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You meet all the best people At the Chelsea (first published January 21, 2011)

Posted on March 23, 2012 by Amy Heller | 6 Comments


These days, with Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery opening around the country (in LA at the Nuart and in Portland, OR at the Cinema 21 on Friday 1/21/11) [note: this blog was first published on January 21, 2011] and his second great film Come Back Africa slated for release later this year, we here at Milestone are just embarking on our next big project. It is a little early to announce the topic, but in preparation, we are busy doing research. And my line of inquiries led me to an absolutely wonderful book and an amazing writer and person: At the Chelsea, a memoir written by Florence Turner.

Florence Turner also worked in the film business; she was a theatre scout (a “minor executive, a term that still sounds ridiculous,”) for MGM in New York in 1964 when good fortune (for her and her readers) landed her at the Chelsea Hotel, which would become her home for many years. Much has been written about the Chelsea and its storied guests (including Thomas Wolfe, Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Jimi Hendrix, Mark Twain, Sid Vicious, Arthur Miller, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin), but Turner’s At the Chelsea isso much more than who-slept-here-and-with-whom book. It is the self-portrait of a very perceptive older woman (that is, around my age—mid-50s) who is as honest with (and about) herself as she is kind and perceptive about the people she meets.

A refugee from the Upper East Side (after several neighborhood murders and a break in of her apartment), Turner found a home at the Chelsea and quickly came to appreciate the hotel’s unusual zeitgeist: “the rare quality of the place where we could be ourselves without the wariness or the sense of critical eyes. We could work and dream and even starve with the knowledge that we were not alone, or as far as possible as it is not to be alone.”

While conveying her love and respect for the hotel denizens and staff, Turner observes them in all their weird glory. Her voice and sense of the absurd are hard to resist. One of the most celebrated inhabitants of the Chelsea was composer Virgil Thomson, famed for his Four Saints in Three Acts (written with Gertrude Stein). Turner encountered Thomson in the hotel lobby one day, “carrying his dirty laundry.” When he noticed she was reading a biography of Edith Piaf, Thomson told her “she lived in the house, you know.” Turner later learned that Thomson, who had been the music critic of the Herald Tribune, came to the defense of the greatchanteuse when other reviewers savaged her performances—and then brought “the little sparrow” home to roost at the Chelsea. Turner’s interweaving of the banal and the immortal is charming—and I especially appreciate that sack of soiled clothing.

Turner is not a great airer of dirty laundry—but she does not go out of her way to hide it either. During her tenure at the Chelsea, the hotel’s owner, Stanley Bard welcomed artists, writers, musicians, dancers and filmmakers and sometimes overlooked their delinquent payments… at least for a while. When times got especially lean, Bard would rent rooms to pimps—at double the price he usually charged. As Turner writes, “the pimps were, unknowingly, patrons of the arts.”

Turner brings great attention and affection to all the people she came to know at the hotel. Of Irene, the maid on her floor, she wrote: “she was black and from the South, with a healthy cynicism, a regal bearing and huge kindness… Later, when I was jobless, her friendship proved to have great depth.” She was well acquainted with the members of the hotel staff and tells each one’s story with care—Charles Beard, captain of the bellman was a church warden and had trained as a welter-weight with Canada Lee; John Dorman, the night man, was a talented actor whose imposing size made it hard to find jobs; Josephine Brickman, the queen of the switchboard, had been a telephone operator with the WACS in World War II England.

The vibrant community of the hotel provides a rich cast of characters and Turner also writes about luminaries like actress Viva (who starred in several Andy Warhol films), poet Gregory Corso, couturier Charles James and the woman who shot Warhol, Valerie Solanis.

Turner gives special care and time to her closest friends at Chelsea. Dr. Helen Johnson, a distinguished black expert on the history of the black theatre introduced Turner to legendary jazzmen like Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. The two women often conversed at the bar of the hotel’s restaurant, El Quijote, Florence drinking whisky, Helen enjoying bourbon.

Because I am an expat New Yorker (now living out in the ’burbs) I am especially drawn to Turner’s lovely evocations of everyday life lived in a great, scruffy city. New York in the 1960s and 1970s was not the imperial city it had been, and is now again. It was distinctly tattered, often smelly, sometimes dangerous and vibrant. She writes: “The hippie days were gradually changing. We had all eaten soul food, hummed songs from Motown albums, enjoyed ourselves in a blackout, which resulted in the best kind of conviviality where the entire hotel met in the lobby, paired off, lit candles, enjoyed walking in the shifting light and shadow up the lovely shallow steps of the Chelsea stairway…. The summers were still wonderful…. From my window I liked to watch the Leonardo da Vinci come silent up the Hudson, set against a sunset sky the colour of the inside of an abalone shell.” I remember summer evenings like that.

But more than anything else, I love Turner’s courage. An unmarried woman, the mother of grown sons, Turner launched her life in New York and then at the Chelsea in a spirit of openness and adventure. She made friends, found lovers, took risks and lived her life fully. But fully does not always mean happily, and Turner bravely tells all aspects of her story—sometimes with humor, sometimes with throat-catching honesty and sadness.

When she was laid off from MGM, Turner went through several very hard years. The grind of poverty, the humiliation of being unable to pay her bills and most of all a profound depression born of “job hunting day after day without success,” wore her down. She struggled to fill her time and earn a living. When Maurice Girodias, publisher of Olympia Press and a Chelsea resident, suggested she write pornography for him, Turner pulled out her typewriter and started work on a novel titled The Naked and the Nude (she had wanted to call it Wait for Me I’m Coming!).

But her depression deepened and became overwhelming—her sobbing uncontrollable. A doctor at St. Vincent’s Hospital eventually took her “tear-sodden” condition seriously and admitted her to the psychiatric wing. During the six weeks she was a patient, Turner was able to finish her pornographic novel. As she described it, the Virgin Mary smiled down from the walls of the Catholic hospital, as she wrote about “cocks and cunts.” The book earned her $1700—and helped her stay on at the Chelsea.

That year, Turner met a new young man—a Russian photographer in his 20s who was “both exceptional and non-serious.” They spent a magical spring day together at Coney Island where they ate “disgusting” pigs ears and watched as the giant QE2 sailed silently by. (Curiously, Patti Smith, fellow hotel resident and a friend of Turner’s, describes an unforgettable day spent at Coney Island with Robert Mapplethorpe in her extraordinary book, Just Kids.) That winter, Turner and her photographer friend attended an uptown party together. On the cab ride home, the tipsy young man told the driver to stop. He ran into Central Park, whooping and leaping with drunken joy. “As I watched,” Turner wrote, “Time lurched with a jolt and a grinding into the season and slot of my old age.” I don’t think I have read a more nakedly honest sentence, or one that chilled me more.

Eventually her money and luck ran out and Turner packed her bags and relocated to Edinburgh, Scotland. Her friends threw a party for her, lent her some money, poured champagne and drove her to Kennedy Airport. “Thus I left the Chelsea, my heart and New York City behind me on February 5, 1975.”

It took me quite a bit of searching to learn the end of Turner’s story. No amount of googling yielded anything except the fact that she had written a volume of short stories that was published only in the UK. Finally, through Yahoo, I learned of an obituary in a 2001 edition ofThe Scotsman. I signed up with High Beam Research so that I could read it all. And it was worth it the $29.95 it will end up costing me.

According to Todd McEwen’s loving tribute, Turner moved to Scotland to be near her children and grandchildren. She lived there for 26 years (she died at the age of 91!) and was the mainstay of a group of Bohemians in the city. Turner was a frequent habitué of the bar of the Drummond Hotel, where she enjoyed the “indifferent whisky and, still the cow-girl, the excellent steaks.”

McEwen describes Turner as a colorful dresser and “in all things a writer, a believer in the life of the artist, in the energetic, rich feeding of the senses. Skilled in handing out big, American-style kisses to everyone, she made no secret of the fact that she found growing older a distinct disappointment and ‘pain in the arse.’”

A coda to this long rambling book review/homage: After reading At the Chelsea on loan from my local library system, I got online and bought a copy along with a copy of Turner’s book of stories, All the Little Wars. When they arrived, I opened the short story collection and discovered, hand-written on the title page:

“To Helen Johnson my dear friend of many years with love from the author—Florence Turner.”

I felt as honored and delighted as if I had been actually able to welcome these remarkable ladies into my home.

A final footnote: the Helen Armstead Johnson Collection is now part of the New York Public Library and items from the collection are on display at the “What’s up @ the Schomburg” exhibition at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York, NY 10037-1801, (212) 491-2200 (through February 27). The Johnson collection includes historical photos, posters, theater memorabilia, and rarely seen scrapbooks of black entertainers of the 18th and 20th centuries.
Turner, Florence. At the Chelsea. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers. New York. 1987.
Turner, Florence. All the Little Wars. Hamish Hamilton. London. 1987.
Todd McEwen Obituary. “Florence Turner.” The Scotsman. Scotsman Publications. 2001. HighBeam Research. 13 Jan. 2011 <>.

Posted in chelsea hotel, florence turner

Why I Love My Job (most of the time) and How I Got Here (first published January 16, 2011)

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

Amy Heller in 1982?

When I was a mere youth, back in the 1970s (and early 1980s—I matured rather slowly), I struggled to imagine a career for myself. I had jobs, sure, but as much or as little as I liked them, I was always ready to move on after a while—often, a very short while.

Was I a prima donna? A slacker (long before the word was ever coined)? A snob? A baby? Probably.

I do remember that I consciously did not want to be a “hack”—which to me meant doing the same task over and over again. Or maybe I was just easily bored. But either way, I wandered away from good internships and jobs as soon as they started to seem repetitive.

I also wanted my work to be both meaningful to me and “good for the world.” Stints working for the book editor of a fashion magazine and at a publisher of teen romance novels left me with the feeling that the product of my labor was (at best) questionable. I had been a good student in college and I remembered my Marx: the worker under capitalism loses control of the product of his labor, of the work process itself and finally, of her own connection to humanity. I might be willing to punch a clock and wear pantyhose, but I cringed at the idea that my work was making other women feel fat or unloved (although I felt that way myself, a lot of the time). So on I went.

As a feminist, I believed that the personal was political. A temporary job (at, of all places, an antinuclear group’s fundraising campaign) brought home how important it was to work at a place where everyone is treated with respect. I was giddy with relief when that gig ended—and I remained friends with some of my (amazing) elderly volunteers for years.

Graduate school was (naturally) a more complicated series of lessons. I was challenged (scared witless, much of the time) and excited about what I was learning and writing. But I had the bad (or good, perhaps) luck of arriving at a university to study labor history in the midst of a very divisive and bitter strike. I walked picket lines and tangled (briefly and ineptly) with the administration. I also saw how grandiose and self-righteous students (like me), while meaning to do the right thing, could end up turning on one another. Later, I understood that my grad school experience had given me a valuable and cautionary taste of corporate America. When you work for a large corporation (like a university), you have very little power or control. I knew I didn’t want to be an itinerant teacher, hop scotching the country from one three-year teaching assignment to another. I wanted to go home, to New York City.

So I did. And I had the wonderful luck to fall into a job in film distribution. My colleagues were the best: smart, interested in everything and deeply engaged in their work. And the films were “products” that I could and did believe in. They combined art and politics and I felt happy to be part of the process that got them into theaters (this was before video, if you can believe it).

The pay was, well, meager. So I moved on to another fine film distributor and saw more life-altering films. I loved my coworkers and my customers. Conversations with film programmers across the country taught me about places I had never been, books I wanted read and music of all kinds. I am still friends with many of these folks, 25 years later. The job occasionally chafed (remember, prima donna…) but I worked at a small company and when I had a beef, I could take it to the boss. And I had some pretty great bosses.

Work did get a bit repetitive, of course. And I wished I had more say in what films were acquired and how they were marketed. Even at a small company, the division of labor could be inflexible. I thought about other careers, but I stayed in film. And eventually I met Dennis Doros, my now-husband and partner at—of course—a film party.

Dennis was also working for another small independent film distributor and had done terrific work putting together several film series and restoring two silent features. He had a project he was working on outside his day job—a series of adventure and exploration films from the early days of cinema. So I joined in. And after we married, first I, and then he, left our jobs to start Milestone. We were (relatively) young, quite naïve and we just plunged in. Somehow—I’m not quite sure how—we, and Milestone, survived.

So why—after more than twenty years—do I love my job? Well, first and above all, it is not boring. (At least most of the time—bookkeeping is predictably tedious.) Each film is a new project, a new start. Over the last twenty-plus years we have had occasion to do research on Antarctic exploration, Korean Zen Buddhism, Mary Pickford, the history of New York’s Bowery, Aboriginal bark painting, Native Americans in Los Angeles, Italian neorealism, life in occupied France, chess-playing automatons, the life and loves of Edna Saint Vincent Millay, Islamic religious schools in Bangladesh, Pablo Picasso and Luke the Wonder Dog—well, you get the idea.

Truth is, I suspect that we do more research than most distributors—certainly more than we absolutely need to. But from the start, we realized that while our P&A budgets were meager, we could make sure that the members of the press (and now, increasingly, the public) have all the information they need to give the film an informed viewing—and plenty of background to include in any reviews (or now, blog posts). And I have to admit that the research often becomes and remains a joy and a pursuit in itself. There may be somebusiness rationale for our ongoing interest in, say, the life and work of those intrepid filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Perhaps we will re-release their great documentaries Grass and Chang one of these days. But really, we love them and their stories and enjoy learning more about them, whenever we can.

Other reasons I like this job: although it took me years to get used to it, running Milestone means we can set our own schedules and priorities. This is really a tremendous luxury. When we first started, Dennis and I worked all the time. But after we became parents, we (and especially I) were able to hang out with our son as he went from infant to toddler to now, teenager. And last year when my dad was fighting his gallant battle against laryngeal cancer, I could be with him almost every day. Of course as small business owners we also work many nights and weekends (I’m writing this at 8:11 on a Saturday night, and I generally try to write in the evenings) but we choose.

Another huge perk: I get to work with Dennis. If you know him or have been reading his blogs, you will understand why I appreciate and enjoy this! And over the years we have worked with many great colleagues—full-time employees and interns. They have brought—and continue to bring—great energy, creativity, passion and talent to Milestone.

Finally, when we started Milestone, Dennis and I decided to release films that we love and believe in. And so we love and believe in the films we release. I think that our collection contains art, sanity, intelligence and humanity—and I hope it has a good effect on the world. I believe and hope it may.


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 at 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 and here.

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