Nov 11, 2014

A Restoration to Revive a Film Revolution: Shirley Clarke, A Portrait of Jason (1967) and Ornette: Made in America (1985)

With two new releases on DVD and Blu-ray, Milestone Film continues its restoration of the work of filmmaker Shirley Clarke.

The documentary films each feature a mesmerizing character, one whose life is a triumph, the other a tragedy, though both have known their share of highs and lows. A Portrait of Jason (1967) is a significant restoration, the result of five years of fundraising, archive search and work on the film itself. Ornette: Made in America creates its own genre, a mash-up of concert film, documentary, dramatization and experimental style.

Shirley Clarke never reached for a wide audience. The filmmaker made movies for people on her wavelength. She got that her style was unusual, and she embraced that.

Clarke and camera

Still, Clarke managed to make herself a minor legend based on a rebellious, bold and undeniably major talent. Her method is easier to experience than explain. It’s a way of flowing with her subject, basing the rhythm of her films on the characters and action she observes.

Until now, the bulk of Clarke's work has been difficult to see. That is until Milestone Films, which is the husband and wife team Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, pulled off another brilliant restoration--this time bringing Clarke's films to the public-at-large with an ambitious effort known as Project Shirley.

Clarke was born in New York and the spirit of the city always flowed through her veins. With her dramas, documentaries and short films, she would often document the darkest, most desperate stories of its citizens, reflecting her own feelings of being an outcast in society.

A Portrait of Jason (1967) is a tricky film. In portraying one of those citizens, it seduces you into thinking you're seeing a story told straight, which is amusing since it features a man who is the definition of con artist. His name is Jason Holliday, or at least that's what he tells the camera, until he is coaxed into admitting his birth name was Aaron Payne.

And so begins a drunken night in the life of an African American, gay hustler who claims aspirations of cabaret stardom. This combo remains perilous today, in 1966 it was much more so, when homosexual acts were illegal and racism more bluntly apparent.

Clarke filmed Holliday for twelve hours over the course of one evening and early morning. He drinks, smokes, gets high and giggles his way through the story of his life. His words can be enchantingly quotable, but just as often he rambles like the overly friendly party guest who has edged you into a corner. You simultaneously want to take care of Jason and shout at him to get it together, but his flaws are mostly the result of his displacement in a society that rejects so much of who he is.

Jason leans against the fireplace, sprawls across a couch and otherwise lounges, paces and writhes in Clarke's penthouse apartment at the Hotel Chelsea. The setting is simple, and at first the concept appears to be as well. But Shirley's questions and those of her partner Carl Lee get more prickly as the hours pass by. You begin to realize they are angry at him and they are trying to break down his giddy defenses as he becomes increasingly more exhausted.

There is undeniable hurt beneath the jolly way Jason describes his experiences as a houseboy and hustler. He's been treated horridly, and he hasn't been so sweet himself. What he has done to anger Clarke and Lee is somewhat a mystery, though it is clear that the story Holliday tells is piled high with fabrications. As much as Jason refuses to do so, he ends up revealing a great deal about himself and the desperation he feels about his rootless life.

Lending the proceedings another level of perversity, Clarke may be manipulating the image. The camera occasionally goes out of focus, whether by design or technical difficulties, but giving the proceedings a rough, perilous feel either way. In one instance she runs the film forwards and backwards on Jason sitting quietly, smoking, a detail noticeable only because you can see the smoke running in an out of his cigarette. Sometimes the image drops out, and Clarke keeps the sound going. She seems to want to communicate that capturing the moment is of utmost importance.

The film isn't for everyone, but if you get Clarke, it is likely you will also be entranced by Jason. They are kindred rebellious spirits, exploiting each other in their own fashion.

Special features include interviews with Clarke, outtakes from the film, color photos of Jason and a clip of his comedy album, but unfortunately not much about what became of the Holliday when filming wrapped.

The production of Ornette: Made in America (1985) stretched out out over several years. Clarke began her relationship with Coleman, and his son Denardo (he started playing drums with his father's band at age ten) in the late 60s, collecting footage that she then put into storage. It was not until the composer returned to his Fort Worth, Texas  hometown for a major concert of his work that she began to piece together the film.

Instead of approaching its subject with chronological storytelling, the film moves with a defiant, eccentric rhythm closely connected to the chaos of Coleman's music. It dips into the musician's past with visual cues, at first mysterious, but eventually familiar. Clarke effectively references these moments to give layers of meaning to her footage.

A flicker of a young actor portraying Ornette as a child during one of his concerts or the overlapping noise of the trains he heard going past his house in childhood in the midst of an interview adds depth and richness beyond straight documentation. Clarke gets how a brief glimpse can be powerful enough to communicate what the limited path of traditional narrative cannot.

This fluidity of storytelling is a perfect fit for Coleman's genius. And he is a genius too. It is great fun to watch his interviews with Clarke. You sense the way he goes through life at play, enjoying the wonders of his mind.

Coleman is focused, calm and in control as he shares his vision with Clarke--the opposite of his chaotic compositions. His gifts so inspire him that he is willing to put himself in physical danger to find a place to properly explore his ideas. He is an artist above all.

This is adventurous filmmaking, seeming wild and chaotic, but deliberately crafted. As with any Clarke film, if you can catch her vibe, you are rewarded with an infinitely exciting vision.

Special features on the disc include an interview with Denardo Coleman, Clarke's amusing short film about her love of Felix the Cat, a couple of interviews with the director and a booklet with reminisces about the production of the film.

More information about the films restored as part of Project Shirley here.

Many thanks to Milestone Films for providing copies of the films for review.


  1. Thank you for bringing these two films to my attentions and for introducing my to Clarke. I will definitely be looking for these!

  2. I hope you enjoy them. They were an exciting new discovery for me!