Sadly this is no April Fools’ joke.
The American docudrama Jason and Shirley re-imagines the electrifying interaction between Jason Holliday, a queer black artist and Shirley Clarke, a cold and manipulative white Oscar-winning documentarist during the 12-hour shooting of the iconic documentary Portrait of Jason (1966).
The filmmaker Clarke (played by Sarah Schulman) has firm grip and control over Holliday (Jack Waters), the exotic subject of her highly controversial film. Portrait of Jason eventually became the most successful film in history with a gay black lead, and also an exponent in the field of video art.
Most of the action takes place in a room at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, except for some bits of Holliday’s imagination and a short sequence when Clarke and Holliday go to the Hotel’s rooftop. Clarke is supported by a small crew throughout the endeavour. The soundtrack is populated with eerie drumming, white noise and microphone feedback, rendering the film distant and detached. Jason and Shirley is a very taut and claustrophobic experience indeed, if also a reflective and liberating one.
The director Stephen Winter examines the role of the film director by inserting an imaginary camera in the middle of a film setting that took place exactly 50 years ago. This is very unusual crossing of metacinema and documentary making, where there director exposes the stealthy devices of filmmaking, thereby denouncing the manipulative nature of cinema.
Shirley Clarke and her crew handled the loud, flamboyant and unabashed Holliday more or less like keepers would treat an exotic and wild creature on a circus stage. Clarke’s elicitation technique is shockingly immoral: she constantly teases and provokes her subject, encourages him to drink alcohol and inject heroine, and keeps filming even without his consent and knowledge. She explains that she literally wishes to “break” him, who was earlier described as a “faggot, nigger and 100% degenerate.”
The power relationships in the film are very complex. Clarke is in a privileged position not just as a filmmaker, but also as white, heterosexual and Jewish. Yet she is a woman, and at that time there were virtually no female filmmakers in the world (perhaps with the exceptions of Maya Deren, Agnès Varda). She clarifies: “there were enough films about women but not by women”. Jason and Shirley offers a rare opportunity to see the female gaze controlling and tacitly mocking the male. Male, gay and black.
The performances in the movie are outstanding, particularly’s Waters playing Holliday. He progressively veers from sober and confident to hysterical and out-of-control. He sweats, growls, wails and rolls his eyes while on drugs. Shirley is always stoic and calculating, in full grasp and control of her privileged position. Winter allows his actors to develop their characters to the full, without pesky voiceovers and melodramatic artifices. The images are strong and the dialogues are very graphic.
Jason and Shirley is a very powerful reflection on racism, homophobia and – most importantly – the role of the filmmaker. This film is doubly harrowing because it exposes not just the happily dysfunctional, proudly decadent and self-destructive Jason but also the director’s sadistic joy at filming him.
Today is no ordinary day for Jason Holliday. Exactly 47 years ago, on April Fools’ Day he made his debut performance at in Manhattan’s Theathe District and received three standing ovations. He died in New York in 1998, a year after Shirley Clarke.
Jason and Shirley was presented as part of the 30th BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival last week. Click here if you want more information on how to watch the film or purchase its rights, and watch the film trailer below: