Film

Two Shirley Clarke Documentaries Get Long-Overdue Resurrections

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


Portrait of Jason

Director: Shirley Clarke
Cast: Jason Holliday
Distributor: Milestone
Year: 1967
US DVD release date: 2014-11-11

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.

DVD: Ornette: Made in America

Film: Ornette: Made in America

Director: Shirley Clarke

Cast: Ornette Coleman

Year: 1983

Rating: Not rated

US DVD release date: 2014-11-11

Distributor: Milestone

Rating: 7

Extras rating: 5

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/f/finalposter_ornette_1024x1024.jpg

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.

8

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image