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
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.
Once upon a time (1990), Milestone Films
operated out of a one bedroom apartment in Manhattan — which we (my
husband/partner Dennis Doros and I) also lived in. Then, after five years in
the distribution business, we decided it was time to go into production. Our
first, and only creation is now a sixteen-year-old high school student.
As my pregnancy advanced, we realized that the only way we would be able to add a crib to our cozy abode would be to get rid of the photocopier. So, since we were going to need to reproduce in more ways than one, Dennis and I rented an apartment in the charming (and not too pricey) Riverdale section of the Bronx — keeping our Upper West Side apartment as the Milestone office. After four years, we examined our ever-rising (non-stabilized) rent bill and decided that we could buy a house for the amount we were paying for the two apartments.
We were wrong about that calculation, as it turns out, and it took us a long time to find a house, but eventually we did. So we moved both home and office to the semi-wilds of New Jersey.
And with the added space (and a growing son too), the stuff expanded... more furniture, more tchotchkes, more bookshelves and of course, more books.
Now cinephiles are often bibliophiles as well, and alas, Dennis and I both have a weakness for bookstores. And of course we also amassed VHS tapes and later DVDs and more recently Blu-rays. Our son shares the book bug and has his own library as well as an impressive natural history display of minerals and other exotica. And sadly, when my father died two years ago, we had to make room for boxes and boxes of photos of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, siblings, and a few unidentifiable folks.
Our new digs also had a finished basement for our business and two garages — one for the obligatory suburban car (later cars) and another for business supplies and records.
Now, there is an accumulation that naturally (or unnaturally) comes from running a business. You have files of research materials, designs, ads, reviews, contracts, invoices, bills, letters and all kinds of miscellany. Now imagine the ephemera generated by some 200+ films over 22 years. And remember, we here at Milestone are infamous for our insanely over-researched press kits (click here to check them out for yourself). So yes, we have generated — and kept — a lot of STUFF.
People generally said to come in contrasting types: cat people vs. dog people; Republicans vs. Democrats; Mets fans vs. Yankees fans; Occupy Wall Streeters vs. Tea Party members and collectors vs. dumpers. And in our family, we are united on pets (both cats AND dogs), politics (Democrats/Occupiers), and baseball (Mets no matter what), but we are divided on STUFF. The esteemed men in my life love to collect, while I (usually) want to dump, recycle, and purge.
However... I studied to be a historian and I have put in my time in archives going through boxes of old letters and press clippings. Recently, I helped raise awareness to get preservation status for a 100+ year-old church in our neighboring town. And our company, Milestone is dedicated to rediscovering, restoring and reintroducing old films.
Dennis and I know full well and personally that bits of paper can radically change the way we understand the past and even the present. Going through the papers of Lewis Allen, the producer of our latest restoration release, The Connection, Dennis discovered that the independent film was financed by a bevy of small investors. And guess who put money into this film adaptation of a notorious downtown play about junkies and jazz — a play that included the word "shit” and was banned by the NY State Board of Regents? The parents of uber-conservative ex-presidential candidate Rick Santorum!
You can't make this stuff up. And we
only know this because Lewis Allen meticulously kept his business records, all
Which leads me to my quandary. Where is the line between junk and treasure? How does one distinguish between garbage and precious historical material? And how can you tell if you are acting as an archivist or a hoarder?
And in some ways, the Internet make this even more complicated to navigate. So, okay, I feel justified in tossing mass-market objects like film magazines and catalogs, with the idea that there are copies out there in the world that other folks can digitize and put up online. But what about the (possible) monetary value of an old film festival catalog? Is it worth the time to list it on eBay?
And most pressingly, what do I do about
business records and correspondence? Do I shred it? Keep it piled up in our
storage space? Donate it to an archive? These pages may look to me like
candidates for the recycling bin, but will they be useful or even instructive
to researchers in years to come?
One final thought: garage sales. Here in the burbs they are everywhere and our family enjoys them. While it can be fascinating to peek into other people’s homes and lives, mostly what you find at these sales is a dreary collection of outdated objects — most worn, faded and sad. But, once in a while you find treasures for a song. Here are photos of two artworks I discovered at garage sales in our sleepy neck of northern NJ.
The first drawing, of the disassembled telephone, I discovered hidden under a black piece of paper after I opened up the frame I had purchased to put a photograph in. The lovely illustration on the right I found in a pile of discarded artworks by the daughter of the family running the sale. These were objects no one valued (I probably paid less than $10 for both), but now bring me pleasure every day.
So, I remain in limbo... and a most uncomfortable spot indeed (although perhaps less painful than being on the horns of dilemma). But if you happen to know of a nice archive looking for documentation of late 20th century film distribution, please send them our way. I have quite a few boxes they might like…
"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/