Early in their Kickstarter fundraising video to restore director Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, the nearly lost 1967 talking head documentary about a black, gay Manhattan sex hustler, Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, the husband/wife founder of Milestone Films, orient the white, female director within the canon of her cinema peers: John Cassavetes has 100 plus books or monographs written about his work, avant-gardist Stan Brackage also has 100 plus. Shirley Clarke has one.
Were this a barometer of her actual contribution to the independent film scene of the 60s and 70s, she today would be cited as nothing more than a footnote. But, since her death in 1997 at age 77 after teaching for years at UCLA, her reputation has bloomed like a dark, carnivorous flower.
Given the wealthy background of her family and the uneasy political tenor of the late 60s, Clarke’s fascination with New York’s fringe culture was not unusual. Tom Wolfe’s 1970 book Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers caught the Zeitgeist of a privileged urban, Manhattan Upper East Side class groveling for hipness and cultural/political relevancy in the waning years of that frenzied decade. Clarke, however, was no dilettante, and her odyssey into the period's cultural underworld was intense and lasting in a way that the self-referential films of many of her peers of New American Cinema such as Warhol, Mekas, and Markopoulis were not. Her major films now being restored by Milestone as part of Project Shirley include Cool World and The Connection.
The restored Portrait of Jason opened a Spring weekend program of “orphan films” at the AMPAS Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood.
The Dunn Theater event was a joint venture by the Academy and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. A dedicated squad of AMPAS archivists introduced the more than a dozen films. They ranged from a 1917 home movie of a San Francisco family, the building of the Hollywoodland sign in 1923, a Technicolor two-color short photographed by Ray Rennahan, a Saul Bass corporate film for IBM, a 1969 UCLA student film about Black Venice, large format, multi-screen pavilion films from the 1967 Montreal Expo, to video lead-ins for early cable BET programs and Jon Boorstin’s 1974 short, Exploratorium, photographed by Eric Saarinen. The films were an eclectic mix, all under the rubric, “Orphan Films,” movies across the spectrum of film history, nearly lost because of erratic owner/sponsorship—films deemed worthy of restoration and preservation—windows into who we were, films that fell outside the gravitational field of commercial mainstream exhibition. The full roster of films that were screened can be read here at the NYU website:
The longest film and the centerpiece of the event is the Shirley Clarke documentary. On the Milestone website Dennis Doros describes it:
Portrait of Jason may be Clarke’s boldest and most influential film—and it is certainly one of her funniest, saddest, and most outrageous. Over the course of one evening, Clarke turned her camera on Jason Holliday and let him tell his story—or more accurately, stories. Because Holliday was a man of many tales. Over the course of his film-long monologue, Holliday talks about his life as a black, gay man—touching on love, work, drugs, and sex. A some-time cabaret performer, he spins hilarious tales, shadowboxes with candor, and breaks your heart. The film is one of the very first LGBT films made, and one of the most honest and self-revealing.
The film runs 105 minutes; it was photographed by Jeri Sopanen over 11 non-stop hours on the night of December 3-4, 1966 in the director’s Chelsea Hotel apartment on 23rd Street. Sopanen’s 16mm Ecalir NPR, according to production assistant Robert Fiore, failed at 2 am and an old Auricon with an attached, non-reflex, zoom lens side finder was rushed in to replace it. Fiore was at the AMPAS Friday evening screening and spoke about the booze filled night of filming as Clarke and her partner/ lover Carl Lee honed in on the disintegrating Holliday like a vulnerable prey.
Just to give a feel of the environment and of Jason’s monologue style here is the trailer for the new theatrical release:
And here is a clip from Jason’s tale of working as a Manhattan “houseboy” for a rich, lanky, white Alabama woman, a shocking but hilarious portrait of casual racism:
And several moments from his revelations of working as a gay hustler (this is not from the restored version)
Here are two brief clips from the restored version, from slightly later in the film, as the alcohol begins to take effect and Jason’s early self-parodic “cabaret” stance becomes ever more involuted.
As the evening snakes into late night’s Hour of the Wolf, Jason’s non-stop smoking coarsens his voice; the booze moves him to laughing, anguished sarcasm and teary pain. He takes to the floor like a recumbent Odalisque, increasingly fragmented, broken.
At this point the film turns an even darker corner as Clarke’s off-camera voice, along with that of Carl Lee, an African-American, piles on to Jason for some past but never articulated miscreant behavior.
In his NPR review of the film, critic John Powers looks at the many sides of Jason’s manicured performance, masks of hidden naked truths that make it impossible to know who the real Jason is:
It’s not for nothing that John Cassavetes admired the film. Yet if Clarke and Co. truly did tear off Jason's self-protective armor just to make a movie, its detractors aren't wrong to call the process queasy-making and sadistic. Documentary is nearly always exploitative, and this would be the avant-garde version of newsmen pushing cameras into the faces of grieving parents just to capture their tears.
Then again, it's not clear that Jason isn't simply performing his pain as deftly as he performed his amusement — playing the classic role of the tragic gay man. After all, he tells us early on that he's learned to hustle in many different ways.
If you download the “listen to the story” audio of Powers’ review it includes a segment of Jason talking about his father.
A before-after film clip comparing the AMPAS/Milestone restoration to a reference MoMA archived print hints at the manic desperation beginning to unwind Jason’s fragile carapace:
The cinematic detective work that film archive and preservation societies employ is not common currency for those of us who are spending lives making new movies. But the fate of our work inevitably rests in the hands of these dedicated men and women, soldiers in a war against entropy and disintegration.
Doros and Heller also shot a home video about half an hour long, documenting their worldwide search to find all existing prints and elements of the film. It’s a fascinating journey, a window into the forensic hunt of archivists and closely follows the plot line that I have heard many times from friends in AMIA, The Association of Moving Image Archivists. Part of Doros’ explanation is aimed at people who are not familiar with film jargon, so at first his explanation may seem basic, but once underway, the details of how archivists evaluate picture elements as they are discovered, gives them insights into Clarke’s creative process; the supplemental trove they unearth includes editing notes, lab receipts, even billings. Their story is wonderfully personal, filmed in their apartment, including their off-camera barking dog. I won’t be a “spoiler” by revealing how they found the major nugget of celluloid gold for restoration after months of research, but here is the interview. The good news is that their plea to raise money is history. The restoration is complete and has been shown around the world this fall. It is available now for institutional screenings from Milestone. The consumer DVD will be released Spring, 2014.