Pictured: Jack Waters in Jason and Shirley | Photo by Ricardo Nelson
A pretty good definition of stupid is when a victim goes back to his abuser for more abuse. For almost 50 years now, the documentary Portrait of Jason (1967) by Shirley Clarke has been regarded as a landmark representation of a gay man, a black man and an unparalleled example of filmmaking audacity by a female filmmaker, who also happens to be white and Jewish. When critics, distributors, curators—and gay people--return to this so-called “milestone,” it’s always to confirm the film as some kind of breakthrough for all parties involved.
Jason and Shirley, a dramatic reenactment of how Portrait of Jason was made is anything but a party; it, returns to the scene of that crime. Like the original film, Jason and Shirley is combination art project and psychotherapy. Writer-director Stephen Winter and actor Jack Waters—impersonating Clarke’s subject Jason Holliday (born Aaron Payne)--try exorcising the disaster of Portrait of Jason. But for viewers, it’s like revisiting a dreadful memory—or, in Oprah speak: giving power to the enemy.
In both Jason and Shirley and Portrait of Jason, the enemy is Self. A reflection of how gay people put themselves at the mercy of straight mediamakers. Both films illustrate the mutual antagonism between gays, straights, men, women, whites, blacks, Jews, gentiles. It’s a horrorshow, a battle unroyale among “minorities.” And as Hanif Kureishi, British screenwriter of My Beautiful Laundrette observed, “minority” is an unacceptable term to describe someone without social status who is regarded with contempt.
The contemptuous culture industry is Winter and Waters’ subject as well as their trap. Although they proceed skeptically, recognizing Clarke as a predatory opportunist (“Tell them what the system has done to you”) and Holliday as a masochistic exhibitionist, they also fall into easy Warholisms—repeating, fetishizing, the same exploitation. (Clarke and Holliday compete for the attention of Niko, a young, curly-haired white errand boy, and the role of Holliday’s racist and rapacious matron is played in drag.) Any thinking person who saw Portrait of Jason is already appalled at Clarke’s dishonesty (“The most important issue in America today is the race issue”) while she supplies her subject with booze and dope, and Holliday’s shamelessness (“I’m a stone whore, a prostitute, a hooker”). This is only fascinating to an era confused by reality-TV and contemporary political correctness.
Destitute Jason says he wants to be an entertainer and rich girl Clarke (played by Sarah Schulman) responds “Anyone who says they need money to make art isn’t telling the truth.” She also goads him: “What is it like to be lying all the time?” Pretending to interrogate “the nature of truth” as in Jason and Shirley’s prologue, is by now a form of lying. Winter and Waters are not sophisticated enough in their media-and-performance stunt. Interrupting the integrity of a moment with flashbacks, split-screens, switching from color-to-b&w and fantasy sequences, they fail to respect rigorous technique. When Jean-Luc Godard said “an edit is a political act” he was instructing the moral and intellectual obligation of both makers and viewers.
Things get especially ugly when minor actor Carl Lee (Orran Farmer) appears and helps Clarke “break” Holliday. “She want the same thing all those ofays want. She wants a tour of Niggertown” Lee says. “I don’t mind a faggot but a queen, you say one thing and mean another. And you are a queen of the highest order. You don’t love anything or anyone and that’s why you are where you are, nigger!” This scene puts the onus on Lee. The filmmakers buy into Clarke’s pretense yet neither Lee nor Holliday is getting the posthumous acclaim being given to Clarke.
Fans of sexual and racial humiliation might enjoy wallowing in the Portrait of Jason gravesite (Holliday provocatively describes a white boy’s rectum as “a peach” and tells Clarke “You’re a lucky bitch by accident of birth”). But Pauline Kael’s 1967 review of the film as “naïve and sadistic” remains the definitive snap.
Jason and Shirley currently screening in New York City through Oct. 27 at the Museum of Modern Art.