Jason and Shirley Goes Behind the Scenes of an Underground Classic; Finds Banalities

Jack Waters in JASON AND SHIRLEY- Photo by Ricardo Nelson, courtesy of JaShirl LLC

Jason and Shirley
Directed by Stephen Winter
October 19-27 at MoMA

Stephen Winter’s Jason and Shirley provides a fictionalized account of the emotionally charged production of Portrait of Jason, the 1967 experimental documentary by Shirley Clarke. Portrait records would-be nightclub actor/”stone whore” Jason Holliday performing character sketches, relating tall tales, and recalling damaging life experiences over the course of a single inebriated evening in Clarke’s Chelsea Hotel apartment, with Clarke and boyfriend Carl Lee (a celebrated actor in his own right) pushing Holliday to confront his personal demons. The final product remains a milestone in filmmaking as psychotherapy, with all the exasperating, comic, and harrowing implications of such an undertaking.

It also makes the primary objective of Jason and Shirley completely unnecessary.

Even if one can’t see “behind the scenes” of Portrait, one is strongly encouraged to imagine them from Jason’s descent into a long dark night of the soul as well as the film’s increasingly intense exchanges between on-screen subject and off-screen inquisitors. Ironically, Winter and co-screenwriters Sarah Schulman and Jack Waters’s own imaginings not only stray far from the facts of the production (Milestone Film & Video, the company behind the meticulous restoration and preservation of Clarke’s filmmaking legacy, has denounced Jason and Shirley for its poor research and wild historical conjecture), but also come across as pathetically banal. Jason and Shirley shows Clarke (Schulman) suffering Holliday’s affected put-ons before having her project rescued by Lee; Holliday (Waters) shooting up off-camera with the help of a hepcat dealer (Bryan Webster); and flashbacks of Holliday’s time working for a rich bigoted women—it’s all painfully on the nose. Worse, the film’s faux-hallucinatory style allows few shots to last more than three seconds, and evokes Jason’s headspace—including his dreamed-of cabaret act—via kitschy kaleidoscopic patterns and unconvincing theatrical tableaux. The results are amateurish and silly.

The supposed ace up Jason and Shirley’s sleeve is its investigation into Portrait’s unspoken gender and ethnic tensions: Holliday was a gay black man and Clarke a white Jewish woman. But all Winter and company can muster is expository dialogue that points out these facts alongside a few Jewish jokes. There’s a great story to be told about the making of Portrait of Jason, but Jason and Shirley isn’t it.

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