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.
DANCER, bride, runaway wife, radical filmmaker and pioneer — Shirley Clarke is one of the great undertold stories of American independent cinema. A woman working in a predominantly male world, a white director who turned her camera on black subjects, she was a Park Avenue rich girl who willed herself to become a dancer and a filmmaker, ran away to bohemia, hung out with the Beats and held to her own vision in triumph and defeat. She helped inspire a new film movement and made urgently vibrant work that blurs fiction and nonfiction, only to be marginalized, written out of histories and dismissed as a dilettante. She died in 1997 at 77 and is long overdue for a reappraisal.
On Friday a new print of her first feature, “The Connection,” gorgeously preserved by the U.C.L.A. Film & Television Archive, opens at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village. The film is the first release in a multiyear endeavor by Milestone Films called the Shirley Clarke Project or, as the archivist and distributor Dennis Doros likes to put it, Project Shirley. Over the next few years Mr. Doros and Amy Heller, his wife and partner at Milestone, will distribute new and restored copies, followed by DVDs, of Clarke’s three documentary features: “Robert Frost: A Quarrel with the World” (1963), “Portrait of Jason”(1967) and “Ornette: Made in America” (1985), about the jazz great Ornette Coleman. A selection of her shorts will be included on the DVDs, giving viewers a chance to dig into Clarke’s legacy.
Her story is complex and contradictory and her life shot through with strange fissures, one of the biggest being “The Connection.” The original play, written by Jack Gelber and first performed at the Living Theater in 1959, partly turns on a writer and producer who are mounting a theatrical experiment in which the actors are ostensibly played by real addicts, some true philosophers of the needle. The addicts, including a jazz quartet, are waiting for their heroin “connection,” the silky smooth-talker Cowboy. “If everything goes right,” says the producer, who also brings in two cameramen, “you will be able to see the film version of this play.” Clarke must have loved that line.
The play was savaged by most of the mainstream critics when it opened but soon became a downtown hit and crossover sensation. Leonard Bernstein, Anita Loos, Salvador Dalí and Lillian Hellman, who likened it to “a fine time at the circus,” were among those who trooped to 14th Street to watch a pustule-ridden addict called Leach slide the needle in. There were those who were doubtless attracted by the noise and notoriety, the twitching addicts, scatting expletives, gutter realism and cool jazz. Some spectators wondered if the dope was real. The painter Larry Rivers related that it was. Perhaps the drama’s most important admirer was the theater critic Kenneth Tynan, then at The New Yorker, who found it “the most exciting new American play that Off Broadway has produced since the war.”
At the time Tynan was married to Clarke’s middle sister, the writer Elaine Dundy. In her blunt 2001 memoir, “Life Itself!,” Dundy, who died in 2008, recalls that Clarke was fascinated by “The Connection” but couldn’t see how to make it work on screen. Her idea was to turn it into a film within a film featuring a white director, Jim Dunn (William Bedfield) who, with a black cameraman, the ponderously named J. J. Burden (Roscoe Brown), is making a documentary about addicts. Much would remain the same — most of the cast, the patois (“you dig”) and an addict shooting up — but now would be immortalized in shimmery celluloid.
The eldest of three daughters, Clarke (née Brimberg) grew up in New York with chauffeurs and governesses, and “The Connection” looked as if it were as far from her world as the moon. Her maternal grandfather, Heyman Rosenberg, invented the self-tapping screw, and her father, Samuel Nathaniel Brimberg, became rich first in clothing and later in metal and steel. Dundy wrote that their life was privileged but scarcely contented because of their father’s temper and physical abuse. “Coming home every afternoon was like returning to a prison where my father was the warden, we sisters the inmates and my mother the snitch.” Clarke stood up to their father, but his disapproval led her, Dundy maintained, “to seek more and more dangerous ways of rebelling against him.”
Art was a way out. Clarke became a dancer in her teens, switching from ballet to modern. She gave college a try, more than once; studied with Martha Graham; performed here and there; and, at 21, became the president of the National Dance Association. She married a lithographer-publisher, Bert Clarke, and in 1944 had a daughter, Wendy. By the early 1950s her interest had gravitated to cinema, and she made her first short, “Dance in the Sun” (1953), with inherited money and a 16-millimeter camera that had been a wedding present. She must have cut quite the figure, to judge from a profile of the “petite and dynamic young Manhattan matron” that ran in The New York Times in 1955.
“Why, mused Mrs. Clarke, shouldn’t a trained dancer, with an itching curiosity about movies, energy galore and no experience, try her luck?” Why not, indeed! Sitting in the garden of her apartment, she explained to the reporter from The Times, Howard Thompson, her newfound artistic bent. “I wanted to learn film technique, so Bert, my husband, and I and some friends decided to organize our own class and hire one master.” She sounds a little silly, this “lady with a lens,” but she was a talented learner, and ambitious. She took film classes at City College and directed more shorts, including “Bullfight” (1955), with the dancer Anna Sokolow. Another short film, “Skyscraper” (1959), which she made with two documentarians, earned her an Oscar nomination.
That same year Jonas Mekas, writing in his increasingly influential journal Film Culture, inaugurated an anti-Oscar called the Independent Film Award, which he created to signal “the entrance of a new generation of filmmakers into American cinema.” There had always been independent cinema in America, an off-Hollywood; now there was also a movement. Equipped with more portable film tools and faster stock, and influenced by foreign cinema and the world beyond, filmmakers like John Cassavetes (Clarke lent him equipment for his first feature, “Shadows”) were changing the way movies were made in America. In September 1960, 23 movers and shakers — Clarke was the lone woman — founded the New American Cinema, an American New Wave. By November she was shooting “The Connection.”
Ingeniously Clarke and her co-producer, Lewis Allen, a theater insider and another New American Cinema dissident, bankrolled the film by selling limited partnerships to around 200 small investors, a practice common in theater though not in film. “We feel,” Allen and Clarke explained in a prospectus, citing the French New Wave as an example, “that there is a relatively large market in this country (there certainly is in Europe) for unique and different motion pictures, with an individual point of view, made on a very low budget.” Among the investors were Norman Mailer ($250), the architect Philip Johnson ($5,000) and, curiously, Rick Santorum’s parents, Dr. Aldo Santorum and Catherine D. Santorum ($500). (Both worked at veterans’ hospitals and might have treated addicts.)
Clarke shot “The Connection” in 20 days, coming in under the $177,000 budget, a relatively modest amount in the predigital era. She edited it herself, punctuating the talk and nodding, shuffling action with swish pans that blur the visuals and look like what you might see as a dancer when you execute a turn. The swish pans call attention to the filmmaking, underscoring its artifice, as do the way the addicts talk directly into the camera, like belligerent drunks. As one drones on in what feels like a parody of documentary tedium, the camera shifts to a roach crawling up a wall, a harshly comic encapsulation of an addict scuttling after the next fix.
The early reviews were promising, and “The Connection” was shown out of competition at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival to acclaim and some notoriety because, Clarke said, “the ‘Beat’ Americans in Europe came to Cannes to support us.” Allen Ginsberg’s biographer Bill Morgan writes that one of Les Beatniks, Gregory Corso, arrived with his pockets full of heroin. (They were soon empty.) Whether Clarke was doing drugs is unclear, but after Cannes she ran off with Carl Lee, an African-American, who plays Cowboy and was, Dundy wrote, a drug user. According to Dundy, Clarke said she took drugs to be on the “same glorious wavelength” as Lee.
Clarke began working on “The Cool World,” about teenage toughs in Harlem, in the fall of 1961, right around when “The Connection” was busted by the smut police. At that time New York State required movies to be licensed by a board of censors before they could be publically exhibited. The board refused to issue a license to “The Connection,” deeming it obscene because of a peek at a girlie magazine and a vulgarity that’s a synonym for heroin. A year later it was shown without a license and promptly shut down. Perhaps bored with the fuss or just contrary, the critics sank their teeth into the film. The Court of Appeals reversed the decision, but the damage was done.
“My backers had to be satisfied with sponsoring artistic successes,” Clarke said years later, “because they never saw their money again.” Then as now distribution was one of the most intractable obstacles for independents, the difference being that Clarke was working at a time when there was nothing like the indie film infrastructure that exists today. She and Mr. Mekas tried to address this lack when they helped form the film rental library, the Film-Makers Cooperative, and the more commercial, shorter-lived Film-Makers’ Distribution Center. In truth, as the dud box office for “The Cool World” suggests, she didn’t make movies that could hit the white art-house sweet spot. (The rights to the movie are owned by the documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who, alas, hasn’t put it out on DVD.)
That didn’t stop Clarke. After a detour with Robert Frost, she made “Portrait of Jason,” a stunning nonfiction film about a black gay hustler that’s nearly all monologue and is alternately a confessional, a burlesque and a tragedy, and followed that up with “Ornette: Made in America.” She tried to make more movies, fell hard for video, lived in the penthouse at the Chelsea Hotel, visited Los Angeles (and stayed), taught film and got herself clean. She was rediscovered and celebrated anew and later developed Alzheimer’s disease and died after suffering a stroke. She was forgotten by too many, and not a single book has been written about her. “The Connection” signaled the beginning of a new period in her life, and just maybe it will again bring her the acclaim she has always deserved.