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:
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
NATIONAL SOCIETY OF FILM CRITICS VOTES FORTY-SEVENTH ANNUAL AWARDS
January 5, 2013
• 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!
New York Film Critics Circle Announce
Special Award to Milestone Films
In Appreciation of Their Work on Behalf of Filmmaker Shirley Clarke
New York, NY – December 11, 2012 – NYFCC Chairman, Joshua Rothkopf, senior film critic at Time Out New York, announced today that they are giving a Special Award to Dennis Doros and Amy Heller of Milestone Films “for their meticulous, affectionate and ultimately revelatory revisiting of the films of Shirley Clarke.”
Says proposing NYFCC member John Anderson: "Shirley Clarke was a gorgeously baroque and complex personality, a character worthy of a novel or two. But what she did as a filmmaker, the subjects she chose, and how she related as a director to her medium has become so much a part of the vocabulary of cinema that her movies – ‘The Cool World,’ for instance, or ‘Ornette in America’ -- are nothing less than essential. Happily, Milestone is making it possible to see these films the way they should be seen."
The awards will be handed out during their annual ceremony to be held on Monday, January 7, 2013 at Crimson (915 Broadway).
Founded in 1935, the New York Film Critics Circle is the oldest and most prestigious in the country. The circle’s membership includes critics from daily newspapers, weekly newspapers, magazines and the web’s most respected online publications. Every year the organization meets in New York to vote on awards for the calendar year's films. The Circle's awards are often viewed as harbingers of the Oscar nominations. The Circle's awards are also viewed — perhaps more accurately — as a principled alternative to the Oscars, honoring aesthetic merit in a forum that is immune to commercial and political pressures.
When Dennis and I started Milestone back in 1990, we approached the enterprise with all the naivete of ingenues in a 1930s movie. You know, one of those films where Mickey Rooney gathers a bunch of talented kids together and crows, "I know, let's put on a show!" And before you know it, a Broadway-level musical extravaganza is being staged in the barn.
In short, we were long on optimism and short on dough. And we have continued with pretty much that same model over the decades: self financing* and keeping the overhead low (that's why we work in the basement of our home) while keeping our enthusiasm and aims high. So we keep on with our work---rediscovering, restoring and releasing exciting cinema in beautiful and thoughtful editions--and keep hoping for the best. We feel really lucky that we've had the chance to work on so many wonderful films and--somehow--we're still doing it. Knock on wood.
But times change, technology progresses and new challenges--and opportunities--arise. So for our newest restoration, we are looking for a little help from the worldwide community of our friends and fellow cinephiles.
For the last few years Dennis and I have been working on a series of films that he has dubbed "Project Shirley"--a concerted effort to restore and re-release the films of an incredibly talented and largely overlooked pioneer of the American Independent Cinema Movement. Shirley Clarke started as a modern dancer and brought musicality and syncopation to all her creations--which she combined with fierce intelligence and the courage and wit to play with the medium to reveal--and conceal--all manner of "truths." Her films range from lyrical (like her early dance films) to profane and transgressive (her debut feature, THE CONNECTION), to kaleidoscopic (ORNETTE; MADE IN AMERICA and her groundbreaking video experiments), but they are never cliched or boring.
Working with the wonderful UCLA Film & TV Archive, we were able to create beautiful prints and digital elements for THE CONNECTION and ORNETTE, which we released in theaters in 2012 (to a chorus of rave reviews). But when we began investigating Clarke's astonishing PORTRAIT OF JASON, we quickly learned that releasing film was going to be a lot more complicated.
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 the Jason Holliday and let him tell his story--or more accurately, stories. Because, Holliday (born Aaron Payne) 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. It is simply amazing.
Initially we planned to use a restoration of JASON that had been completed by a US archive. But on closer inspection, we decided that the source material (a badly worn 35mm projection print, it turned out) was just not good enough. So Dennis set out on a search to find the original film elements for the film--a convoluted odyssey that many times threatened to devolve into a wild goose chase.
Doggedly stubborn, Dennis methodically reached out to dozen and dozen of film folks all over the world--including distributors, archivists, lab owners, writers, critics, filmmakers and editors. To give you a sense of his herculean efforts, here are (most of) the archives he corresponded with: Museum of Modern Art, NYC; Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin; Anthology Film Archive, NYC; UCLA Film & TV Archive; British Film Institute, London; Jerusalem Film Archive, Wisconsin Center for Film at Television at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the Swedish Film Archive and the Academy Film Archive at the Association of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood.
And what did he find after all that... well, not much. Or so it seemed for quite a while. Then one morning at 2:00 AM Dennis woke up and had an A-HA moment. Literally. He had done the math in his sleep and figured out the riddle. And last week (October 11) we learned that his hunch actually was a brilliant deduction. So now the game is afoot (as Sherlock said to Watson)! The elements are at the Academy Film Archive, and the only hitch is financial. Which leads inexorably to... KICKSTARTER!
We have launched a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter with the hope that you and other movie-minded folks will contribute to help fund this restoration. The whole thing is going to cost about $100,000, but the Archive has been kind enough to commit to paying some of those costs and we will come up with more (out of our pockets). It is the balance of $25,000 we hope you will help cover. We have some pretty nice bonuses for donors, so please check them out and give whatever seems right to you.
*The only time we didn't entirely self finance was when director Steven Soderbergh gave us a substantial contribution to help clear the music rights for Charles Burnett's KILLER OF SHEEP. It was a no-questions, no-conditions gift which enabled us to release that glorious film. We will always be grateful for his timely generosity and love for film.
"History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future." — Robert Penn Warren
Here at Milestone, we are constantly grappling with history. Whenever we choose to restore a film, we try to research and explore every aspect of the filmmaker's time and work. We study the participants' biographies, the social mores and political landscape of the time and even the day-to-day minutia of the filmmaking process. It is exhilarating and exhausting and essential.
When it all comes together, the end result is that a film—a sliver of the past—is restored and re-introduced to the public. And amazingly, that small act can have a powerful impact—on individuals and on current political debates. When we released Kent Mackenzie's great documentary THE EXILES, the film gave one of the participants the chance to tell her children and grandchildren about her own bittersweet experience of being a young Native American woman living in 1960s Los Angeles. Our release of WINTER SOLDIER introduced Iraqi war veterans struggling with PTSD to the Vietnam vets who confronted similar demons thirty years before. And inspired and empowered by the example of these men, Iraq Veterans Against the War went on to hold their own "Winter Soldier" antiwar hearings.
But this is not a blog about films. This blog is about a church—a very special and historical church.
The Centennial AME Zion Church is located in the back of the K-Mart in our neighboring town of Closter, NJ. You could drive by it a thousand times and never stop to wonder what it is and how it got there—I know, because I have. But thanks to a few civic-minded residents, the church was recently proposed for landmark status by the town's Historical Preservation Commission.
And the Church has an amazing history. The Centennial AME Zion Church was founded in 1894 by the descendants of freed slaves and is still in operation today. The church's founders had ties to the community of Skunk Hollow, an all-black community of freed slaves that began in 1806. And Bishop Alexander Walters, who went on become a leader of the NAACP, officiated at the church's dedication in 1896.
On March 7, the Closter Planning Board met and voted against historic designation of the church. They were, it seems, worried about the effect of the church's landmark status on the redevelopment of the K-Mart strip mall.
This was when Dennis and I first heard about the church's history, the preservation drive and the "no" vote from a friend on the plucky Historic Preservation Commission.
A million years ago (or so it feels), I attended graduate school in history, where I mostly learned how to be a gadfly. So I took my education (at Yale, in film and in life), and got busy. First, I launched a petition drive on the website Change.org. Whenever anyone signs the petition online (at http://www.change.org/