Two Shirley Clarke Documentaries Get Long-Overdue Resurrections

by Michael Barrett

29 January 2015

Portrait of Jason and Ornette: Made in America, two outstanding Shirley Clarke documentaries, represent unique takes on the black experience in America.
 
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Portrait of Jason

Director: Shirley Clarke
Cast: Jason Holliday

US DVD: 11 Nov 2014

In all-night session on December 3, 1966, Jason Holliday was “on”, baby. Getting drunk and stoned but handling it, he sashays from couch to chair and back again, riffing, singing, monologuing. He discusses being “a queen” and “a hustler”, touches on being black in his relation to various “ofay cats”, and discusses his frustrations, ambitions and sometimes destructive habits. Underlying all of this is fear, unless we project this interpretation, but his shrieking laughter over topics like how his father used to beat him skirts the edge of hysteria. The camera hovers closer and then backs away. The chapter breaks are fades out of focus, so that Jason resembles an X-ray of himself, and fades to black with his voice emanating from the ether.
  
This is Portrait of Jason, a quiet landmark in cinema-verité documentary features (or is it a performance video?) that’s been hard to see for a long time. The good folks at Milestone eventually located a a 35mm print from Sweden and a 16mm print of the late director Shirley Clarke’s (it was under everyone’s nose, but they thought it was outtakes) and performed a digital scanning that renders it vivid where previously thick and soft in sound and image. We can judge how ahead of its time it was as a film that quietly accepted Jason’s validity as a subject for our fascinated, discomfitted gaze.

Among the many extras, including audio outtakes showing how rehearsed was Jason’s rap, there’s a radio interview in which Clarke discusses her disappointment with the reductive and biased approach many viewers took. Never mind the mainstream; in the era of Black Power, Jason was hardly perceived as a strong role model, nor did pre-Stonewall gay politics appreciate such an image. Today we can more easily see his in-your-face, take-me-or-leave-me presence as wounded but unbowed. Clarke, a white Jewish woman, says she perceives the film as evidence of Jason’s heroism as a black man in America. As she puts it: “I am Jason. You are Jason.” She adds that they were all exhausted after the 12-hour session except for Jason, who could have gone another 12 hours. Another audio extra is his “comedy album”, which consists of random one-liners on a variety of topics.

Ornette: Made in America is a “musical journey” and portrait of jazz icon Ornette Coleman many years in the making. She began filming in the late ‘60s, when Coleman discusses the drumwork of his then ten-year-old son Denaro. The bulk of the film is organized around a 1983 concert performance, in Coleman’s hometown of Fort Worth, of the symphonic piece Skies of America, which combines orchestra with passages performed by Coleman’s Prime Time band (with the adult Denaro). It’s a spacey, avant-garde hybrid of modernism and free jazz: rhythmic and “minimalist”, yet also restless and dissonant. The piece is at once disturbing and seductive, always threatening to burst into space or expand your mind whether you want it or not.

cover art

Ornette: Made in America

Director: Shirley Clarke
Cast: Ornette Coleman

US DVD: 11 Nov 2014

Showing how Coleman’s life and thought come together in his work, the film drifts back and forth from this performance to other ideas. Clarke moves from interviews (in which Coleman sounds quietly wiggy and bizarre, whether praising architect Buckminster Fuller or discussing castration), to previous performances (including early ‘70s jams with the Master Musicians of Jajouka in Nigeria), to a reading by William Burroughs, and to “psychedelic” passages that play with editing and animation, as when Coleman discusses his hopes to travel in space. The result is a collage made by a filmmaker in sync with her subject.

Extras include a radio interview on this film, a silent Felix the Cat cartoon in which Clarke declares that Felix’s surreal optimism influenced her life, a general one-hour video interview with Clarke in which her stripey outfit blends with the shades behind her, and a Skype interview with Denardo Coleman.

Portrait of Jason

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Ornette: Made in America

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