I think it’s fair to say that a small, slightly experimental art film all about the making of another film that not many people have seen, is never going to find a huge audience, however for a very niche crowd there’s enough to keep their interest piqued – even if they probably won’t exactly like the film at the end.
The movie is a fictionalised recreation of the making of Shirley Clarke’s influential 1967 documentary, Portrait Of Jason, a movie which is extremely well-regarded in academic film circles, although not widely known outside that (partly due to it being difficult to find until a recent restoration). The original documentary was made over a single 12-hour period in Clarke’s apartment, where she interviewed gay, African-American hustler Jason Holliday, where he talks about himself and his life. As he gets more stoned and drunk, his happy, polished veneer begins to crack to reveal a darker, sadder life underneath.
Jason & Shirley is about those 12-hours, imagining what happened in-between what we see on screen in Portrait Of Jason. The idea seems to be to question the idea of documentary, with Clarke presented as being extremely manipulative, making a film about Jason in a rather Machiavellian fashion, where she knows exactly what she wants – to break him down so that she can make a more interesting film, using Jason quite callously and not really caring about him at all.
Jason meanwhile is portrayed as a man where half the time he seems primed to be manipulated by Shirley, but the other side appear very self-aware. He wants money, and having negotiated a fee based on the success of the film, he is keen to ensure Clarke gets what she wants – although whether he’s manipulating her or she him isn’t always clear.
It’s the sort of movie where you can almost feel the makers being very pleased with themselves, taking an approach that is inherently pretentious but not necessarily illuminatory, in order to talk about the nature of documentary. They do have a few points, as documentary is far more slippery than it might appear. After all, it’s never the pure unvarnished truth but the result of the filmmakers decisions both when shooting and in the editing room. However, Jason & Shirley never feels like it’s getting very far.
As it’s not revealing the ‘truth’ of how Portrait Of Jason was made – it’s a fictionalisation – all it can really do is raise questions about the film and the nature of documentary. However, you could just watch the original film to have the same questions and the same level of depth about them raised in your own brain, without the need for a whole other movie. It might have been more worthwhile if it felt like it was really getting to the heart of something, but it’s more like the essay of a freshman university student, which is excited about ideas that are new to the writer, but they don’t realise that they’ve only scratched the surface and haven’t presented anything new or all the interesting.
At least the acting is pretty good, especially from Jack Waters, who does an extremely good job as Jason. Co-writer Sarah Schulman is also effective as Clarke, even if the script isn’t exactly kind to her and turns her into a bit of a manipulative Jewish hausfrau – indeed more than questioning Portrait Of Jason, it made me question the makers of this film, and whether what they have to say about others is really more about a certain meanness and artistic narcissism on their own part, masquerading as a quest for art and truth.
Overall Verdict: Fans of Portrait Of Jason will find it interesting, but also perhaps a bit frustrating, as Clarke’s film is genuinely fascinating – one of the only looks at the life of a gay, black man before Stonewall, which also does a great job on its own of questioning the nature of truth, both in terms of film and whether the image we present to others is what’s really happening inside ourselves. Jason & Shirley meanwhile is intriguing but to a certain extent it’s, well, pointless and too pretentious for its own good.
The film is playing at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, October 20th-27th, 2015.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac