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JASON AND SHIRLEY: THE CRUELTY AND IRRESPONSIBILITY OF “SATIRE”

Posted on June 18, 2015 by Amy Heller | 6 Comments

 The real Shirley Clarke

In the twenty-five years that we have been running Milestone Films, we have never before reviewed or commented publicly on anyone else’s film—except to recommend it. But we have now encountered a new feature film that purports to “satirize” a film and a filmmaker we represent and have spent years researching. 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.

Director Stephen Winter (and co-writers Sarah Schulman and Jack Waters) have created a fictitious drama that imagines what might have happened on December 3, 1966 when Shirley Clarke spent twelve hours with Jason Holliday, Carl Lee, Jeri Sopanen, Jim Hubbard and Bob Fiore shooting Portrait of Jason. The filmmakers claim the right to re-imagine the events that took place in that Hotel Chelsea apartment, but they fail to understand something that Shirley Clarke knew and conveyed in all her films: the need for integrity.

Clarke’s first feature, The Connection, a fiction film based partly on real people, has enormous respect for all its characters, an understanding of humanity, and a love for cinema. Shirley knew that a genuine artist values inner truth, whether the film is a documentary or a dramatic feature. And of course, Shirley did not use real names. She knew that when you use real people’s names and identities, you need to seek and explore the truth in all its complexities. Ornette: Made in America, a film that she and Ornette Coleman were very proud to create, is an example of Clarke’s quest for meaning and authenticity.

We at Milestone are now in the seventh year of “Project Shirley,” our ongoing commitment to learn everything about Clarke as a director, an artist and a person. With the cooperation of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater and the Clarke estate, we have digitized nearly one hundred of her features, short films, outtakes, unfinished projects, home movies, and experimental films and videos. We have gone through thousands of pages of letters, contracts, and Shirley’s diaries. We have interviewed and talked to dozens of people who knew and worked with her.

We have heard wonderful stories, tragic stories, and stories of such real pain that they are almost unbearable. Shirley Clarke was a sister, wife, mother, dancer, lover, filmmaker, editor, teacher, and yes, for a sad period, a junkie. It wasn’t intended, but along the way we fell in love with Shirley and came to feel that we owed it to her to create a portrait of a real woman and an artist. Shirley’s daughter Wendy Clarke and her extended family have supported our efforts every step of the way, encouraging us to reveal what is true, for better or worse. We have shared our discoveries with the world in theaters, on television, on DVD and Blu-Ray, in lectures — and in our exhaustive press kits (available on our website, free for everyone).

We have strived for the highest levels of accuracy, knowing that critics, academics, bloggers, and the general public deserve and depend on our research. We corroborated all the oral histories we conducted using primary sources, including original letters, interviews, and contracts. Finally, we asked people who knew Shirley to check and proof all our work. We have shared this research with every filmmaker, scholar and critic who has asked us for information.

So it was truly agonizing for us to watch Stephen Winter’s Jason and Shirley, a film that is bad cinema and worse ethics—that cynically appropriates and parodies the identities of real people, stereotyping and humiliating them and doing disservice to their memory. The filmmakers may call it an homage, but their complete lack of research and their numerous factual errors and falsehoods have betrayed everyone who was involved in making Portrait of Jason.

Winter and his team call their film an “imagination” of the night (although they stage the filming during the day) of December 3, when Shirley Clarke shot Portrait of Jason. But interestingly, they only use the real names of those participants who have died: Clarke, Jason Holliday and Carl Lee (perhaps because you cannot libel the dead). They did not interview the people who were on the set that long night and who are still around—filmmakers Bob Fiore and Jim Hubbard.

They also chose not to work with Shirley’s daughter, artist and filmmaker Wendy Clarke, whom they never bothered to contact (and go out of their way to mock in the film). Jason and Shirley even features a title card in the closing credits thanking Wendy, implying that she has given her approval for the film. In truth, Wendy’s response, when she finally saw Jason and Shirley, was: “I don’t want people seeing this film to think there is any truth to it. This film tells nasty lies and is a parasitic attempt to gain prominence from true genius.”

Similarly, the filmmakers never asked us at Milestone for access to the reams of documents we have discovered from the making of Portrait of Jason. Instead, they preferred to pretend to know what happened, to create their own “Shirley Clarke,” “Carl Lee,” and “Jason Holliday,” rather than try to create honest and respectful portraits of these very real people.

Lazy filmmakers make bad movies and Jason and Shirley is false, flaccid, and boring—unforgivable cinematic sins. Perhaps its most egregious and painful crime is taking the strong, brilliant woman that Shirley Clarke truly was and portraying her as a lumpy, platitude-spouting Jewish hausfrau—an inept cineaste who doesn’t know what she is doing and eventually needs her boyfriend to “save” the film for her. In service of their alleged investigation into race relations (a topic Shirley explored far better with her powerful and intelligent films The Connection, The Cool World, Portrait of Jason and Ornette: Made in America), they reduced her to a sexist cliché—the little woman—and a tedious cliché at that.

Shirley Clarke was wild, creative, brilliant, graceful, challenging, incredibly stylish, vibrant, and alive with the possibilities of life. At home at the center of many creative circles in New York City and around the world, she was adored by countless admirers—despite (or sometimes because of) her faults and failings. And Shirley is still loved by those who remember her—the people who worked on her films, her friends, her family, and the audiences who are rediscovering her great films. She was incredibly special. The misshapen caricature of Clarke in Jason and Shirley insults and trivializes a great artist and pioneer.

We also find “Jason” in Winter’s film to be a one-dimensional and disrespectful distortion of the very complicated man who was born Aaron Payne in 1924. Jason Holliday’s life was difficult in many ways—as a gay black man he experienced police harassment, poverty, family rejection, imprisonment, painful self-doubt, and innumerable varieties of personal and institutional racism. But he was also vibrantly an original, a self-invented diva, a survivor, and a raconteur of the first order who was the inspiration for his own cinematic Portrait. Shirley decided to make her film in order to explore this extraordinary Scheherazade’s 1001 stories—and the fragile line between his reminiscences and his inventions.

And truly, it is not easy to tell what was real and what was not in Jason’s life. In his “Autobiography” (reprinted in Milestone’s press kit), Holliday talked about appearing on Broadway in “Carmen Jones,” “Finian’s Rainbow,” and “Green Pastures” and about performing his nightclub act in Greenwich Village. And while much of his narrative may seem improbable, the Trenton Historical Society found newspaper articles from the 1950s corroborating Jason’s claim that he was a performer at New York’s Salle de Champagne. So did he study acting with Charles Laughton and dance with Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham? We may never know. But the man who spun those marvelous yarns was not the alternately maniacal and weepy loser in Jason and Shirley.

Here are just a few of the other things that are obviously, carelessly and offensively wrong in Jason and Shirley:

  • In the very beginning, there is a title card stating that the filmmakers were denied access to the outtakes of Portrait of Jason. These recordings were available for all to hear at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, where all of Shirley’s archives can be found—or by contacting Milestone. In fact, all the outtakes (30 minutes of audio) were released on November 11, 2014 as a bonus features on Milestone’s DVD and Blu-Ray of the film. That was six months before Jason and Shirley was completed.
  • In Jason and Shirley, “Jason” has never previously visited “Shirley’s” apartment and knows nothing about her. In reality, they had been friends for many years and Jason would often visit her apartment.
  • The film states that the cinematographer on Portrait of Jason had worked on Clarke’s other two features. Actually, the film was Jeri Sopanen’s first job with her. Further, absolutely no crew member had an issue about working on Portrait of Jason, as the new film portrays.
  • In the film “Shirley” says, “See that horrible painting on the wall? My daughter painted that… I have a daughter who is a terrible artist.” Fact: in several video interviews with Shirley (including one released as a bonus feature on Ornette: Made In America, which also came out last November) and in many of her letters and diaries, Clarke talked about how extremely proud she was of her daughter Wendy and her art. Mother and daughter worked happily together for years on many projects including the legendary Tee Pee Video Space Troupe. Wendy’s fine art, textiles, and video work have received critical praise for nearly 50 years. It was needlessly and maliciously hurtful for the filmmakers to include a line that is so obviously false and unkind.
  • In the film, “Shirley” says her maiden name was Bermberg. She was born Shirley Brimberg.
  • There is an Academy Award® statue for Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel With the World in “Shirley’s” apartment and the other characters repeatedly mock her for it. The film did win an Oscar®, but although she received directing credit, Shirley had been fired from the final edit and producer Robert Hughes picked up the award. (You can see this on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOS70Tqsz7U)
  • “Shirley” asks “Jason” to go up on the roof of the Hotel Chelsea with her to talk. In reality, her apartment was famously on the roof.
  • In the film, “Shirley” is unable to finish Portrait of Jason and tells everybody to go home and “Carl Lee” comes in to take over the film and save it. This is ludicrous, wrong and misogynistic. Clarke was a consummate film professional and all her collaborators attest to her skill and drive.
  • The film ends with a title card stating that Shirley died in New York (which is simply incorrect) and that Carl Lee died of a heroin overdose. Tragically, Lee died of AIDS and this information is in the Milestone press kit.
  • Another title card indicates that when Jason Holliday died that there were no friends or family listed in his one obituary. In truth, the Trentonian on July 31, 1998 wrote that two sisters, six nieces and two nephews survived him. We found the relatives when doing our research.

The filmmakers have labeled Jason and Shirley a satirical work of fiction. We are just not sure who or what they claim to be satirizing. The film is not ironic, humorous, sardonic or tongue-in-cheek. We can only surmise that they are deliberately parodying the idea of cinematic integrity.

On behalf of Milestone, Wendy Clarke, and Shirley Clarke’s extended family and friends, we respectfully ask film fans not to base their appraisal of Clarke and her filmmaking on the unkind depictions in Jason and Shirley

Yours in cinema,

Amy Heller and Dennis Doros

Milestone Films

 

Posted in Amy Heller, BAM Cinemathek, Bob Fiore, Carl Lee, chelsea hotel, Dennis Doros, documentary, filmmaking, historic preservation, Hotel Chelsea, Jack Waters, Jake Perlin, Jason and Shirley, Jason Holliday, Jeri Sopanen, Jim Hubbard, landmark status, LGBT, milestone, Milestone film, New York Times, New Yorker, Ornette Coleman, parody, Portrait of Jason, restoration, Sarah Schulman, satire, Shirley Clarke, Stephen Winter, The Connection, Wendy Clarke

National Society of Film Critics Film Heritage Award to Project Shirley!

Posted on January 06, 2013 by Dennis Doros | 0 Comments

NATIONAL SOCIETY OF FILM CRITICS VOTES FORTY-SEVENTH ANNUAL AWARDS
January 5, 2013

FILM HERITAGE 

• To Laurence Kardish, Senior Film Curator at MoMA, for his extraordinary 44 years of service, including this year’s Weimar Cinema retrospective.

• To Milestone Film and Video for their ongoing Shirley Clarke project.

Milestone is thrilled to win a NSFC Film Heritage Award (our sixth since we won the very first one in 1995 for I AM CUBA) and even more so, that the films of Shirley Clarke are getting recognized by the critics once again.

And we're just as happy that our friend Larry Kardish won as well! On graduating from college, Larry's first job was at the Film-Makers Distribution Center where he was responsible for the distribution of PORTRAIT OF JASON! He went on to become the head programmer of the MoMA Film Department and has been a friend of ours since we started Milestone. Congrats to Shirley and Larry!

Posted in Ac, Academy Film Archive, Amy Heller, Association of Moving Image Archivists, chelsea hotel, Dennis Doros, documentary, historic preservation, LGBT, milestone, Milestone film, Ornette Coleman, Portrait of Jason, Shirley Clarke, The Connection

You meet all the best people At the Chelsea (first published January 21, 2011)

Posted on March 23, 2012 by Amy Heller | 3 Comments

 


These days, with Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery opening around the country (in LA at the Nuart and in Portland, OR at the Cinema 21 on Friday 1/21/11) [note: this blog was first published on January 21, 2011] and his second great film Come Back Africa slated for release later this year, we here at Milestone are just embarking on our next big project. It is a little early to announce the topic, but in preparation, we are busy doing research. And my line of inquiries led me to an absolutely wonderful book and an amazing writer and person: At the Chelsea, a memoir written by Florence Turner.

Florence Turner also worked in the film business; she was a theatre scout (a “minor executive, a term that still sounds ridiculous,”) for MGM in New York in 1964 when good fortune (for her and her readers) landed her at the Chelsea Hotel, which would become her home for many years. Much has been written about the Chelsea and its storied guests (including Thomas Wolfe, Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Jimi Hendrix, Mark Twain, Sid Vicious, Arthur Miller, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin), but Turner’s At the Chelsea isso much more than who-slept-here-and-with-whom book. It is the self-portrait of a very perceptive older woman (that is, around my age—mid-50s) who is as honest with (and about) herself as she is kind and perceptive about the people she meets.

A refugee from the Upper East Side (after several neighborhood murders and a break in of her apartment), Turner found a home at the Chelsea and quickly came to appreciate the hotel’s unusual zeitgeist: “the rare quality of the place where we could be ourselves without the wariness or the sense of critical eyes. We could work and dream and even starve with the knowledge that we were not alone, or as far as possible as it is not to be alone.”

While conveying her love and respect for the hotel denizens and staff, Turner observes them in all their weird glory. Her voice and sense of the absurd are hard to resist. One of the most celebrated inhabitants of the Chelsea was composer Virgil Thomson, famed for his Four Saints in Three Acts (written with Gertrude Stein). Turner encountered Thomson in the hotel lobby one day, “carrying his dirty laundry.” When he noticed she was reading a biography of Edith Piaf, Thomson told her “she lived in the house, you know.” Turner later learned that Thomson, who had been the music critic of the Herald Tribune, came to the defense of the greatchanteuse when other reviewers savaged her performances—and then brought “the little sparrow” home to roost at the Chelsea. Turner’s interweaving of the banal and the immortal is charming—and I especially appreciate that sack of soiled clothing.

Turner is not a great airer of dirty laundry—but she does not go out of her way to hide it either. During her tenure at the Chelsea, the hotel’s owner, Stanley Bard welcomed artists, writers, musicians, dancers and filmmakers and sometimes overlooked their delinquent payments… at least for a while. When times got especially lean, Bard would rent rooms to pimps—at double the price he usually charged. As Turner writes, “the pimps were, unknowingly, patrons of the arts.”

Turner brings great attention and affection to all the people she came to know at the hotel. Of Irene, the maid on her floor, she wrote: “she was black and from the South, with a healthy cynicism, a regal bearing and huge kindness… Later, when I was jobless, her friendship proved to have great depth.” She was well acquainted with the members of the hotel staff and tells each one’s story with care—Charles Beard, captain of the bellman was a church warden and had trained as a welter-weight with Canada Lee; John Dorman, the night man, was a talented actor whose imposing size made it hard to find jobs; Josephine Brickman, the queen of the switchboard, had been a telephone operator with the WACS in World War II England.


The vibrant community of the hotel provides a rich cast of characters and Turner also writes about luminaries like actress Viva (who starred in several Andy Warhol films), poet Gregory Corso, couturier Charles James and the woman who shot Warhol, Valerie Solanis.

Turner gives special care and time to her closest friends at Chelsea. Dr. Helen Johnson, a distinguished black expert on the history of the black theatre introduced Turner to legendary jazzmen like Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. The two women often conversed at the bar of the hotel’s restaurant, El Quijote, Florence drinking whisky, Helen enjoying bourbon.

Because I am an expat New Yorker (now living out in the ’burbs) I am especially drawn to Turner’s lovely evocations of everyday life lived in a great, scruffy city. New York in the 1960s and 1970s was not the imperial city it had been, and is now again. It was distinctly tattered, often smelly, sometimes dangerous and vibrant. She writes: “The hippie days were gradually changing. We had all eaten soul food, hummed songs from Motown albums, enjoyed ourselves in a blackout, which resulted in the best kind of conviviality where the entire hotel met in the lobby, paired off, lit candles, enjoyed walking in the shifting light and shadow up the lovely shallow steps of the Chelsea stairway…. The summers were still wonderful…. From my window I liked to watch the Leonardo da Vinci come silent up the Hudson, set against a sunset sky the colour of the inside of an abalone shell.” I remember summer evenings like that.

But more than anything else, I love Turner’s courage. An unmarried woman, the mother of grown sons, Turner launched her life in New York and then at the Chelsea in a spirit of openness and adventure. She made friends, found lovers, took risks and lived her life fully. But fully does not always mean happily, and Turner bravely tells all aspects of her story—sometimes with humor, sometimes with throat-catching honesty and sadness.

When she was laid off from MGM, Turner went through several very hard years. The grind of poverty, the humiliation of being unable to pay her bills and most of all a profound depression born of “job hunting day after day without success,” wore her down. She struggled to fill her time and earn a living. When Maurice Girodias, publisher of Olympia Press and a Chelsea resident, suggested she write pornography for him, Turner pulled out her typewriter and started work on a novel titled The Naked and the Nude (she had wanted to call it Wait for Me I’m Coming!).

But her depression deepened and became overwhelming—her sobbing uncontrollable. A doctor at St. Vincent’s Hospital eventually took her “tear-sodden” condition seriously and admitted her to the psychiatric wing. During the six weeks she was a patient, Turner was able to finish her pornographic novel. As she described it, the Virgin Mary smiled down from the walls of the Catholic hospital, as she wrote about “cocks and cunts.” The book earned her $1700—and helped her stay on at the Chelsea.

That year, Turner met a new young man—a Russian photographer in his 20s who was “both exceptional and non-serious.” They spent a magical spring day together at Coney Island where they ate “disgusting” pigs ears and watched as the giant QE2 sailed silently by. (Curiously, Patti Smith, fellow hotel resident and a friend of Turner’s, describes an unforgettable day spent at Coney Island with Robert Mapplethorpe in her extraordinary book, Just Kids.) That winter, Turner and her photographer friend attended an uptown party together. On the cab ride home, the tipsy young man told the driver to stop. He ran into Central Park, whooping and leaping with drunken joy. “As I watched,” Turner wrote, “Time lurched with a jolt and a grinding into the season and slot of my old age.” I don’t think I have read a more nakedly honest sentence, or one that chilled me more.

Eventually her money and luck ran out and Turner packed her bags and relocated to Edinburgh, Scotland. Her friends threw a party for her, lent her some money, poured champagne and drove her to Kennedy Airport. “Thus I left the Chelsea, my heart and New York City behind me on February 5, 1975.”

It took me quite a bit of searching to learn the end of Turner’s story. No amount of googling yielded anything except the fact that she had written a volume of short stories that was published only in the UK. Finally, through Yahoo, I learned of an obituary in a 2001 edition ofThe Scotsman. I signed up with High Beam Research so that I could read it all. And it was worth it the $29.95 it will end up costing me.

According to Todd McEwen’s loving tribute, Turner moved to Scotland to be near her children and grandchildren. She lived there for 26 years (she died at the age of 91!) and was the mainstay of a group of Bohemians in the city. Turner was a frequent habitué of the bar of the Drummond Hotel, where she enjoyed the “indifferent whisky and, still the cow-girl, the excellent steaks.”

McEwen describes Turner as a colorful dresser and “in all things a writer, a believer in the life of the artist, in the energetic, rich feeding of the senses. Skilled in handing out big, American-style kisses to everyone, she made no secret of the fact that she found growing older a distinct disappointment and ‘pain in the arse.’”

A coda to this long rambling book review/homage: After reading At the Chelsea on loan from my local library system, I got online and bought a copy along with a copy of Turner’s book of stories, All the Little Wars. When they arrived, I opened the short story collection and discovered, hand-written on the title page:

“To Helen Johnson my dear friend of many years with love from the author—Florence Turner.”

I felt as honored and delighted as if I had been actually able to welcome these remarkable ladies into my home.

A final footnote: the Helen Armstead Johnson Collection is now part of the New York Public Library and items from the collection are on display at the “What’s up @ the Schomburg” exhibition at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York, NY 10037-1801, (212) 491-2200 (through February 27). The Johnson collection includes historical photos, posters, theater memorabilia, and rarely seen scrapbooks of black entertainers of the 18th and 20th centuries.
Turner, Florence. At the Chelsea. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers. New York. 1987.
Turner, Florence. All the Little Wars. Hamish Hamilton. London. 1987.
Todd McEwen Obituary. “Florence Turner.” The Scotsman. Scotsman Publications. 2001. HighBeam Research. 13 Jan. 2011 <http://www.highbeam.com>.

Posted in chelsea hotel, florence turner

 

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