The story of American independent cinema really can’t be told without mentioning Shirley Clarke’s 1962 film The Connection, an adaptation of Jack Gelber’s play about New York junkies waiting for their dealer in a dingy apartment. Clarke was already involved with New York’s underground cinema scene when she directed The Connection, and already an Oscar nominee for co-directing the 1960 short “Skyscraper.” But The Connection was one of the rare underground movies to draw some mainstream attention—or at least enough attention to scandalize the squares, due to the film’s subject matter and scattered profanity. Clarke and her producer, Lewis Allen, fought in the courts to try to get The Connection shown, even in not-as-hip-as-its-reputation New York City, and their campaign helped provoke a discussion about why movies couldn’t be more honest and open about how people actually live, and how they actually talk.
The Connection is relatively tame by today’s standards—with actors who look like actors, reciting dialogue that sounds expurgated—but by the time Clarke shot the documentary Portrait Of Jason in December 1966, her avant-garde and cinéma-verité peers had pushed frankness further. With these more relaxed standards in mind, Clark turned her camera on her acquaintance Jason Holliday: a black, gay raconteur who spent one late night and early morning telling Clarke and her partner Carl Lee about his plans to mount a nightclub act where he’d sing songs and tell stories about his life. In Portrait Of Jason, Jason drinks, smokes, and chuckles his way through representative anecdotes about his checkered past and colorful friends. Meanwhile, Clarke and Lee are off-camera urging him—sometimes with open hostility—to say more about his family strife, his sexual misadventures, his brushes with the law, and his biggest regrets.
In the bonus features on Milestone’s Portrait Of Jason Blu-ray, Milestone co-founders Amy Heller and Dennis Doros talk about their long search for high-quality elements to use for this 4K restoration, and say they eventually found what they were looking for in an archive that had logged full reels of the film as “outtakes.” That’s not surprising, given the way Clarke and cinematographer Jeri Sopanen approached their 12-hour interview with Jason. The image drifts in and out of focus, intentionally, to convey some of Jason’s intoxicated haze, and also to help hide the cuts and make the film look like one seamless 105-minute conversation.
That stylistic choice is inspired. After a while, Portrait Of Jason starts to feel like a Luis Buñuel film, where the party guests can’t leave. The tension between Clarke, Lee, and Jason isn’t limited to the moments toward the end when they snap at him and accuse him of being a phony and a bad friend. Throughout the film, Jason seems like he enjoys the spotlight, but also wants to control the scene—to tell his stories his way, then fade out, like one of the Hollywood starlets he adores. Instead, the picture blurs, then snaps back into focus to find Jason still in the frame, looking more and more tired, laughing less and less, and increasingly speaking from the heart about what it means to be “righteous” and “real” for someone like himself, in the 1960s. He’s simultaneously funny and tragic, and almost heroic in the way he keeps eluding Clarke’s efforts to pin him down.
The Portrait Of Jason Blu-ray is the second volume of Milestone’s “Project Shirley.” Volume One is The Connection (which hasn’t been made available on home video for regular consumers yet), and Volume Three is the 1984 documentary Ornette: Made In America, which supplements footage of jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman that Clarke shot in the 1960s with footage of a Coleman-led 1983 symphony concert that opened the “Caravan Of Dreams” performance space in Coleman’s hometown of Fort Worth, Texas.
Ornette: Made In America is an unusual hybrid of straight documentary and art film. Clarke has dramatic recreations of Coleman’s childhood, interviews with Coleman and his son Denardo (the latter of whom started playing drums in his dad’s band when he was 10 years old, around the time Clarke started filming Coleman), and soundbites from people who talk about how Coleman’s often-dissonant “free jazz” is difficult for some musicians to play, and even harder for most audiences to understand. And then, to illustrate the effect of Coleman’s music, Clarke cuts the live performances into fragments, firing images at the audience as rapidly as Coleman plays notes on his sax.
Overall, Made In America isn’t as conceptually controlled as Portrait Of Jason, but there’s a similarity of focus between the two. Both are about turning the camera on one-of-a-kind personalities, and watching them work. Jason talks. Ornette blows. Neither has to hold back around Clarke.
Milestone’s Portrait Of Jason and Ornette: Made In America Blu-rays both look fantastic—especially given their origins and relative obscurity—and both add some Clarke short films and interviews that paint her as an eclectic, vibrant artist, equally comfortable with wild experimentation and more straightforward personal expression. Made In America also contains an extended interview with Denardo Coleman about working with his father and with Clarke. Portrait Of Jason, on the other hand, is disappointingly lacking in follow-up information about its subject, who remains something of a mystery after his monologues end. But the featurette about Heller and Doros’ heroic efforts to restore and revive Jason’s film turns out to be a surprisingly gripping, revealing tale about the sheer amount of legwork and persistence required to be a preservationist.