ITHACA, N.Y. — Film exhibitions do not get more essential than the one Cornell Cinema premieres tonight, when Shirley Clarke’s Ornette: Made in America screens at 7:15 p.m.

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Ornette, a freewheeling documentary about the late jazz great Ornette Coleman, is the first of seven selections from Milestone Films, a distribution company Cornell Cinema is celebrating on the occasion of its 25th anniversary.


Mark your calendars for the other six: Killer of Sheep (on Sept. 23), Losing Ground (Oct. 7 and 9), In the Land of the Head Hunters (Oct. 14), I am Cuba (Nov. 4), Portrait of Jason (Nov. 11 and 13) and Rocco and His Brothers (Nov. 18 and 22).

With the exception of Rocco, all of these films would go unseen if not for Milestone’s efforts to obtain and restore — painstakingly, of course — the original prints, presumed lost before the company’s efforts. Over the past 25 years, Milestone has conducted its quiet, lifesaving business, amassing an alternate canon of cinema spanning from the silent era to today. Thanks to Cornell Cinema, Ithaca now has the rare chance to sample the company’s greatest hits.

Founded in 1990 and based in Harrington Park, New Jersey, a quiet town of less than 5,000, Milestone Films is run by Amy Heller and Dennis Doros, a wife-and-husband team commemorating a personal 25th anniversary this year as well. Fielding phone calls and mailing orders from their basement, which is covered with posters, photographs, plaques and appreciative notes from such luminaries as Marcel Ophüls, Heller and Doros have mastered the balance between work and pleasure — surely a cause for, and effect of, their enduring success.

Though Milestone’s name may not click with the general moviegoing public, names that do — like Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh — have endorsed and collaborated with the company on numerous occasions. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, which will screen at Cornell Cinema in precious 35mm, would not have lived to enjoy its rapturous 2007 release, 30 years after production, if not for Soderbergh’s support in name and out-of-pocket.

Another longtime friend of Milestone, Scorsese helped usher two of Cornell Cinema’s selections —  Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, newly restored, and Mikhail Kalatozov’s I am Cuba, also screening in 35mm — to release with his vocal championing, especially with regards to their masterful cinematography.

Kathleen Collins’ Losing Ground, one of the first movies directed by an African-American woman, and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason — a gay, black hustler’s feature-length monologue, directed by a woman in 1968 — share atypical pedigrees. Doros and Heller acknowledge that correcting underrepresentation, in who gets to direct and what subjects receive cinematic treatment, motivates their challenging and implicitly political work.

“The reason [these films] were lost to history, in some ways,” said Heller, of Milestone Films, in an interview, “and the reason they are different and fascinating is that they are directed by people who are not in the middle of the mainstream film world: by women, black filmmakers, etc. That is also important to us. They deal with issues that are not always represented in the mainstream.”

Milestone’s sensibility selects the films it rescues, and its films, despite being made by other people often decades earlier, bear that signature.

“The importance of the historic work Amy and Dennis have chosen to resurrect is never in question,” Mary Fessenden, director of Cornell Cinema, said. “The credentials of their collaborators and the quality of the restorations they produce with them is always top-notch, and the taste they have when acquiring contemporary work is impeccable.”

Seeing these films in a communal setting like Cornell Cinema, starting with Ornette: Made in America tonight, does justice to the cinematography, for one, and builds the kind of word-of-mouth Milestone sees as its proudest, most powerful export. “We want to destabilize the canon,” Heller said, offering a mission statement of sorts.

“The films are exciting and cinematic and demand to be discussed after seeing,” Doros said. “They are not films that you watch, enjoy and forget about afterwards: You need to talk about them.”

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