Milestone Film & Video is one of the finest and most well-established U.S. distributor of docs and arthouse features. They have such great films like the classic “I am Cuba” and have been working on compiling all they can on the filmmaker Shirley Clarke (“The Connection”) whose film in the 60s, “The Cool World,” made me one of her avid fans forever. Their film, “Portrait of Jason,” also by Clarke, premiered at IDFA 2014, the premium doc festival in the world and I was lucky enough to see it at the American Film Festival in Wroclaw, Poland. Its clarity and humanity moved me so much that I feel obliged to publish this here. When Amy Heller and Dennis Doros of Milestone speak the way they do in the following blog, I listen. Since the film “Jason and Shirley” just premiered at BAMcinemaFest and Frameline Film Festival, both wonderful events, I think it is important for everyone to know what they have to say. “In 25 years, we have never weighed in on anyone else’s film (except to recommend those we love), but Dennis and I felt the need to go on the record about Stephen Winter’s new feature Jason and Shirley.”
by Amy Heller
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
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
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
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”:
In the very beginning, there is a title card stating that the filmmakers were denied access to the outtakes of “Portrait of Jason.” These recordings were
available for all to hear at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, where all of Shirley’s archives can be found—or by contacting Milestone.
In fact, all the outtakes (30 minutes of audio) were released on November 11, 2014 as a bonus features on Milestone’s DVD and Blu-Ray of the film. That was
six months before “Jason and Shirley” was completed.
In “Jason and Shirley,” “Jason” has never previously visited “Shirley’s” apartment and knows nothing about her. In reality, they had been friends for many
years and Jason would often visit her apartment.
The film states that the cinematographer on Portrait of Jason had worked on Clarke’s other two features. Actually, the film was Jeri Sopanen’s first job
with her. Further, absolutely no crew member had an issue about working on “Portrait of Jason,” as the new film portrays.
In the film “Shirley” says, “See that horrible painting on the wall? My daughter painted that… I have a daughter who is a terrible artist.” Fact: in
several video interviews with Shirley (including one released as a bonus feature on Ornette: Made In America, which also came out last November) and in
many of her letters and diaries, Clarke talked about how extremely proud she was of her daughter Wendy and her art. Mother and daughter worked happily
together for years on many projects including the legendary Tee Pee Video Space Troupe. Wendy’s fine art, textiles, and video work have received critical
praise for nearly 50 years. It was needlessly and maliciously hurtful for the filmmakers to include a line that is so obviously false and unkind.
In the film, “Shirley” says her maiden name was Bermberg. She was born Shirley Brimberg.
There is an Academy Award® statue for “Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel With the World” in “Shirley’s” apartment and the other characters repeatedly mock her
for it. The film did win an Oscar®, but although she received directing credit, Shirley had been fired from the final edit and producer Robert Hughes
picked up the award. (You can see this on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOS70Tqsz7U)
“Shirley” asks “Jason” to go up on the roof of the Hotel Chelsea with her to talk. In reality, her apartment was famously on the roof.
In the film, “Shirley” is unable to finish Portrait of Jason and tells everybody to go home and “Carl Lee” comes in to take over the film and save it. This
is ludicrous, wrong and misogynistic. Clarke was a consummate film professional and all her collaborators attest to her skill and drive.
The film ends with a title card stating that Shirley died in New York (which is simply incorrect) and that Carl Lee died of a heroin overdose. Tragically,
Lee died of AIDS and this information is in the Milestone press kit.
Another title card indicates that when Jason Holliday died that there were no friends or family listed in his one obituary. In truth, the Trentonian on
July 31, 1998 wrote that two sisters, six nieces and two nephews survived him. We found the relatives when doing our research.
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