July 13, 2015
After seeing Jason and Shirley (Stephen Winter, 2015) this weekend at Outfest, I am moved to respond here to Milestone Film & Video‘s recent and scathing critique of the film Jason and Shirley,” The Cruelty and Irresponsibility of Satire“ (re-printed on Indiewire on June 23 by Sydney Levine). In their take-down, the authors (who are distributors of many of Shirley Clarke’s films, and more critically the producers of “Project Shirley” an “ongoing commitment to learn everything about Clarke as a director, an artist and a person”) pillory Winter’s film for two main reasons: the “film’s inaccurate and simplistic portrayals of a brilliant filmmaker and her charismatic subject.” Here, I would like to express another reading of Jason and Shirley, a remarkable, complex and important film, while also addressing what I see as Milestone’s misplaced (if perhaps also sometimes true) ire and criticism. I also invite Milestone, and others who are devoted to Clarke’s work and legacy, to reconsider the important contribution this new film makes towards this worthy end.
Before I commence, let me express that I am not only one of these supporters of Shirley Clarke, but also a fan and a scholar of Milestone’s and Winter’s work (and also that of Sarah Schulman and Jack Waters, who co-wrote and star in Jason and Shirley). Perhaps most critically, I am a fan and scholar of Portrait of Jason, as well as the cinematic traditions in which it sits (documentary film, women’s and feminist cinema, queer film, and black queer cinema). For example, I joyously and with great appreciation went to the West Coast Restoration Premiere of Portrait of Jason where evidence of Milestone’s Amy Heller and Dennis Doros’ invaluable work on Project Shirley was applauded by an audience of cineastes, most of whom I’d warrant knew little of the work of Clarke or her masterpiece, Jason, given that this serious study of power, documentary, identity, and cruelty was made by a woman and featured a black gay man. I commend and support Milestone’s project of unearthing and sharing materials for scholars, teachers, and fans of Clarke, and also acknowledge and salute their under-sung role as distributors of avant-garde, experimental, and independent cinema, including the work of female film directors, like Clarke and others whose voices and vision would otherwise fall outside the scope of accessible media culture.
At the same time, I am also a supporter of Stephen Winter‘s work. I first became familiar with his brilliant and irreverent artistry when I saw his important and also under-sung contribution to independent queer cinema, Chocolate Babies (1997). As myself a scholar and maker of AIDS media, and the producer of The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye 1996), the first African-American lesbian feature film, I knew about the glaring and damaging under-representation of black queer Americans, about the obstacles to entry for films about and from this perspective, and perhaps as critically, the haunting burden for most artists in such a terrain to make and share “positive images” of their under-represented community. I learned from and supported Chocolate Babies (and The Watermelon Woman, for that matter), because these feature films, made with almost no institutional support and certainly less cultural sanction, dared to imagine that the lived experience of black queer Americans was complex, riddled with contradiction, full of delight, pain, community, love and loss, and was thus the perfect subject for serious, artful, complex cinema. Just as was true for Portrait of Jason (made by one of America’s great women filmmakers who also refused to bow to the “positive image paradigm”) and for her brave and creative documentary subject, Jason Holliday (née Aaron Payne).
I mark the similarities between these film oeuvres and the careers of their makers and the needs of their audiences because this post speaks most centrally as an attempt for reconciliation across what has currently been created as “camps” by the Milestone team. In a cinematic landscape where a small number of us make, support, appreciate and need serious artistry that represents the “marginal” experiences of our society from a sophisticated, complex, and nuanced perspective, a landscape where such work is under-funded, under-seen, and under-valued, it serves none of us well to use our very limited cultural resources against, rather than in support of each other, even if, and perhaps because our work dares to imagine life on the outskirts of American society as itself complicated, multiple, and sometimes in internal debate about the very values of the oppressed, marginal, radical, political and creative people who co-populate it (see my earlier post “Against Gamification,” in that case about the pitting of the the black-lesbian artistic sub-culture against itself in the name of a funding “game”).
Shirley and Jason is a complicated, sometimes messy, meditation on what I just described: the circulation of power, honesty, cruelty, love, debate, and creativity that defines artistic community and radical culture. Shirley and Jason also marks, honors, and challenges the role that cinematic evidence (in this case documentary) plays in the psychic, political, and cultural lives of culturally marginalized people, which is to say that as women, people of color, and queers until quite recently we had little to no access to records of our past struggles, ideas, daily practices, or visions of artistry because much too little was made, and what was made was almost never saved. This is one of the prime subjects of The Watermelon Woman, where we had to fake an archive of images of what was once true (the lives of African American lesbians) so that the main character, Cheryl, could learn and grow from her hidden, absent, but true legacy.
In his case, one might say that Winter was lucky, he had footage of Jason, an out black gay man, due to the perspicacity of Clarke and Holiday. Portrait of Jason is the first and continues to be one of the only films, in cinema’s history, to document as central the “struggles, ideas, daily practices and visions of artistry” of a black gay man. But anyone who loves this documentary as do I, as does Milestone film, and does Winter and his entire team, realizes that Portrait of Jason is nothing like a simple documentary record of anything. Using this film “footage” as a starting point for cultural recovery, community empowerment, or even the “truth” of African-American gay male experience or history pre-Stonewall is basically an impossibility given that, in my interpretation at least, a “truthful” rendering of any of these subjects was never the intent of this brilliant film or its equally brilliant filmmaker. Rather, Shirley Clarke intellectually and creatively wrangles with Jason for control over the power of cinema to save any of us: emotionally, historically, creatively. She asks us to consider whether documentary truth is possible, and she chooses Jason Holliday as her worthy interlocutor, subject, and collaborator, given how well he struggles at, and sometimes succeeds, at never giving her this “truth,” perhaps not his to give, and certainly not hers to take. In this way, not a salvage project, or even a portrait per se, I see Jason (and Jason) as the cinema’s finest study and criticism of the ethics, possibility, and veracity of documentary power as it is connected to its ongoing interest in “truth,” especially as embodied by disenfranchised subjects, doubly disempowered as they must be by the documentary project itself.
The film, radically for its time, and for documentary more generally, is made from the position that many of us share—we the usual documentary-subject: the weak, the woman, the other. As a rare, empowered, powerful woman behind her documentary camera and film (Clarke is one of a tiny handful of women who directed cinema before the movements for social justice of the late 60s and early 70s began a slow, but still unfulfilled sea-change), Clarke asks us to see (by hearing) the brutality, love, empathy, and control that organizes the documentary encounter. With clarity, bravery, calculation, and intelligence she plays the role of the one who needs to know and show and own another; with clarity, bravery, calculation and intelligence she leaves in her voice and other cinematic indications of her hand and her control. She is strong enough to show us the brutality of this desire to know, and save, through cinema (usually masked as it is as a project of sentimental salvation). Of course, she comes to this encounter both empowered by her brilliant mind, inestimable film chops, and also economic privilege, while also saddled by her gender and ethnicity in 1960s America. She controls the camera, the image, the editing, and the organizing vision of the encounter that follows. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, she chooses as her collaborator an almost-equal (who is lower than a white, Jewish woman in the 1960s America? not many, but certainly a black gay man might be). But Jason Holliday is no dupe. No chump. No simple documentary subject. Like every subject of the documentary camera before him (we women, and queers, and people of color, we ethnics and natives; all we others) he has his wits, his self, and his performance to empower him and he is better at this then most in his position. He can and does dodge, dazzle, hide, reveal, provoke, wow, and fall apart, it seems, at will (although Clarke’s overt and thematic use of drugs and alcohol to phase him becomes part of the film’s dark current of abuse). For those of us who study and admire this work not solely as the rare depiction it is of black gay life, one artistic and powerful women’s drive and vision, avant-garde New York in the sixties, cross-racial and cross-gender interaction and community within bohemian counter-culture, but also as one of cinema’s outstanding studies of the power and cruelty of documentary cinema itself, I suggest Winter and his collaborative team weren’t so much “lucky” to have this as his sole piece of documentary evidence, as perhaps provoked, or perplexed, or maybe just aroused albeit in pain (Aaron Payne).
And here’s where Milestone’s critique should indeed simply become a celebration or at least a more serious consideration. Winter et. al., continue Clarke’s radical, seminal documentary project by “re-imagining” the shooting of her radical, experimental film from the point of view Jason. Not a documentary, never needing to stand up to documentary’s ethical or truth imperatives, their “re-imagination” of one of documentary cinema’s great studies of power and privilege does so from the vantage of Clarke’s strong, beautiful, imaginative contender who by definition had less power in the constituent and complex dynamic that ever unrolls between documentary filmmaker and subject. Given that no documentary subject, even one as mighty as Jason, can ultimately usurp the documentary-maker, who cuts the final film, who organizes its every frame, one place for the empowerment of the structurally disenfranchised is in fiction filmmaking. And here, Winter’s vision both soars and digs very low (as did the original Jason). In musical numbers and other dream sequences we are offered Jason’s interiority (always invisible to the documentary-maker, to our chagrin). Here Winter, and the magnificent, talented, sensitive Waters, playing Jason, show us Jason’s version and vision of the unleashing of brutal, if always loving and self-aware power (so much like Shirley’s) as we see his encounters with one of the white women for whom he whored, one of the white boys whom he loved, with his Mother who loved him, and his dealer who takes painful control of him. We see his unadulterated talent and crushingly unrealized desires. We see how race, sexuality, drugs, and self-loathing hamper Jason. We see the world from the position of the empowered, suffering, loving, living outsider.
Milestone condemns Winter for a “lack of integrity” in his depiction of Shirley Clarke, as well as a lack of “understanding of humanity, and love for cinema.” They call him out for not researching properly, not interviewing living participants of the original film shoot, not being kind to Shirley or her daughter Wendy (herself a brilliant and under-sung Los Angeles artist whose work plays a central role in the history of feminist, activist video; her amazing “Love Tapes” are a must-see for all interested in video art). I imagine these criticisms might all be true, especially if you knew and loved Shirley; especially if you are invested in finding, making, and sharing documentary evidence of Clarke’s career and life. Shirley and Jason is not particularly kind to Clarke (but I never thought the original was either, as I’ve indicated above). And it’s not so nice to Jason either. Neither films are a kindness project: “truth,” pain, power, love … sure.
However, I hope I have established that such criticisms are incidental to the mightier and divergent aims of Shirley and Jason: to unflinchingly account for the pain, beauty and power of being forced to take the role of the (documentary) victim regardless of ones beauty, strength, creativity or intellect. The “genuine” “inner truth” represented in this complex and masterful fiction film does not revolve around the accuracy of the “facts” of Shirley and Jason’s lives and works (although I do hope Winter will correct some of the inter-titles which Milestone has established as incorrect, most critically to my mind, that Clarke’s lover and collaborator Carl Lee died of AIDS not a heroine overdose). Instead Winter and his teams’ film should be appreciated for its subtle, painful, knowing and loving incantation of a state we all can identify with at times, the state of Jason.
I use my contribution to the debate to invite Heller, Doros, and all fans, friends, and lovers of Clarke (and experimental documentary) to receive this contemporary theatrical fiction film, Jason and Shirley, as a new and necessary contribution to a conversation about women’s artistic possibility, documentary ethics and power, and their relations to cinematic form and style, from the point of black gay men who are our allies. In their “pretending to know what happened,” Winter et. al. do create “their own ‘Shirley Clarke,’ ‘Carl Lee,’ and ‘Jason Holliday'” (as did the “real” Shirley, Carl and Jason so many years before!) as Milestone censures. But rather than seeing this as a disrespectful and dishonest creation, I ask viewers to attempt to understand the profound integrity of these new portraits and how they assist us in a worthy project allowed by the best of cinema: less one of facts and more one of feelings, less one of honesty and more one of the uses and abuses of honesty, in the name of art, that have both hindered and set free the Jason in us all.
April 21, 2013
I learned today on Facebook that Ava DuVernay won the Tribeca Film Institute’s Inaugural Heineken Affinity Award. Kudos! Her wonderful films and ambitious African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, are much-deserving of this support. Understand: her work, her films, her prize-winning is not what I am against. Prizes like this help independent cinema. So, as a producer myself of two African-American indie features, I say: the more prizes the merrier!
I write, instead, against the social-media based gamification of this award whereby the many, equally deserving African-American filmmakers also up for this prize (Andrew Dosunmu, Cheryl Dunye, Nelson George, Kahlil Joseph, Victoria Mahoney, Terence Nance, Akosua Adoma Owuso, Yvonne Welbon, and Ross Williams) were asked to mobilize their (my) cultural community, daily, by having us vote for them, for what seemed like an eternity. But, the makers, supporters, scholars, and perhaps even fans of independent black cinema are a small, and devoted subculture; one in which I am proud to play an active part. We know each other, help each other out, and are in political and personal support of the project, writ-large, of African American visibility, voice, and complex and sophisticated expressive culture. All the influential artists on this list get their work made, watched, financed, written about, taught, and distributed largely within a committed cultural milieu founded within a politics and practice of the sharing of resources, support, community, and artistic vision. This is a community of care, mostly working outside of dominant institutional support; and (I know), to get indie black films made, people support each other!
It pained me more than I wish to express that I had to vote for my “favorite” between friends, respected colleagues, family, and artists I admire and support in other ways. This popularity mentality, this gamification of an intimate cultural sphere, has nothing to do with my commitments to this project, nor that of the people who were lucky enough to be its potential beneficiaries. My friends and colleagues were forced to compete against each other, rather than engage in the supportive, communal, politically-motivated practices that define black independent cinema. Of course, for a measly $20K, Heineken got more information about the buying habits, and other likes, of this influential community then can be easily quantified. I knew I gave this for free every time I voted. Which, I will also admit, I did on many occasions (although I was and am against it), in the name of my friends, their amazing work, and the possibility of supporting a project from this unstoppable community, albeit one always strapped for cash.
March 23, 2012
Attended a midnight premier of Hunger Games.
Granted, not my usual fare. Because I live it, I don’t usually “study” teen culture (save for my Fred work.) I was one of at most ten moms in a palace of 800+ teenage girls (and their occasional boy companions). It was a delight to engage with this committed, bookish bunch, who eagerly anticipated each move, and joyfully cheered on both girl-power and dreamy (if reality-TV-supported) romance.
Which brings to mind a more typical film experience enjoyed at a more rational hour of that very same day. My colleague, Ming-Yuen Ma and I hosted Campbell X at our Media and Sexuality class, where we are currently teaching Jose Munoz’s Disindentifications about the experimental work of queers of color. Campbell had proven to be one of the real delights a few summers back during our collaborative production of The Owls, flying in from London and working wherever we needed her in support of director Cheryl Dunye’s vision and the work of queer of color cinema more generally. She is in town to premier her new film, Stud Life, at Outfest’s Fusion.
Campbell’s inspiring artist’s presentation made what may at first blush seem as surprising links to the Hunger Games. Most critically is her infectious and generous understanding of influences (from her mother to Ma Rainey, Derek Jarman, Isaac Julien and Cheryl Dunye). Campbell explained that given that queer people of color have so few images and image-makers to fall back on, her hungry gaze makes over and good use of even the little bits that our culture provides us. And certainly the delight of the many girls of color at the theater (including my daughter) in the moral and physical strength of the female lead(s) in this film must count as one such minor inspiration (it even kinda passes the Bechdel Test). On the second hunger/stud connection, when I asked Campbell her thoughts on Disidentifications she admitted that her cultural work and research of the moment is mostly on the Internet these days, where she currently runs two websites of interest to queers of color. But don’t be fooled, her Radical Film Manifesto includes this advise:
- Read books. Can’t afford them? Then borrow them/order them from the library.
- Raid the classics – literature and films.
December 30, 2011
To begin, I think Pariah is terrific. Dee Rees is a very talented writer and director whose grasp of her craft is exceptional for a young artist. She has made a moving character study in the melodramatic form where her vivid style is in service of character development and depth.
I believe that Pariah is the second film by and about African American lesbians to have a theatrical release. The first was Cheryl Dunye’s Watermelon Woman, which I produced in 1995 (Dunye‘s The Owls which I produced in 2011, has just started streaming on Netflix but did not have theatrical).
Now that there’s two, we can look to where black lesbian cinema has arrived fifteen years later. WMW occurs in the material world, and the world of film. It is all about ideological context: black lesbian feminist theory, politics, institutions, and movies. It is highly self-referential to ideas about representation and to expressions of lesbian, feminist and queer community and history. In this regard, it is much like many of its brother films of the “New Queer Cinema” (Poison, Swoon, The Living End, Young Soul Rebels). Meanwhile, Pariah is deeply even purely personal. Shot almost entirely in exquisite and often extreme close-ups, the surrounding world becomes barely visible, so much so that Pariah is the rare New York City film where the mean streets don’t become a character (take for example, those of Dees’ fellow NYUers Spike Lee and Martin Scorcese). In fact, Alike’s pursuit of freedom eventually leads her to leave New York, at the film’s end en route to California (and college) where the promise of intellectual (and political?) community beckons. For Alike, New York is only and always home: melodrama’s confining world of mother, family, and out-of-touch dogme. While Dees begins her film with a quotation from Audre Lorde, this is the only glimmer of several generations of black, feminist, lesbian history and culture that touches the film or her film’s lead. Even Alike’s inspiring poetry teacher inspires the young woman’s growth by demanding that her search be more internal: into her deepest, most honest, self and feelings. But like any (male) hero, Alike discovers from her journey that she’s ready for the road. Interestingly then, the WMW seems to envision the quest that Alike just might be lucky enough to go on at her film’s happy ending. In WMW, Cheryl spends her film’s journey traveling a uniquely black and lavender road (from “Sistah Sound” in Philly, to the “CLIT lesbian archives” in NY, to the private collections of a black film buff, and the uptight mansion of a white female early film director’s homophobic sister) so as to learn from a variety of her black/queer/female mentors, each wise in some of the history(ies) she needs to learn for an internal growth that promises to happen when her film ends: “I am a black lesbian filmmaker and I have a lot to say.”
Fifteen years later, Dees gets to begin from the very proud, private, political place that Dunye claims at her first film’s end, and that is the inspiring and exciting (if enragingly slow) circle of (black lesbian) legacy and sisterhood: from political to personal to political again. While other film traditions—and their fans, scholars, and makers—get larger bodies of work upon which to build sensibilities, trends, and movements, these artists must do so in an intimate, personal dialogue. And given its intimacy and clarity, maybe that’s not all bad. Here, a scene from The Owls (again including Audre Lorde) seems an apt conclusion. Carol (played by Cheryl Dunye) is having a conversation with Skye (Skyler Cooper). “Let me tell you about my generation and being happy. We had Audre Lorde.” “Who’s that?” “You don’t know who Audre Lorde is! She said: ‘I’m a black, lesbian, mother, poet, warrior out in the world doing my work. Are you doing yours?'” “What does that mean?” “It means are you out, fighting, working for justice?!” Skye says: “I’m just not political.” But Dees is: out in the world that is, doing her work in just the way that her generation will, in conversation with ours, by making powerful personal films.
June 14, 2011
As it is wont to do, the blogisphere will tackle, pin-down, chew-up, devour, and spit out the story of the phony “lesbian blogger Amina” and her pseudo-lesbian editor, “Paula Brooks.” I would like to enter my two-cents to the fray by speaking as a “black lesbian.” I do not take on this position lightly, as was also true for Tom McMaster and Bill Graber who say they understood some of what was at stake during their lengthy charades as “lesbians.” However I do not do so because I hear this titillating character inside my brain or because I need a beard to write in support of lesbian issues. Black lesbians speak just fine for themselves, and much of what they demand and produce is the possibility to voice their experiences and knowledge into history and culture on their own.
I speak here as a “black lesbian” because when I was teaching my course on feminist online spaces during the Spring, to my surprise and initial confusion, so many of my students did. They were assigned to inhabit an online space for the semester and make a number of interventions there about feminism and anti-racism. Somehow, a significant enough number of them decided to do so as a “black lesbian” that this became a short-hand for us to name a number of online behaviors worth noting here:
- the “black lesbian” marks the outside limit of difference on the internet, a non-differentiated space where race, class, gender, and sexuality are neutralized
- the “black lesbian” marks the outside limit of difference for the bodies and lived experience of many humans who are more hegemonically situated
- these limits so broken, the “black lesbian’s” position authorizes her to raise otherwise unmentionable or outlawed points about race, gender, class, and sexuality online by anchoring these forbidden thoughts to a body that seems to have the right and need to so speak
- as if we white, straight, male, wealthy, Latino, biracial, bisexual, working-class, transgender, Jewish, Hungarian others don’t already have our own authority to trouble so easily or casually or “honestly” or “naturally” the norms, boundaries, and rules of the spaces we inhabit
Internet studies has thoughtfully and carefully worked through the reasons of the cyber-ruse over these many years, and I hope the blogisphere will find Lisa Nakamura’s work on cybernetic-tourism, or Allucquere Roseanne Stone‘s thinking about “virtual cross-dressers,” to be useful to think through today’s late-breaking fake-news. My own work on the “Increasingly Unproductive Fake,” in relation, in particular, to queer representation and YouTube ironic freefall might also prove helpful.
MacMaster blogs, “I want to turn the focus away from me and urge everyone to concentrate on the real issues, the real heroes, the real people struggling to bring freedom to the Arab world. I have only distracted from real people and real problems. Those continue; please focus on them.”
The problem with this plea, as sincere as it may be, is that popular culture reminds us again and again that men and white people always play better women then women, better lesbians than lesbians, and better blacks than blacks because the real ones are too right, or correct, or left, and in the end, it’s easier to palate difficult issues with irony.
January 11, 2011
I’ll be driving to Palm Springs this afternoon to attend their festival with my son. The Film Collaborative has been doing a great job with our distribution (the film is being released by First Run Features in March). And thanks to them we’ve been accepted to a swanky straight fest, who knew? Gay film festivals feel like the one bright spot in the moribund “indie” scene: providing dependable and supportive venues, audiences, and markets for queer film. It’s truly always a pleasure and a privilege to have this well-oiled machine at ones service. A negative effect to this phenomenon, its flip side, is that “quality” or serious gay films have a harder time finding audiences, venues and markets outside the gay ghetto (really more like a resort, what with our high end and international festivals and tony corporate sponsorship). Queer film that may be about lesbian/queer life, but also, in our case about cinema (the documentary/fiction divide, the work of Patricia Highsmith), or more generic issues like aging and political generations, will most likely never be seen by interested and implicated if straight cineastes. Of course, the same goes for black cinema. For instance, by far the best review of the film so far, by Danielle Riendeau, came out recently on AfterEllen. While we well attend to our niche audiences, as a devoted film community we have put little in place to speak to other potentially interested parties. Cheryl Dunye is lucky in that her films have been followed by academia, allowing her work to cross into this realm: but there, it’s usually attended to by the to-be-expected woman’s, black, queer studies scene rather than say the academic avant-garde.
In any case, it will be fun to see who comes out for the film (in the Berlin Q and A, I actually asked the straight-appearing and surprisingly male audience their thoughts on attending lesbian film, which led to this interesting conversation).
November 17, 2010
“The Bechdel Test, sometimes called the Mo Movie Measure or Bechdel Rule is a simple test which names the following three criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man.”
(This is a pdf of Alison Bechdel’s 1997 strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For,” can’t seem to get it on to the screen, sorry)
Couldn’t help but think about how I had passed the test years ago (as a producer of The Watermelon Woman, described in this comic that I’ve had on the bulletin board in my office since it was published in 1997, and which also mentions Alex Sichel’s 1997, All Over Me and Disney’s 1997, Hercules.)
I recently showed my latest Bechdel effort (Cheryl Dunye’s The Owls, 2010, which I produced collectively with the Owls Parliament, sixty or so queers who were moved to collectively make micro-cinema about our lives, community, and cinema). While the Bechdel Test is useful in reminding us how poorly we are served by mainstream media, it is always critical to include in the conversation the critical, community-sustaining, off-the-radar efforts within (post)identity-based counter-cultural (cinema) communities that have at their very hearts and souls an internalized Bechdel Rule which moved the makers to speak and make film in the first place and which move our micro-audiences to see and respond to us (like Bechdel above). The Owls only features women (save the cameos of three of our favorite gay male actors and one female character who presents gender-ambiguously) who talk and talk (in scripted narrative, improved narrative, and documentary talking heads, both in and of character) about everything but men: aging, murder, alcoholism, monogomy, children, violence, self-hatred, the role of butch and trans in the lesbian community, the nature of queer community, the death of new queer cinema, the history of lesbian representation, AIDS and black queer activism, etc.