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.
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.
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.”