It has been a long time since I first met Dan Talbot — almost thirty-one years. In the late spring of 1986, Dan interviewed and then hired me as his assistant at New Yorker Films. It was just my second job in film, after working for a few months at First Run Features. I remember being wowed by the spacious sun-lit offices and by Dan, who was elegant, patrician and avuncular. Even at that first meeting I understood that he was a sophisticated man of culture. In fact, I got the impression that he was more impressed by my graduate work at Yale than my experience in film. Whatever did the trick, I was very happy to join the company.
I only lasted about a year in that role of assistant (as Dan later observed, I seemed to have a problem with authority… and still do), but I stayed on at New Yorker for another three years as a nontheatrical film booker. During those years, I learned so much of what I know about film distribution.
And so when it came out in 2009, I was excited to read The New Yorker Theater and Other Scenes from a Life at the Movies, the memoir that Dan’s wife Toby wrote about their life together. And this month I eagerly turned to Dan’s article in the Spring 2017 Cineaste magazine: “Fragments from the Dream World: Reminiscences of a Film Distributor and Exhibitor.” And I also read Cynthia Rowell’s article: “The New Yorker Stories: Dan Talbot’s Life in Film” on the magazine’s website
In the Cineaste article, Dan writes brilliantly about his memories of the world of international and repertory cinema and about his relationships with of some of the great auteurs he has encountered. His descriptions of life at the New Yorker Theater, which he ran until 1973 (when I was still a NJ high school student) make me wish I had been in the audience for the incredible series and premieres. Truly, our cultural landscape would have been much emptier without his heroic — even herculean — efforts to introduce American audiences to such great filmmakers as Zhang Yimou, Ousmane Sembene, Alain Tanner, Louis Malle and so many others.
New Yorker Films honored those and other filmmakers, not only in the company’s gorgeous printed catalogs but also in a long line of photographs that stretched many yards down the right-hand wall of the company’s office when I worked there. These 8x10 photos were covered by long sheets of lucite that could be opened so that the order of the images could be rearranged. If Claude Lanzmann were coming by, his photo would quickly be moved to the number one spot.
The appreciation by Cynthia Rowell (a good friend, who worked with us at Milestone Films for years before joining New Yorker and now Cineaste) updates and contextualizes Dan’s great contributions to cinema in the US. She writes about how New Yorker helped fuel the flowering of film societies and independent cinemas because programmers could rely on the “New Yorker seal of approval.” And she rightly highlights the importance of Dan’s work in promoting films with strong political messages from around the world.
And although I really enjoyed these narratives, I came away asking one question:
“But, where is Jose Lopez?”
Because when I think about the New Yorker Films I worked at — and later worked with for decades — my very first thoughts are about Jose.
When I started at New Yorker, I worked as assistant to Dan and Jose — and as liaison between the distribution company and the three theaters that Dan owned or was partner in: the Cinema Studio, Metro, and Lincoln Plaza. The New Yorker Films office was on the top floor of a building at 16 West 61st Street between Broadway and Amsterdam and featured high ceilings, skylights and an open floor plan. In a previous incarnation, the space had been an automobile assembly facility. After being buzzed in the door, you faced a long reception desk and to your left was a cubicle featuring a desk, some filing cabinets and partition walls — which is where Jose worked. I sat at the assistant’s desk — just beyond the wall on the far side of Jose’s area. Facing me was Dan’s office, a separate room that featured a large glass window and a door.
When he was in the office, Dan had me working on contracts, correspondence, and sending telexes (Google this if you haven’t used one. And here is a photo of one.
This was before the Internet when international communication was a challenge. I was working at New Yorker when the company acquired its first fax machine, years later). But Dan came and went on his own schedule and even as his assistant, I often did not know when or if he would be in. In fact, that picture window into Dan’s office could be deceiving. It was not floor to ceiling, so several times I (and others) walked in to what looked like an empty office with the lights out, and almost stumbled on the six-foot-plus Dan Talbot, stretched out for a nap on the carpeted floor.
Jose was always, always there and always moving. When he stopped by my desk, I would assist him by writing marquee copy; contacting the theater mangers to make sure they had trailers, one-sheets, and 35mm prints; reporting box office; or proofreading ad copy. Then he would set off at a trot to check on problems in accounting or the office screening room or the shipping department or with the catalog layout. Very often, when we all left at the end of the day (there were eight or nine of us on staff at that time) he would still be at his desk or rushing off to the theaters to solve other problems. Jose lived on the Upper West Side and came in evenings, weekends, and holidays. He was the hardest working person I have ever known.
He was also funny and kind. Jose grew up in Cuba and although his English was excellent, he occasionally made mistakes that were both brilliant and hilarious. If you had to get over something, it was “water over the bridge.” My favorite was one that took me a while to figure out. When we started dating, my future husband Dennis was working at rival film company, Kino International. Jose heard about our romance and suggested that I might “pull a Camille.” It was only my familiarity with the films of Greta Garbo that allowed me to decipher that one. Jose was not suggesting I die of consumption, but was hoping I would take on the role of Mata Hari and learn a bit about Kino’s acquisition plans.
I am tempted to say that Jose was like the energizer bunny or that he was the heart of the company, but both those metaphors fail to account for how incredibly smart, competent and just encyclopedically knowledgeable he was about every aspect of film exhibition and distribution. Everyone relied on him all the time — for everything. Do you have a problem with the booking software? Ask Jose. Is there broken popcorn machine at the Cinema Studio? Jose will know how to fix that. Does a filmmaker need an advance on royalties? Jose will get a check cut. Is an exhibitor taking forever to pay? Ask Jose. Lab problems? Aspect ratio questions? Publicity concerns? Video production glitches? Everyone turned to him for everything.
Even years after Dennis and I had founded Milestone, we still would sometimes call Jose for advice. And he always welcomed our questions and really tried to help. That warmth and connection also made him a great boss and a great mentor.
When I was at New Yorker, I sometimes thought that in their partnership, Dan was the quintessential “dad” — both king of the castle and procurer of the household bacon (which for New Yorker meant attending festivals, meeting with filmmakers and sales agents, and acquiring new films). And Jose was “mom,” sensitive to the situations of all the kids/staff, constantly multi-tasking, incredibly hard-working, and somewhat unseen and under-appreciated by the outside world.
Well, decades later I am a mom — and co-owner of a mom-and-pop distribution company — so my perspective has evolved. I can see that both men loved the films themselves and that their dedication to cinema fueled their collaboration and gave their partnership tenacity. Dan’s role — representing the company and establishing it as a vital cultural voice and resource — was essential and suited his personality and many talents. I recognize too that Jose thrived on solving the million-and-one problems and challenges of keeping a business going.
I remember that despite his warmth and boundless energy, Jose is shy. I found exactly one photo of him online and it was taken another New Yorker alum, Reid Rosefelt (The photo above is a better image, also courtesy of Reid). I don’t really know if Jose will like that I am writing about him now
But as a working film distributor for so many years, I also know that what Jose did at New Yorker Films was absolutely essential to its excellence and success. And I know that I, and dozens of other working film professionals, owe him so much. I know that I can never fully thank him all his kindness and wisdom — but I offer this blog in partial payment.
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