The Austin Chronicle

A Peek Into One Boutique's Two Decades of Preservation

AFS Essential Cinema: Selections From Milestone Films

By Marjorie Baumgarten, June 4, 2010, Screens

Movies unspool before us, but rarely do we think about where they come from. We may talk about the directors who made them, swoon over certain actors, even note the occasional composer or producer. But the distributor? Really, how often do we notice (and remember) the name of the company responsible for getting the movie out to viewers? More important, how frequently do we consider these companies as identifiable characters in the scheme of things, as entities with personalities and not just invisible behemoths peddling film products to make a buck?

The subject is vast, and there's no one-answer-fits-all approach, especially in this era marked by corporate conglomeration and systemic changes brought about by the advancements in digital-delivery technologies. Yet, sometimes, a company's identity shines clearly, even while others around them are in flux. One of those companies is Milestone Films, which was founded in 1990 and is now celebrating its 20th anniversary with a national touring exhibition of films from its catalog. "Discovering and distributing films of enduring artistry from both yesterday and today" is the company's mission, as stated on its website. The company's collection ranges from silent films to modern American independent features and also includes documentaries and foreign films. More than that, Milestone's co-founders, Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, are avid preservationists and film restorers, seeking out the best print sources and occasional missing footage to present viewers with optimum film experiences. The 10 films in the Austin Film Society's new summer series offer a terrific survey of the company's work.

The restoration of Killer of Sheep, made in 1977 by AFS advisory board member Charles Burnett, is one of Milestone Films' great success stories. Burnett's realist portrait of African-American life in Los Angeles' Watts ghetto was one of the first 50 films selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. Yet music licensing problems had interfered with the film's public presentation over the years, and only ragged 16mm prints were available at the time Doros and Heller stepped in to create a restored and fully licensed print for the film's 30th anniversary. They have applied the same restoration standards to films that have been hacked by censors or trimmed to fit the demands of television time frames and visual frames (as in altered pan-and-scan presentations of widescreen movies). Orson Welles' The Trial, based on the Kafka work, is an example of such a save from the TV vaults. Other works by cinema masters in this series include Luchino Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers, Michael Powell's The Edge of the World, and Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home. Among the rescued documentaries in the program are the harrowing South: Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition and the lyrical Araya, about Venezuelan salt harvesters. The program is rounded out with the Japanese award-winner Village of Dreams, Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's hypothetical narrative It Happened Here about what life in England would be like if Germany had won World War II, and the Seventies classic Siddhartha, based on the Hermann Hesse novel. All films screen at noon on Saturdays at the Alamo Ritz. Each is a "milestone."

A Summer of Restoration: Selections From Milestone Films

June 5: I'm Going Home

June 12: Village of Dreams

June 19: The Edge of the World

June 26: Rocco and His Brothers

July 3: Killer of Sheep

July 10: It Happened Here

July 17: The Trial

July 24: Araya

July 31: Siddhartha

Aug. 7: South: Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition

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