Shoes (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD) The Dumb Girl of Portici (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD) The Covered Wagon (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)
Lois Weber holds a place in film history as the first major woman film director in Hollywood. What’s often forgotten in that honor is the talent that gave her a successful 25 year making films for the major studios. She took on serious issues through her dramas, putting a face to the social problems she addressed, and brought nuance and complexity to her stories of struggle and hardship in modern American life in the 1910s. She brought a sophistication to movies in the era when movies grew up and though she shares screen credit with her husband, Phillip Smalley, film historians agree that Weber was the defining creative force. Weber has been overlooked in film histories in part because so many of her films have been lost and her surviving films have not been widely available. The Milestone Films release of the restoration of Shoes (1916) and The Dumb Girl of Portici(1916) should help restore her place as one of the most important and influential filmmakers—male or female—of her day.
Shoes (1916) is one of her best films, a social drama that humanizes the plight of poverty through the story of an underpaid shopgirl supporting her entire family on her wages and too poor to replace the ratty shoes that are literally falling apart on her feet. The plot is simple when reduced to its essentials—she gives into the advances of a cad in exchange for a new pair of shoes—but the meticulous presentation of her life and the nuanced performance of actress Mary MacLaren give the film a tremendous power, and Weber frames the shoes as vivid metaphors for the poverty of working class women.
Losing Ground (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD) – If you’ve never heard of American playwright and filmmaker Kathleen Collins, don’t feel bad. At least not for yourself. Collins succumbed to cancer in 1988 at the age of 46 after completing just one feature. The independently-made Losing Ground (1982) was produced before the American Indie film culture established itself with the successes of Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Wayne Wang, the Coen Bros. and others. It played a few screenings but never received any real distribution or a theatrical run and remained unknown outside of scholarly circles for decades. You can feel bad that the film never received the recognition it deserved in Collins’ lifetime but better to celebrate its revival and rediscovery.
Losing Ground is one of the first features directed by an African-American woman. That alone makes it worthy of attention but Collins proves to be an intelligent, insightful, and nuanced filmmaker. She tells the story of Sara Rogers (Seret Scott), a professor of philosophy at a New York City college, and her husband Victor (Bill Gunn, director of Ganja & Hess), a painter who is suddenly compelled to reconnect with his art on a more immediate, passionate level. When he decides to move out of the city to get in touch with his muse with a summer sublet of a gorgeous rural home, Sara’s objections mean little. She has no say in the matter, a sign that things are not well in their marriage. So while he searches for his ecstasy (and finds it in a young Latina he finds dancing in the streets), she decides to find hers by acting in a student film.
We never stop recovering our film history. Lost movies are being found and older films on the verge of self-destruction are getting preserved and in many cases painstakingly restored, thanks to the digital tools that give filmmakers, producers, studios, and film archivists and restorers the ability to resurrect damaged prints and rescue damaged footage previously beyond the scope of physical and chemical methods.
The preservation of our film legacy is essential, but it’s just an ideal until the preserved films become available for viewers at large to watch, not just limited to brief festival appearances. Film history needs to be living history, and thanks to DVD and Blu-ray, streaming and digital downloads, and (ironically) the shift from celluloid to digital projection, classic films are more available than ever.
This list is focused on debuts and rediscoveries of classic films and cinema landmarks, restorations of great films, and revivals of previously unavailable movies that became available to viewers in 2015 in theaters, on home video, or via streaming services. Not just a countdown of the best, it’s a survey of the breadth of restorations and rediscoveries that film lovers across the country now have a chance to see regardless of where they live.
1 – Out 1
Set in “Paris and its double,” Jacques Rivette’s Nouvelle Vague epic (a staggering 12 ½ hours long!) is a film of doubles and reflections: two rival theater groups each rehearsing a different play by Aeschylus (“Prometheus Bound” and “The Seven Against Thebes”), two theater group leaders who were once lovers, two street hustlers (Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto) who stumble into the conspiracy of “The Thirteen,” which turns out to be both a fictional creation by Balzac and a contemporary cabal that includes some of the characters in the film. Rivette, who collaborated with the cast to fill out his outline of a script, musters the energy and enthusiasm and free-spirited filmmaking of the Nouvelle Vague that his more famous colleagues left as the moved into their own comfort zones (Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer) or, in the case of Godard, discomfort zones. His engagement with actors is there on the screen, creating energy even in simple conversational scenes, and they are co-conspirators in his hide-and-seek narratives, where characters circle conspiracies and play blind man’s bluff through mysteries that may have no solution. Meanwhile their lives go on, even if their projects are sidelined, shut down, or simply left to evaporate as they move on to their next project.
In the Land of the Head Hunters (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD) is not a documentary but it is an invaluable historical document nonetheless. Famed photographer Edward S. Curtis made a career documenting the native tribes on the west in the early 20th century, preserving the imagery of a culture that had almost entirely eradicated through resettlement and assimilation. He lived for a time with the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) people of British Columbia and filmed some of their traditional dance for his lectures before he came up with the idea of making a feature with the members of the tribe.
Neither documentary nor strictly recreation—Curtis wrote a melodramatic tale drawn as much (if not more) from western mythology and European fairy tales as from native cultures—In the Land of the Head Hunters showcases traditional dances and rituals from the era before contact with white settlers through its story of love and war. There’s a brave warrior in ritual of manhood, the daughter of a chief who is in love with him, a cruel sorcerer who plots to destroy the warrior, and the sorcerer’s brother. The actors were all non-professionals and Curtis, who is more documentarian than dramatic storyteller, a rudimentary filmmaker, but he worked with the tribe to recreate the costumes, masks, canoes, and longhouses of the old culture, preserving a legacy that the Canadian government was trying to stamp out (the tribes were forbidden from practicing their cultural rituals and this film provided an exception, which they eagerly took).
The Connection (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD), the debut feature from Shirley Clarke, turns a stage play originally produced by New York’s revolutionary Living Theater as a play within a play into an innovative work of cinema. Clarke was a pioneering American independent filmmaker before that label was even invented and this is Volume One of Milestone films’ Project Shirley, their program to restore and rerelease (in theaters and on home video) the works of Clarke. It’s actually their third disc release—the documentaries Portrait of Jason (1967), a landmark of queer cinema, and Ornette: Made in America (1985), were ready for disc before The Connection—but it really is ground zero for the project and her career.
In this adaptation, a filmmaker and his cameraman (William Redfield and a largely off-screen but present Roscoe Lee Brown in his film debut) film a group of junkies in a New York loft as they await to score heroine (paid for by the filmmakers) from their drug dealer, a flamboyant character named Cowboy (Carl Lee). While they wait, the men trade-off delivering soliloquies to the camera, a jazz quartet (which includes composer Freddie Redd on piano and brilliant sax solos by Jackie McLean, both reprising their roles from the stage play) periodically launches into impromptu jams, and the director spouts off about film theory and authenticity without having any idea about the world he’s trying to capture. They alternately provoke the filmmaker, who has never so much as a taken a puff of marijuana, and perform for the prowling handheld cameras, and then slip off to the bathroom to discretely shoot up.
The death of Blu-ray and DVD has apparently been prematurely called. Streaming and cable VOD still dominates home viewing but Redbox and other kiosk-based disc vendors have kept disc rentals alive (if not quite robust) and Blu-ray remains the format of choice for movie collectors and home theater enthusiasts, keeping sales robust enough to bring new players into the business. Kino Lorber expanded its release schedule with a Kino Classics collection of titles from the MGM/UA catalog and distribution deals with Cohen, Raro, Redemption, and Scorpion. Shout Factory has ventured into restorations and special editions as well as new partners (like Werner Herzog). Warner Archive has increased their flow of Blu-rays with some substantial titles presented in high-quality editions. Twilight Time has made its own limited edition business plan work and started adding more supplements to their releases, including original commentary tracks from the company’s film history brain trust.
This is my highly subjective take on the best disc releases of 2014 (of those I had the opportunity to watch and explore), with extra points for heroic efforts and creative archival additions. Note that this is strictly domestic releases—I do have import discs but I don’t have many and I barely have the time to keep up with American disc releases—and are as much about the importance of the release as the quality of the disc.
1. The Complete Jacques Tati (Criterion, Blu-ray and DVD) collects all six features he directed (including alternate versions of three films) and seven shorts he wrote and/or directed, plus a wealth of other supplements. Of the six features on this set, all but Playtime make their respective American Blu-ray debuts and two appear on disc for the first time in the U.S. From his debut feature Jour de Fête (1949) to the birth of both M. Hulot and the distinctive Tati directorial approach in his brilliant and loving Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) through the sublime Playtime (1967) to his post-script feature Parade (1974), this set presents the development of an artist who took comedy seriously and sculpted his films like works of kinetic art driven by eccentric engines of personality. The amiable oddball Monsieur Hulot was his most beloved creation, a bemused outsider navigating the craziness of the modern world, but unlike the films of Chaplin, Tati’s screen alter ego is just a member of an ensemble. A gifted soloist to be sure and the face of the films, but a player who weaves his work into the larger piece. Tati made comedy like music and this collection celebrates his cinematic symphonies. Playtime reviewed here.
2. The Essential Jacques Demy(Criterion, Blu-Ray+DVD Dual-Format set) offers the definitive American disc releases of six of the defining films of Jacques Demy, the Nouvelle Vague‘s sadder-but-wiser romantic, from his 1961 debut Lola to his 1982 Une Chambre en Ville, which makes its American home video debut here. Like so many of his fellow directors, Rivette loved American movies, especially musicals, but his taste for American musicals and candy-colored romance was balanced with a bittersweet sensibility. For all the energizing music and dreamy love affairs, his romances more often than not don’t really get happy endings. The films include his two most famous musicals, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), as well as four early shorts—Les horizons morts (1951), Le sabotier du Val de Loire (1956), Ars (1959), and La luxure (1962)—plus two documentaries on Demy made by his widow Agnes Varda, a small library of archival TV programs on the films, and the hour-long visual essay “Jacques Demy, A to Z” by James Quandt. Full review here.
Monty Python Live (Mostly) – One Down, Five to Go (Eagle Rock, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital) puts to disc the stage performance that was previously shown via satellite in select theaters around the world for one night only earlier in 2014. The first live show sold out with 30 seconds of the moment tickets went on sale and more shows were added, but they capped it at ten performances at the O2 in London. They say that this is the last time the group will perform together, and there’s no reason to doubt it; the last time the entire group performed together was 30 years ago, when Graham Chapman was still alive.
The title says it all: the five remaining Pythons (plus their favorite guest performer, Carol Cleveland) reunite for an encore, with Gilliam getting a little more involved than usual and a featured chorus member periodically joining in. You could say that Chapman is as much as a presence as could be hoped for, considering he died 25 years ago, but in fact he’s featured more than you would think possible, from the title of the show to classic film and video clips that bring him back into the ensemble (including some clips that showed in their first concert film, Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl) or make him a link between live segments, as if he was still interacting with the old gang.
This isn’t a master class, it’s a reunion and we’ve been invited to watch the old gang fall back into old patterns. Between revivals of their greatest hits (with a few wink wink nudge nudge updates) are big song-and-dance production numbers out of an overblown Broadway revue, with young dancers and singers taking over to kick up the energy and provide the production value. The rest is nostalgia. They are nowhere near the top of their game but they are clearly having fun (they are just as funny when they forget their lines or lose their place, which happens a couple of time) and so is the audience. Everyone there seems to know the skits by heart and get a kick out of seeing these senior citizens revive their standards for one last go round.
There are a few supplements, notably behind-the-scenes clips from the initial reunion meeting, the official announcement, and highlights from the 10 shows (including all the guest star appearances), plus the raw footage that the Pythons shot for intermission breaks and other video screen announcements.
Portrait of Jason (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD), Shirley Clarke’s stream of consciousness character study of Jason Holliday, aka Aaron Payne, is a landmark of non-fiction filmmaking and LGBT cinema. Ostensibly part of the cinema verité movement, it straddles the line between documentary and performance art piece. Clarke shot her portrait of the gay black hustler as an all-night extemporaneous monologue and gave voice to a man who would otherwise never be heard in any media form in 1967. In his round coke-bottle glasses and collegiate blazer, Jason plays to the camera and skeleton crew (heard just off camera throughout but never seen), telling stories and doing impressions over the 12 hour session, which Clarke edited to just under two hours. It is an act, all performance and outsized personality, with Jason playing the raconteur and would-be nightclub headliner, and it’s not clear how much is true and how much flight of fancy and projection. But between his paroxysms of laughter, puffs of a joint, and endless glasses of vodka, he offers a glimpse of how one grows up and survives as a flamboyant queer in sixties America.
It’s a scruffy, raw film that got scuffed up over the decades and had never been released on home video in the U.S. until Milestone undertook “Project Shirley.” Portrait of Jason is officially “Project Shirley, Volume 2? but the first in the series to be released to Blu-ray and DVD. This restoration, built on materials found in worldwide search, recovers lost footage and visual detail but leaves the roughness of the 16mm shoot intact because Clarke treasured that gritty texture. And as with all of Milestone’s archival presentations, the discs are packed with invaluable historical bonus material, from outtakes to archival interviews with Clarke to the audio-only “The Jason Holliday Comedy Album,” a rarity that makes an astounding companion piece to the film.
In 1957, Lionel Rogosin–a genuine American independent filmmaker before the term was ever coined–traveled to South Africa to make a film exposing the conditions under which the oppressed black Africans live. He had just made is directorial debut with the critically acclaimed On the Bowery, a portrait of life on New York’s Skid Row, and was inspired to take on the daunting challenge of making a film in what Rogosin realized was in fact a police state, one that the rest of the world knew almost nothing about in 1957. He began work under the guise of producing a non-political film about the musical culture of the country (and there is, in fact, a wealth of local music in the film) while secretly meeting anti-apartheid activists and developing a loose script with the help of local writers, artists, and activists. Using non-actors and shooting clandestinely, he improvised from the outline. The result is a loose, sometimes arch drama that draws its power from the texture of the lives and the locations shown on screen.
The basic story follows the experience of Zachariah (Zacharia Mgabi), an uneducated man from Zululand who comes to Johannesburg for work in the gold mines and then stays to find work in town. It’s a challenge from the outset in a bureaucracy designed to make life difficult for blacks trying to move to the city. The modern world is all quite new to him–even the radio is a foreign wonder–and he’s very much the country naïf in the big city, getting along with help from men who have already learned the system. He goes from job to job, from a servant in a middle-class apartment (he’s considered a “house boy,” emphasis on “boy,” a term used by the whites which is only slightly less offensive than “kaffir”) to working in a hotel, in a garage, and on a road crew. His wife comes to the city with their two children. While she looks for work, their preteen son learns the culture of street gangs and street musicians.
Dennis Doros and Amy Heller created Milestone Films in 1990, a company dedicated to the restoration and rediscovery of forgotten and neglected films, be they classic or contemporary. They first brought Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Mabarosi (1995) and Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks (1997) stateside and they distribute such silent landmarks as South (1920), Beyond the Rocks (1922), and the films of Mary Pickford. But their greatest legacy lies the area of cinema archeology. They rescued the 1964 Russia/Cuba collaboration I Am Cuba from near oblivion, restoring the film and releasing it to great acclaim in the U.S. in 1995, and stepped up to distribute Charles Burnett’s 1979 landmark Killer of Sheep for the first time in theaters and on DVD.
They have since resurrected a number of American independent landmarks, including On the Bowery (1956), The Exiles (1961), and Winter Soldier (1972). Their current mission (dubbed “Project Shirley” by Dennis Doros) is to restore and re-release the films of American director Shirley Clarke, an overlooked pioneer whose films have been almost impossible to see for decades. The Connection was released in 2012 and the restoration of Portrait of Jason is underway.
Partners in business and in marriage, Dennis and Amy continue to run Milestone Films from their home, though they have upgraded their facilities from a New York apartment to a house in Brooklyn. I caught up with Dennis at the 2012 Association of Moving Image Archivists conference, which took place in Seattle. The following interview began in person in Seattle but the bulk of it was conducted the week after AMIA via phone so I could talk to both Amy and Dennis in the relative calm of their New York home. I was lucky to catch them between trips.
Sean Axmaker: Can you talk about the process of restoring a film like The Exiles or Killer of Sheep or the current Shirley Clarke films? Not just the technical process of physically creating a print, but from discovery and tracking down materials to clearing rights. What does it take to restore and re-present a film is effectively unavailable to us?
Amy Heller: Each restoration project that we’ve done has been a completely different story. It can range form the easiest, which is a film that has just been restored, you can get the rights, you can bring it out. That’s really simple and it occasionally happens that way. But it also happens every other possible way. For instance, in the case of Killer of Sheep, it had been restored by UCLA. However, the music rights hadn’t been cleared, so that was an epic and very expensive journey finding out where all the rights owners were, clearing all the rights, paying for all the rights clearances. So that was a different kind of scenario. In any number of scenarios, we brought the films to the archives, most recently with Portrait of Jason.
Dennis Doros: Also Ornette and The Exiles.
Heller: In the case of Ornette and The Exiles, we knew where the materials were.
Doros: Actually, The Exiles was missing and I told the family that if they could find the negative, we would do it, and they sent the cinematographer to USC and he went through the vaults and found them. They were actually missing until we said, We’d love to distribute it if you can find it.
Heller: And in the case of Portrait of Jason, it was a film that had supposedly been restored and when we went to look at the restoration, it just didn’t look good. And the terms MOMA wanted in order to move ahead with it were not just financially but aesthetically difficult for us so Dennis began this long, long, long, convoluted quest to find if he could figure out where the camera elements were. That took all kinds of research with all kinds of people all over the world. So sometimes you have to be a sleuth and sometimes you just have to write the check. It just depends. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s hard.
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.”