Jason Holliday and Shirley Clarke Revisited

By: Grace Moon | October 28, 2015

Perhaps if you are not a student of film you may not have ever heard of Shirley Clarke or her controversial and forgotten 1967 documentary, “Portrait of Jason.” This pioneering film classic has jus

Perhaps if you are not a student of film you may not have ever heard of Shirley Clarke or her controversial and forgotten 1967 documentary, “Portrait of Jason.” This pioneering film classic has just been given a fresh interpretive look in Stephen Winter’s docu-drama “Jason and Shirley.” Winter co-wrote the movie with Jack Waters and Sarah Schulman who also star in the film as Jason and Shirley, respectively. “Jason and Shirley” is an imagined enactment of the 12 hour day, filmmaker Shirley Clarke took to shoot her portrait of Jason Holliday.

(Waters and Schulman as Jason and Shirely on set.)

From all accounts, Jason Holliday was a New York downtown scenester, hustler and one-time cabaret performer who was without any other celebrity or claim to fame. That Shirley Clarke found him worthy of a full length documentary rests on the assumption that Jason Holliday was an infinitely compelling individual whose performative instincts would carry her film. And in that assumption she was correct. At a time when America was in the midst of a cultural revolution from the post segregation and women’s rights movements, pre-Stonewall to sexual liberation and the drug culture, “Portrait of Jason” captured the counter culture as distilled by one charismatic, and dangerously unpredictable character. It also remains the first American movie to star a black man, and an out gay one at that.

One can see why this 48 year-old film resonated with Winter, Waters and Schulman, who themselves came of queer and creative age during the AIDS crisis in New York. “Portrait of Jason” still has an utterly contemporary feel touching on issues that both the queer and POC communities wrestle with today. The blithe yet moving narratives as told by Jason in the original documentary jump from anecdotes of hustling, race relations, young lovers, drag queens, to prison time and as well as other exploits.

Jack Waters expertly commands the camera in his role as Jason. We follow not just his clever banter but every twitch of his brow and curl of his mouth, as he sashays and twirls all the while with drink in hand in the small living room where the film was shot. Schulman a noted and award winning writer in her own right turns in a sympathetic performance as Shirley Clarke. And one can’t help but imagine that Schulman approached her role with some insight as a writer often behind the scenes, to Clarke as a director, often behind the camera—not to mention being a creative woman in a patriarchal industry.

(image. Shirley Clarke)

Clarke had received recognition for previous work, winning an Oscar for a 1963 documentary on Robert Frost, but she eschewed the industry in Hollywood remaining doggedly independent and experimental until her death in 1997. Schulman’s Shirley is an understated personality whose provocative and cutting directorial determinism is an exacting counter-point to the wily Jason. Through the film you are never sure of who is manipulating who, and this is precisely the point director, Winter, was hoping to make in the film.

“Portrait of Jason” was and has remained a controversial film as it took on the taboos of gay sex, prostitution and drugs, but probably most uncomfortable was the dynamic of a white (albeit female) director exploiting her black subject. Navigating and discussing race issues (especially in mixed company) seems to be as problematic today as it ever was. After 1970 when “Portrait of Jason” stopped distribution, it languished in college film archives for decades, which is where Stephen Winter came across it as a student at NYU many years ago. Winter explained it took him years to really grasp that “Portrait of Jason” was not merely a painfully exploitative narrative. During a Q and A at MoMA last Sunday Winter explained that for him, Jason was performing himself, and that he was in full control of what he was giving the director.

In spite of an artistic creator’s intentions an audience is always at liberty to their own views. And in keeping with the spirit of “Portrait of Jason”, “Jason and Shirley” is not without its own controversy. Recently Milestone Films, restorers and distributors of Shirley Clarke’s films took umbrage with “Jason and Shirley” calling it cruel and irresponsible satire. If anything “Jason and Shirley” brings to light two luminaries, who were living quit ahead of their time, while bringing up as many questions as it endeavors to answers. Its more than worth exploring both movies for your self.

“Jason and Shirley”
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Grace Moon

Founder and Editor for Velvetpark Media