Monday, October 19, 2015

JASON AND SHIRLEY: Stephen Winter's docu-drama of that famously unseen documentary

The name Jason Holliday may ring a bell with certain of us older folk -- movie-lovers who might have caught, during its brief theatrical run, Shirley Clarke's film, Portrait of Jason, during which, over a continuous half day and night, she filmed the man who went by the name of Jason Holliday and who was a drug-and-alcohol-addled black, gay hustler. Up until then (the film was shot in 1966 and released in '67), the "civilized" white world had seen nothing like this. either on film or most probably in real life.

Consequently the documentary, "scandalous" as it seemed at the time, was given a public (and sometimes critical) equivalent of a tar-and-feathering and promptly run out of town. Nowadays, of course, you can see this sort of narcissistic confessional on what seems like every other TV show -- from Dr. Phil and Ru Paul to the "housewives" of.. to you name it -- as our populace, desperate for fifteen minutes of fame, says and does its Can-you-top-this? routine in front of a camera so as to be properly "seen and appreciated."

All of which brings us to JASON AND SHIRLEY, the new docudrama from writer/director Stephen Winter (shown at left), that imagines what might have happened during and in between those twelve hours of shooting that went on in order to bring Portrait of Jason to fruition. In this new version, Jason is portrayed by Jack Waters (above, left) and Shirley by Sarah Schulman (above, right). TrustMovies saw the original film during its New York theatrical debut nearly fifty years ago and, as a 26-year old young, closeted, gay, white man, was properly appalled by what he saw. His horizons have expanded some since then, and he would love to see the film again today, with age, experience, and at least a bit more maturity on his side.

Interestingly enough, early last year the indispensable Milestone Films brought the restored movie back into a brief theatrical release and, toward the end of the year, onto Blu-ray and DVD. So comparisons can be easily made, for anyone interested. My initial response to this new film mirrors to some extent my original response a half century ago: embarrassment for the man at the center of it all who drinks himself into a stupor and generally makes an ass of himself, beginning to end. That Mr. Waters seems the utter embodiment of Mr. Holliday only adds to the very believable skeeviness of it all.

As I recall, Ms Clark was mostly left out of the original film, as documentarians so often were back in the day when their subjects were "all." Here, we see Shirley almost as much as we do Jason, and what we see is not very nice. Clark, as pictured in the new film, wants to get at Jason's core by any means necessary. Even if that core, as it turns out, seems as shallow and cliche-ridden as the fellow's exterior. And yet... Clark's films always probed the society in which her protagonists lived, and they showed us race and economics and especially power from the POV of those who possessed damn little of the latter. Her films are critiques of much more than their characters.

In any case, Clark was an artist, and as that charming, smart and woefully underseen movie Chic! informed us so beautifully, artists can get away with this shit because they have -- in addition to their huge ego and complete unconcern for anyone else,-- their art to back them up. So, while Clark may have been a crap human being in some respects, she delivers the goods in others.

Mr. Holliday, however, is something else. A failed just-about-everything, he doesn't seem to have possessed the talent, strength or determination to follow through on anything he supposedly wanted, although this new film tells us that he finally did do a single performance of his one-man show. Otherwise, he muses, reminisces about his life (which may be mostly fantasy), and Mr. Winter allows that fantasy or memory to take shape along the way, so that we flit in and out -- as Holliday grows drunker and more stoned -- of his life, his past, his needs and desires.

One one level Jason is the complete victim, on another he does possess a kind of strength -- as a gay, black hustler, he's tripled-whammied with nothing left to lose -- so it is possible to think of him, in the society of this mid-20th-century time, as something similar to concentration-camp Jews, whose only thing left is whatever self-respect they can muster in whatever manner it takes.  He's been marginalized -- granted, he's had a hand in his own marginalization -- to the point of obscurity, yet has bounced back by virtue of his ability to transgress and then revel in it.

The new film is nearly a half hour shorter than its predecessor, which is, as I recall, a kind of blessing. Yet, oddly enough, what the movie has made me want to do is revisit that original and see how it appears to me now. Overall Jason and Shirley is well-cast, -acted, -written (the two stars had a hand in this, it seems) and -directed, and it does build slowly a certain head of steam, culminating in the appearance of Jason's friend, the semi-famous actor Carl Lee (played with gravity and great appeal by Orran Farmer), whom Shirley puts to work in a craven manner designed to "break" our poor "hero." Fireworks (of a sort) ensue, but do they achieve the intended result? You will see.

Meanwhile, Jason and Shirley, begins a week's theatrical run at MoMA in New York City, today, Monday, October 19. Down the line, I imagine it will eventually reach a much wider audience via DVD and digital streaming.

No comments: