Fan-fic, takedown, celebration, earnest imaginative inquiry, or hothouse meta-cinematic folly — whatever Stephen Winter’s Jason and Shirley plays like to you, here’s one truth we can toast: Shirley Clarke’s 1967 doc Portrait of Jason remains incandescent, a performance/interview film in which a 33-year-old gay cabaret performer and hustler calling himself Jason Holliday indulges in cocktails and tall tales before Clarke’s camera. The loquacious Holliday busts out impressions, nightclub jokes, snatches of showtunes, stories about tricks and Miles Davis. He’s a scream, a one-man party — and he’s determined to keep his true self hidden. And then, as the film — and Clarke’s twelve-hour interview — reaches its end, Holliday’s guard gets shattered by questions from behind the camera, and you witness something even more extraordinary than the performance. That is, unless Jason’s tears at film’s end are just as much a put-on as his high spirits at the opening.
Winter touts Portrait of Jason as the only film canonized by critics to star a gay black man. That may be true; if you haven’t seen Clarke’s uniquely dramatic examination of this man and his masks, you truly should get right on it, pronto. Winter’s film could be titled Portrait of Portrait of Jason. It’s a re-creation of that marathon interview in Clarke’s apartment at the Chelsea Hotel, a prickly and entirely fictional speculation on what might have happened during the many hours from which Clarke shaped her movie. It’s painstaking enough that the occasional anachronisms hurt, and there are enough mistakes and lapses of charity that Jason and Shirley has been denounced by Milestone Films, the restorers and current distributors of Portrait of Jason.
But for all Jason and Shirley‘s juddering VHS photography and efforts at found-footage vérité, no thinking person could mistake Winter’s fervid speculations for truth: The movie builds to a harrowed Holliday (Jack Waters) wailing like the undone hero of some Greek tragedy, and then it wraps with a rimshot. This Clarke (Sarah Schulman) nearly gives up on her project at the literal eleventh hour, leaving the room to wearily toke — and asking her neighbor/lover Carl Lee (Orran Farmer) to dope Jason up and then to break her subject’s spirits and get him to speak truths. “She wants a tour of Niggertown,” Lee says.
“She wants the ‘Swanee River’?” Holliday asks.
Winter’s interest in representation and appropriation inspires him to an often unflattering vision of Clarke. Early on, she presses Holliday about what it feels like to have sex with white women for money. Holliday turns the table, of course, as that table seems to have been set up exclusively for the turning: Why, isn’t that just what he’s doing in this interview? Clarke, who must have been smarter than this portrayal allows, looks stymied by this.
Jason and Shirley is imprecise, even maddening history, but it’s hair-raising as historicity: Exposed here is the longstanding and somewhat vampiric process of white artists extracting for their work minority perspectives and experiences. I don’t believe that that’s what Clarke did, exactly, but this provocation of a film — so pained, so smartly acted — demands a reconsideration of her achievement. Since Portrait is a masterpiece, it can take it.
Jason and Shirley
Written and directed by Stephen Winter
Opens October 20, MoMA