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.
Then I read a little of his book Seductive Cinema this morning and realized that I had to change tonight’s talk. It’s been a while since I first read it and now memories came flooding back. It’s been only twelve years since his death but in some ways it seems like another time – when there were giants in the field who first stamped their feet on this earth to create the film archives where none had existed before them. People like Jim, Henri Langlois, and so many others.
I assume that many before me on this stage in past celebrations have talked about his brilliance, his generosity of spirit, his absolute passion and devotion to the moving image — and on and on. That all is certainly true – he had an incredible gift for living. He was a drama king in the best possible sense of the word. He taught me, through our few talks together, that storytelling is not only an art, but also an essential one in life. To be able to enthrall your audience and convince them is an important part of your work. And his ability to do this led to tonight’s film, but I’ll get to that later.
Now back to this morning. Reading the first few chapters of Seductive Cinema, I recalled our first meeting and why we were such kindred souls. Let me read to you just a few sentences from his book:
“The men who brought about the essential magic of speechless cinema are few. They include Eadweard Muybridge, James Williamson, Louis Lumiere, Georges Melies, Thomas Edison and George Eastman. Fellow historians who may actually chance upon these lines may be horrified by my omissions. I myself am horrified by the need to include Edison and Eastman.”
Remember, that he wrote this after having worked at the George Eastman House for almost forty years. Here’s another…
“David Wark Griffith believed he had invented the closeup. And film editing and the moving camera and even restrained acting. Griffith staked out his claim to the “invention” of all these basic elements of cinematic art by taking out an ad in the New York Dramatic Mirror of December 3, 1913. And such is the power of the printed word, and rarely have pre-1913, non-Griffith films figured in preserved study collections, that too many historians have believed Griffith’s preposterous claims.”
Whether he was right or wrong – though he usually right -- it doesn’t matter. What it reminded me of was this. As charming and wonderful as he was, Jim Card could also be a cantankerous son of a gun.… and this is what I loved best about him. We immediately found that we were both passionate about a striving towards perfection and had complete disdain for anyone who was willing to take the easy way in life. And this included several film archivists we immediately agreed about.
Another thing. Whenever anyone proclaimed something was the first or greatest, Jim would find it nonsense. He would always have a ready answer with another film that was earlier or finer. He felt that by proclaiming anything as finite and set in stone, you would be limiting your future discoveries. You wouldn’t be open for the next surprise in life. The next Louise Brooks, the next Josephine Baker. I took this philosophy to Milestone; we’re always looking for a way to screw up all those textbooks on cinema with our next find.
So while the British Film Institute was setting their Sights — and Sound — on the fifty greatest films of all-time and the Museum of Modern Art was busily creating “The Canon,” Jim Card and his compatriot-in-crime Henri Langlois were fighting every inch of the way. How can you search out and value the wonders of Paul Fejos’s LONESOME or Clarence Brown and Maurice Tourneur’s LAST OF THE MOHICANS when you are blinded by only the worth of Griffith and Eisenstein and their friends?
You might think my calling this a fight is a way to dramatize an intellectual conversation. Let me tell you this battle was very real …. it was intense … and every inch was fought for in the halls of the archives tooth and nail. For Jim and Langlois were intent on saving everything – that all films must be preserved and not just those sanctified by the Archivist Gods who controlled the canon. And during those dark days, there were films, like Herbert Brenon’s Kiss for Cinderella, that were indeed allowed to disintegrate because they weren’t considered worthy of the cost of preserving them.
So when I met Jim, we found we were similar in nature. It was about absolute commitment, a constant search for what I now call “outsider” cinema, a desire to find the next amazing film, to be passionate and intense about your beliefs and yes, a hatred of certain people who were too stodgy and set in their ways to believe that there will always be new discoveries. All that came very easy for me.
So this was in the mid-1980s when I was very young and just starting out at Kino -- with absolutely no experience in the archival world, Jim helped me immensely in my first two restorations – guiding me through Erich von Stroheim’s QUEEN KELLY and being an essential collaborator on Raoul Walsh’s SADIE THOMPSON. He also taught be an incredible lesson — that to save a film, sometimes you have to break society’s laws. Yes, and I confessed this first at a Selznick Commencement speech only a couple years ago that even though he was retired, he did help me pay off a guard to enter into the George Eastman House film archive one Saturday morning to find the missing soundtrack to QUEEN KELLY.
His wonderful stories aside, here’s the best part about Jim’s mentorship. During the restoration of these two films, sometimes, when I was bafflingly stupid and going in the wrong direction, Jim would pause for dramatic intent and say sternly, “think about it Dennis.” And he allowed me – and to be honest, it took much longer for me than it did for him – to come up with the solution myself. That he was very proud of me when I got it right was something, but even better, only the most confident of teachers allows their students to think for themselves. That’s a much better education.
So to end this speech and to tell you why I chose this film tonight. After QUEEN KELLY and SADIE THOMPSON were out and my career was launched – I sent him a long-desired 16mm print of DIARY OF A LOST GIRL as a present from Kino.
A few months later, Jim was back in New York City and wanted to take us to lunch to thank us. After we dined, we were walking down Broadway. Jim was suggesting a lot of films we could do, but Don was not into any big silent film projects. (One of them, DRAGON PAINTER, Milestone got to release many years later.) To be fair, SADIE THOMPSON had cost a lot of money to produce and it was still deep in the red. So that’s when Jim mentioned two films that he promised would make us a lot of money. They were Princess Tam Tam and Zou Zou. They were two films made in France in the 1930s that featured incredible performances by the great Josephine Baker and he enthralled me with stories about the films and the great Josephine. Honestly, I had no clue what the hell these films were and I probably had no idea who Josephine Baker was.
Well, Don would have no part of this idea. For six months I pleaded to acquire these films. Not because of anything I knew. But I always fell easily into Jim’s spell – and let’s face it, I still wanted to impress and please my mentor. Finally, Don agreed on one condition — that we could get them cheaply. And this is where I can talk of Jim’s generosity. He told me that PRINCESS TAM TAM was with the GEH and I had to negotiate with them on the film. But he told me his secret – to preserve ZOU ZOU for GEH, he had himself paid for a 35mm negative with his own money and it was at John Allen’s lab. But since John had given him such a good price, that it was really John’s negative. So I called John Allen and he insisted that Jim owned it. I called Jim back and he insisted that John did. But a few days later, just in order to see the film out there and for people to see Josephine Baker again, they both agreed to give Kino free access to the negative as long as we made prints at John’s lab.
And with ZOU ZOU in hand and with Jim’s blessing, GEH readily agreed to give us access to PRINCESS TAM TAM for no advance money and a percentage of future income. This gave Don the confidence to go ahead with the project. And here’s the thing. The country fell in love once again with Josephine Baker and these two films. Critics acclaimed them and audiences flocked to these fifty year old unknown films. Kino made a ton of money. John Allen made money making us prints. George Eastman House made a huge amount of money from royalties on Princess Tam Tam. And Jim? He was truly happy for all of us and never asked for credit, a dime, or even another 16mm print. So when I was asked a few months ago to choose a film tonight, I knew it wasn’t going to be one of my films. It had to be Jim’s.
Despite my youthful ignorance, Jim immediately welcomed me into the club of film archivists. Even if I didn’t believe in myself, he did. Back then, competition was rife among film archivists and petty disagreements could last a lifetime. Yet he never saw me as competition even as I worked on some of his favorite films. I can’t really tell you if he ever put his arm on my shoulders to encourage me, but to this day, I can still feel his encouragement and his warmth.