathedral with all their friends surrounding them. He recalls it in great detail. And then he remembered. He and his friends were all devout communists back then and there was no way there could have been a religious ceremony in a cathedral. So remember Bob and Luis on the road to our memories. PLEASE! Feel free to contribute your own memories, stories, comments and ideas. We look forward to hearing from you!


And so this leads to my first memories of the sigh. I (and my brother Paul) worked from the age of 12 at my father’s warehouse in New Jersey. It was manual labor and my father pushed us to work harder and faster than anyone in his place. Ten summers and two full years after I left college were spent there lifting and sweating. My father’s partner, Bill, was an old-time salesman who, on the road, also loved to tell stories and could usually share a new risqué joke with his customers on a daily basis. When he had to work in the warehouse, he was usually unhappy since it wasn’t half as fun as charming the mom-and-pop owners of the local candy stores. 

Anyway, at the warehouse, with every question, every comment, every decision, he had the same response. He always sighed. A lot. At least a hundred sighs a day, rain or shine. (I wish I had counted.) And the sighs were very dramatic. He must have had a sigh for every occasion. Bill was a real master of the exhaled expression of depression. And yet, he was a successful businessman, happily married, raised three successful children and died a fairly content man.

So if any of my writings sound like I’m sighing, don’t let it fool you. Though our work can be difficult and the paychecks slow in coming, it’s exactly the life we’ve chosen for ourselves and we’ve got to work on some incredible films. 

Speaking for myself, and considering my lovely wife and president Amy, the smart and healthy teenager Adam, the two beagles (Evie and Giada), two cats (Merian C. Cooper and Fay Wray), the gecko (Dragon) and some good friends — there’s a lot to be happy about. And here ends my first blog.  -- Dennis

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