The Legacy of Jason & Shirley
by Rebecca M. Alvin
In 1966 when filmmaker Shirley Clarke sat down to talk with Jason Holliday in the Chelsea Hotel for a marathon 12-hour interview, the idea of documenting the thoughts of a black gay hustler/aspiring nightclub performer was not the stuff of your typical documentary. There was no RuPaul’s Drag Race. Stonewall had not happened yet. And even Jennie Livingston’s groundbreaking Paris is Burning was still 24 years in the future.
The film that resulted from Clarke’s interest in Holliday is Portrait of Jason, a seminal documentary film that had all but vanished from public consciousness, and was not even properly recognized in hardcore cinephile circles until very recently. The production of that documentary is explored in a new film Jason and Shirley, which is screening at AMP Gallery this week.
Clarke’s stark, black-and-white documentary was made in response to the direct cinema films of the time, as a way to show how editing impacts the veracity of a documentary, even when the camera purports to be a “fly on the wall.” In Clarke’s film, moments in between the “important” parts of the interview are left in, including the conversations between crew/director and subject and other parts that would normally be edited out. That being said, the film was edited to 105 minutes, and it is structured in a way that reveals the power dynamic between the director, who ultimately controls the image, and the subject.
Throughout the film, Holliday regales us with stories of his life as a houseboy, discusses his sexuality, the racism and homophobia of the time, and imprints on us a unique perspective that was not well-documented then and still isn’t 50 years later. While Jason’s performance is a performance (as he is always quite deliberate in how he presents himself), it is he who is ultimately broken down in the film’s final moments. As groundbreaking and underappreciated as Clarke’s film is, it also displays some uncomfortable realities about the nature of the documentary encounter between subject, filmmaker, and audience.
Filmmaker Stephen Winter, who is black and gay, recalls seeing the film by Clarke, (who was white and straight), during his first year at NYU, back in the late 1980s. “I looked up gay and hustler because I was in a My Own Private Idaho kind of mood, and I saw a description for this, which I’d never heard of before, and was very surprised to see how different it was from Gus van Sant’s lush, romantic vision: how it was so stark, so cold, so filled with a desperate energy and a negative vibe, and how much animus you could feel between [Clarke and] Jason.” He remembers comparing Jason to James Baldwin, whom he resembled in some ways, but seeing how very different they were. “Where [Baldwin] was always speaking truth to power and brilliantly fierce, Jason was always apologizing for himself in his body language, in the desperation of his tone, and in the nakedness with which he was presenting himself, the constant drinking. And the gruff voice from behind the camera was so aggressive that it took me about a year or two to watch the whole thing.”
That problematic relationship with Portrait of Jason was shared by Sarah Schulman, who recalls seeing it while programming a special section on queer cinema with black male subjects in 1989 for Mix NYC (The New York Queer Experimental Film Festival, which she cofounded with Jim Hubbard). When the film showed at Mix to a largely black male audience, Schulman said it was like seeing an entirely different film. “It was one thing when Jim [Hubbard] and I went to the Museum of Modern Art and sat in a room and watched it, but when we were in a room with black gay men who had come in anticipation of seeing people they’ll recognize, it becomes abusive; it becomes an assault, because there was almost nothing to counter it,” she recalls. “Looking at it now it’s different because there’s so much representation, but at that time, it dominated, and so it turned the theater and the space into a disappointing and upsetting space for black gay men.”
As a result, she only showed the first reel of the film. “ I felt that by the time you start to watch Jason’s complete performance of submission, it was really too much to ask black gay men, who we had invited to the space, to watch it. That’s what I was feeling in 1989, …. I censored it, to be honest —I wasn’t thinking of it that way, but that’s what it was,” she says, acknowledging that she made a mistake.
Years later, in discussions with Bizzy Barefoot (who ended up co-producing), Schulman invited Winter to direct what started out to be a remake of Portrait of Jason, but which instead turned into the 2015 fiction film, Jason and Shirley, a reimagined account of the encounter between Clarke and Holliday that includes a cast of characters not in the original film, including the types of people Winter says Clarke would likely have encountered in her world, such as the racist, sexist cinematographer in Jason and Shirley.
Jason and Shirley accentuates the hostility between Clarke and her subject, which Clarke herself had acknowledged in interviews. Because her film dealt with troubling subject matter like race and sexuality, Winter says, its importance had been understimated, which meant Jason was all but lost to the queer and black cinema communities.
“Jason Holliday, the cultural figure was shoved under the carpet, and that was where I realized that just really could not stand, because Jason Holliday is not a loser, nor is he a victim,” Winter says. “He was a professional raconteur, he was a professional singer, he was a professional artist. He was also a professional drunk, a professional drug addict, and a professional hustler. So it wasn’t like Shirley Clarke was controlling some kind of wildebeest she dragged up from 23rd Street; this was a meeting of two great minds,” he explains. “[Through his participation] Jason enabled this work of art to happen, that is the most complete portrait of pre-Stonewall LGBTQ life that we have. And it’s amazing that relatively few people know about it.”
There was some discomfort around this fictionalized account of two real people, with the Estate of Shirley Clarke particularly unhappy. Milestone Films, a distributor that had embarked upon “Project Shirley,” which was an 8-year-long mission to get Clarke’s films proper recognition—including Portrait of Jason—even went so far as to issue a public statement condemning the film on their website.
In part, the statement reads: “While we are absolute believers in freedom of speech and artistic expression and do not dispute that the producers, writers and stars of Jason and Shirley have every right to make their ‘re-vision’ of the making of Shirley Clarke’s great documentary Portrait of Jason, we feel we must go on the record about the film’s inaccurate and simplistic portrayals of a brilliant filmmaker and her charismatic subject.”
Schulman, who not only co-wrote the film with Winter and Jack Waters (who plays Jason in the film) but also stars in it as Shirley Clarke, says she does understand the complexity. “I felt like I understood her. She’s a smart Jewish woman, an artist, and she put herself in a milieu where she could have some kind of agency,” she says.
“She didn’t work with white men. She worked with black men. She made four films about black men in the 1960s, and I think it’s because white men wouldn’t listen to her or work with her or collaborate with her,” Schulman says. “There’s a big difference between she and I in that I’m gay and she was straight, and she had inherited money from her industrialist father and I don’t have that. But otherwise, there were quite a few points of identification…. I have also collaborated with a lot of black artists,” Schulman adds. “I do understand this thing of how the white men won’t play. I do know that, and in fact I started to understand that when I was working [on] Shirley.”
While both Clarke and Holliday are no longer with us, there are interviews with both of them that can give insight into the filming of Portrait of Jason. In an interview with Clarke in Afterimage from 1983, she explains her attraction to Jason as a subject: “Jason is a performer, and everything except the last 20 minutes in the film I had seen a hundred times before. I’d heard every story that he told and every variation. I knew that if I asked him X, I would get Y. I knew him that well. An interesting and important fact is that I started that evening with hatred, and there was a part of me that was out to do him in, get back at him, kill him. But as the evening progressed, I went through a change of not wanting to kill him but wanting him to be wonderful . . . Somehow, he ends up the victor. I was perfectly willing for him to win.”
For his part, Holliday, who died a year after Clarke in 1998, was interviewed at the time of the film’s release in a Village Voice article where he said of his performance in the film, “I know I am a great actor and I got a chance to prove it . . . I wondered if people would think I was a homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual. I wondered if I was great enough to convince them I was all three … I was aware filmwise of what I was doing. I never got too far beyond my image. But what is my image? Other than a well-dressed, well-liked swinging cat? I also play many roles in life. I was also hip enough to do it on the screen – dig it?”
As for Winter’s film, despite the Milestone statement, the film garnered favorable reviews in key publications when it screened at the Museum of Modern Art this past October and also earned the endorsement of Jonas Mekas, an essential, influential filmmaker and distributor in the underground film scene of the 1960s through today. Mekas, in a vlog post, thanked Winter for making such a wonderful film about Clarke and Holliday, both of whom he knew well, as he was an original distributor of Portrait of Jason.
Whatever quarrels there are with the ethics of fictionalized accounts of real people, particularly those who are deceased, Jason and Shirley will likely bring many more people to discover Shirley Clarke’s Portait of Jason, and hopefully, her other criminally underappreciated films, such as The Connection, The Cool World, and Ornette… Made in America. Winter does not mind this at all, in fact he says it’s his pleasure.
Jason and Shirley will screen on Tuesday, August 9 at 7:30 p.m. at AMP Gallery, 432 Commercial St., Provincetown. Sarah Schulman and Stephen Winter will attend the screening and participate in a Q&A afterward. The event is free and open to all. For more information call 646.298.9258 or visit artmarketprovincetown.com.