What can I say? The relationship between the viewer and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, between Jason and Shirley themselves – and, in turn, what they may or maynot represent – is of the sadomasochistic sort. Pauline Kael called the film “naïve and sadistic”. The latter is true, but sadistic to whom? And masochistic for whom? That’s part of the great game, the urgent imperative of Stephen Winter’s Jason and Shirley.
By that very title, there’s explicitly political at work: if Winter’s film – an imagining of what occurred behind the camera during the production of Clarke’s documentary – is a reclamation of the appropriative nature of Portrait of Jason, the Jason and Shirley levels the playing field, making the antagonism and collaboration more explicit. Portrait of Jason suggests two things: that there is a performative nature to the person whom the portrait is of and that someone else is painting it, and thus in power. Certainly, one can argue, as both Clarke’s and Winter’s film do, that the act of being objectified could be itself a form of power.
The issue being, in Clarke’s film, the dialectic that exists is through manipulation, toying, egging. That Clarke (white, Jewish) and her lover Carl Lee (black, straight) are expressly utilizing Jason (black, queer) as a pawn for art certainly begs the question of whether the ends justify the means. It’s a question that extends to works like Paris is Burning, a film whose function was not dissimilar: shed a light on someone(s) at the margins of society, that the mainstream wanted nothing to do with. However, what makes Portrait of Jason worth the pain of watching, to some degree, is that Jason attempts to exert control.
Winter’s film, though, seems to reveal an uncomfortable truth about Clarke’s: Portrait of Jason, though ostensibly a dialogue about the intersections of race, class, and gender, is a social experiment on someone who is losing their ability to consent. The point is not the veracity of these moments that are imagined by Winter and Sarah Schulman (who also plays Clarke in the film), but a prod at Clarke in the same way she so intently prodded Jason (Jack Waters), plying him with one drink after the other. I’m disinclined to dismiss Portrait of Jason outright, but Jason and Shirley alleviates extratextually the feeling that the former film is like watching a poor monkey being paid to dance around until they can’t.
I don’t think Jason and Shirley is a corrective, but, as I said, a reclamation. The muddy, complex politics of intersectionality, of identity and appropriation thereof, are made no less complex in Winter’s film. The standout element of Jason and Shirley, though, is its ability to a) stand on its own as a work of cinema and b) imbue its frames with potent sense of nuance. Blame it on the fact that I am, myself, a queer person of color, but this study of two people, duking it out as stand ins for those messy dialectics, settles back during the film. It becomes much more human, and humane, in a way that’s natural, and correct, without the struggle that its “host film”, as A.O. Scott called it, has.
Part manifesto, part exploration, part backstage drama. The sadomasochism presents itself as dialogue, its pleasure intellectual and emotional. Jason and Shirley reminds me, in some ways, of Nina Simone’s “Four Women”: an experiential piece of art, deeply rooted and invested in a story that is political in its very existence. Though, with its flashbacks, its wandering camera, its almost improvisatory nature, the film is experimental, the core human emotions and their symbiotic relationship with identity and truth are no experiment.