Recklessly imagines events surrounding the filming of a very real, incredibly important documentary.
Jason and Shirley
I have a rule to make no concerted effort to familiarize myself with the source material of a film before watching it. While there can be value in comparing a film to its source material, in the end, a film should be judged based on its own merits, not as a derivative of something else. Other than watching previous installments of a film franchise before settling into the current chapter (because sequels, at times, can require their predecessors be considered for things like familiarity of greater story/character arcs), I rarely make an exception to this rule. But for Stephen Winter’s Jason and Shirley, a bio-docu-drama fabricating stories from behind the scenes of a famous interview, I made such an exception.
The first two title cards combine to establish the past:
“On December 3, 1966, Oscar-winning filmmaker Shirley Clarke invited Jason Holliday, a black, middle-aged man to her Chelsea Hotel penthouse in New York City. She filmed him telling colorful stories from his turbulent life for 12 hours. This footage became ‘Portrait of Jason’ (1967), a groundbreaking documentary hailed worldwide for its unflinching look at race, sexuality, and the nature of truth.”
What follows for the next 79 minutes is a wholly fictionalized story of what went on behind the scenes during that 12-hour marathon filming session.
While those title cards are accurate, particularly the “unflinching look” statement, they don’t begin to capture the might of Jason’s 105-minute on-camera performance. And it is a performance, at least at first, until it becomes something heavier, something deeper and more impactful, something that brings Jason to tears. That’s when it becomes real. From behind the camera, Shirley directs the hell out of Jason, with a combination of alcohol and marijuana mixed with verbal interaction that ranges from coaxing to goading, even when Jason is obviously exhausted and (at times) ready to leave. Also goading him from offscreen is Carl Lee, a theater actor, frequent collaborator with Shirley, and friend of Jason. It is riveting filmmaking, something simultaneously mesmerizing and almost completely unbelievable, yet something that surely requires multiple viewings to truly take it all in.
And now I’ve spent a paragraph in a review of one film to explain another film, which simply shouldn’t be necessary. This is the first problem with Jason and Shirley—it requires existing knowledge of its subject to be understood, even on a basic level. Watching this film without having seen the source material turns this film into a pointless presentation.
Assuming you have seen the original, in Jason and Shirley, Jason is played by co-screenwriter Jack Waters mostly as an impersonation of the real Jason Holliday, who was quite the character, and Waters is fine. (Had I not seen the original, though, I doubt I would have believed such a “character” could exist in real life. Had YouTube existed in the 1960s, he would have been a star.) He’s presented here as clamoring for fame and fortune, a vibe I got watching the original. Shirley is played by fellow co-screenwriter Sarah Schulman, and her acting task a little more challenging than Waters’.
As written, Shirley is a heartless manipulator, constantly searching for ways to get Jason to turn off the Jason Character and speak to her camera as the Jason Person. She’s something of a Dr. Frankenstein in this sense, using the promise of notoriety to lure Jason in front of her camera, which creates a (showbiz) monster she later struggles to control. And she tries hard to control him, using the substances she already has in her arsenal, calling down the thunder for stronger stuff, and using sensitive points from Jason’s past to get a reaction from him (his relationship with his father, his incarceration, the time he was raped). Shirley even goes so far as to tell Carl (Orran Farmer, the real acting standout of the film) that she wants to “break” Jason. She might be a director, but she is written and portrayed here as an enemy interrogator using life-threatening manipulation to get what she wants out of her subject.
It’s no wonder the estate of Shirley Clarke neither authorized nor endorsed this film—a fact stated in a title card buried deep in the closing credits, a long time after many viewers will have stopped paying attention.
This is the second, more serious problem with the film: it’s fictional status means the filmmakers could have done anything they wanted to, and this is what they chose to film—a fabricated and unflattering characterization of a real person disguised as a documentary about the making of her film. The fact that the filmmakers could have put in the time and effort to assemble an actual documentary but instead chose to create this from scratch puts a taint on the film that can’t be ignored. Yes, they protect themselves with that late title card about the Clarke estate, along with another buried card that states, “This film is a work of fiction and is not intended to be a true or exact account of actual people or events,” but that doesn’t mean they were responsible, only cautious.
The filming style is practically an afterthought at this point, although it is still worth mentioning. It’s shot in 4:3 on what looks like VHS, complete with random discoloration and tracking issues, all of which makes for interesting stylistic choices considering the film takes place in 1966. It’s also filmed from multiple cameras and angles and never are the characters aware of their presence. Despite this odd, time-fractured feel, the presentation style is fun, harkening back to the days when tech prices dropped so amateur “filmmakers” could tell their own stories and circulate the tapes.
Jason and Shirley is a poorly-conceived, poorly-executed drama posing as a documentary. It’s a work of fiction that flaunts itself in front of the truth on which it’s based, a truth it never seeks to honor or expand upon, only pivot from for its own gain. With its found-footage feel and VHS veneer, Jason and Shirley is, at best, incomprehensible without first knowing Portrait of Jason, and at worst it’s a tabloid drama. Overall, it is not a film to be judged on its own merits, but rather a frivolous companion piece better relegated to the extras section of a DVD release.