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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Addiction > Poverty > Biography > Gay > Sexuality > Racism > Hustling > Music > Jazz > Funk > Project Shirley Volumes 1-3: The Connection (1961), Portrait of Jason (1967), Ornette: Made in America (1985/Milestone Films Blu-rays/separate releases)

Project Shirley Volumes 1-3: The Connection (1961), Portrait of Jason (1967), Ornette: Made in America (1985/Milestone Films Blu-rays/separate releases)



The Connection

Picture: A Sound: A Extras: B+ Film: A-


Portrait of Jason

Picture: B+ Sound: B Extras: B Film: B


Ornette: Made in America

Picture: B- Sound: B Extras: B Film: B



Milestone Films is doing God's work, cinematically speaking. From resurrecting I Am Cuba in 1995 to resuscitating Charles Burns' unassailable American classic Killer of Sheep in 2007 to restoring Lionel Rogosin essential filmography beginning with the 2011 rerelease of On the Bowery, Amy Heller and Dennis Doros have filled crucial gaps in not only the independent canon but, as importantly, the home video market. So many of the films included in the Milestone catalog - The Exiles, Losing Ground, Come Back, Africa, The Daughter of Dawn, Strange Victory, In the Land of Headhunters, My Brother's Wedding - are works that have been forgotten or ignored, created by filmmakers who are underrepresented or marginalized, about people and communities and cultures that exist at or have been pushed to the periphery of mainstream experience. There is clearly an obsession at play here - one that should be celebrated - to reclaim the documentary evidence of lives, true and otherwise, that discarded by an ever more homogenous cinema, one that borders on monoculture.


It's that obsessive nature that led Milestone eight years ago to embark on the ambitious task of restoring the work of pioneering filmmaker Shirley Clarke. Called Project Shirley, it includes four volumes of features, shorts, outtakes, documents, behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, trailers, and other ephemera. These are collected in The Connection: Project Shirley Vol. 1, Portrait of Jason: Project Shirley Vol. 2, Ornette: Made in America - Project Shirley Vol. 3, and The Magic Box: Project Shirley Vol. 4. Taken together, they chart the most complete course of Clarke's career ever assembled (a claim Milestone will likely hold forever), from her first feature, the proto-fauxumentary The Connection released in 1961, to her final film, the actual documentary Ornette: Made in America released in 1985. In all, Clarke only made five features - the other three are The Cool World and Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World from 1963 and 1967's Portrait of Jason - and Milestone has released four of them. (The lone exception is The Cool World.) The rest of her oeuvre is comprised of shorts: about dance, about people, about place.


THE CONNECTION


Born in 1919, Clarke began her career as a dancer, where she had limited success as choreographer. That led her to move to film. She studied with Hans Richter and soon became a fixture of New York's avant-garde arts scene in the 1950s. She was part of a circle that included filmmakers like Jonas Mekas, Lionel Rogosin, D. A. Pennebaker, and Stan Brakhage, and that overlapped with the kind of experimental performance happening at the Living Theater. (It should also be noted her sister is Elaine Dundy, the author of the fantastic and criminally overlooked The Dud Avocado, which is available from NYRB Classics.)


It was at the Living Theater where Clarke encountered The Connection, Jack Gelber's 1959 play notorious among the anti-obscenity-driven conformity of New York's mainstream art world. The jazz-infused work, constructed as a window onto a group of junkies waiting in a grungy apartment for their connection to arrive with a batch of heroin, was rife with vulgar language and populated with gritty characters whose lives and experiences exist outside the narrow view of polite society. The framing device was also novel: A theater producer wants to stage a play about addicts, so he invades these characters' lives for research because he wants to use real addicts. That led to the titillation that attracted viewers, an is-it-or-isn't-it-real moment of someone shooting up on stage. That blurring of lines between reality and fantasy extended beyond the stage, too. The actors, still in character, would approach audience members in the lobby during intermission begging for money and berating them as hypocrites.


The Connection was shocking. It was beyond the pale. And it ran for more than 700 performances, picking up numerous Obie awards on the way. Naturally there was interest in making a film version, and Clarke saw the play as a way to interrogate cinema verite and the blurring of lines between reality and fiction. So the film version of The Connection became a kind of found-footage documentary about a filmmaker, Jim Dunn (William Redfield) and his cameraman J.J. (Roscoe Browne), trying to make a documentary about junkies. What we see was assembled by J.J. after Jim gets too close to his subjects, who goad him into trying heroin. It messes with the pretentious young man's clean mind, and the user becomes the used - in more ways than one.


Written by Gelber, The Connection is bound to a single set: the run-down apartment of a guy named Leach (Warren Finnerty, who looks and sounds like a cross between Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe), who repeatedly harangues his fellow junkies that they're ruining his well-appointed palace. ''I live comfortable,'' he says to the audience early on. ''I'm no junkie bum. Look at my pad. It's clean.'' (It's decidedly not clean, as evidenced by the mounds of junk and detritus piled up in the corners and the cockroach crawling up a wall.) There are numerous moments of this kind of direct address throughout the film, which not only recreates the theatrical experience in the cinematic mode but also shakes us out of our position as passive, complacent consumers.


In one particularly memorable example, Solly (Jerome Raphael), a jovial, overweight corner philosopher in need of a wash and new set of clothes, grabs us by the lapels and confronts us about what we hope to find by watching them: ''What do you want to hear? That we're a petty, self-annihilating microcosm? That's what you want to hear. Dope fiends! Hurry, hurry, hurry the circus is here! Suicide is not uncommon among us. The overdose of heroin is when the final line of life and death surges in a silent breeze of ecstatic summer. Who else can make so much of passing out? Who else can make so much out of passing out? But existence on another plane, whether to alleviate the suffering of this one or to wish for death? It doesn't matter... Eh, I hate oversimplifications....''


It's Clarke's commitment to eviscerating not just the fourth wall but the safe space afforded the audience by sitting in a theater, at a seeming spatial and dimensional remove from what's on screen, is total. And The Connection is subvertly dense and exquisite as a result. There are all sorts of issues about racial dynamics at play: Jim, a white filmmaker, constantly shoves his camera in the faces of not-having-it black jazz musicians rehearsing in the apartment; his cameraman, also black, is reduced to a mostly-faceless subservient role; but the connection, Cowboy (Carl Lee), who is black, is ultimately the one in control. (And then there are the related confrontations with class and power.) The film is exquisitely shot, from intense close-ups that evoke photographers like Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and W. Eugene Smith, to people in environments that recall the best mid-century photojournalists. Clarke and cinematographer Arthur J. Ornitz (who later shot Serpico) capture these hollowed out people as stand-ins for those beginning to actually be left behind by the postwar American machine hollowing out cities in its promotion of white flight to the suburbs.


Without qualification, The Connection is a masterpiece - the kind of film that speaks to its moment, still reverberates more than a half century later, and will continue to resound as long people watch movies. Not only is it a technical and narrative accomplishment, it works at something more interior, as Jonas Mekas articulated in a 1962 ''Movie Journal'' column for the Village Voice: ''This film (like the play), this moody, suffering new art, really is not a forecast of disaster, but a joyous sign that there is a deep despair going on somewhere in us - that not everything is so air-conditioned (as we used to say) and dead in man - for we know that the deeper our despair, the closer we are to the truth, to the way out. The Connection, thus - like most of the new 'nihilistic,' 'dadaist,' 'escapist,' etc., art - is a positive art, one which doesn't lie or fake or pretend about ourselves. It reaches beyond the naturalistic, pragmatic, surface art and shows something of the essence.''


PORTRAIT OF JASON


That attitude would continue to be Clarke's ethos as a filmmaker throughout her career - and Portrait of Jason might be the apotheosis of it. Shot over a 12-hour period (9 p.m. to 9 a.m.) on December 3, 1966, in Clarke's apartment, the film is a one-man performance piece with maybe the most unreliable subject of all time. In essence, Clarke turned her camera on and let Jason Holliday (born Aaron Paine) do his ''thing,'' as she described it in 1967. What that thing is, it seems, is regaling us, the off-screen Clarke and Carl Lee, and whoever stops to listen with stories about his life and judgments of people he has encountered. But more to the point, it allowed Clarke the ultimate opportunity to challenge the boundaries of cinema verite. ''We have rarely allowed anyone to speak for himself for more than a few minutes at a time,'' she told Mekas in 1967. ''Just imagine what might happen if someone was given his head and allowed to let go for many consecutive hours. I was curious, and wow! did I find out.''


Jason is a gay black man in 1960s America, a ''stone-cold'' hustler, performer, and a kind of raconteur with dreams of mounting an autobiographical cabaret show charting his journey from getting ''hung up being a house boy'' to studying acting with Charles Laughton and dance with Martha Graham to whatever is happening the moment he's on the stage. He also has a reputation with Clarke, Lee, and others in that group as being duplicitous and, it seems downright hurtful. At one point, he recalls how he squeezes friends and family - some over and over again - for money to fund his as-yet-conceptual show. ''If they went for it once, if you wait long enough and go back again...'' he says, all but calling this well meaning folks suckers. Earlier on in the film, he says, ''I go out of my way to unglue people.''


But in a way Portrait of Jason is a way for Clarke to unglue her subject. ''I suspected that for all his cleverness his lack of the know-how of film-making would prevent him from being able to control his own image of himself,'' she told Mekas. Shot almost like a TV show, with focus cuts between vignettes and stories acting like segues into and out of commercial breaks, the film feels like kind of news program of its era - an expose of this man who stands as a microcosm of a subculture. Jason is seated at a quarter turn, smoking and drinking, answering questions that might as well be coming from Edward R. Murrow as Shirley Clarke. But what we get is far more raw than what you'd get from CBS. The film is highly destabilizing in its honesty; Jason's stories can get intimate and intense.


Yet there's an off quality to the way the evening is managed. In the course of the shoot, Jason drinks - and drinks and drinks and drinks - and as he seems to get progressively more sloshed his guard slips and drops. And as the night wears on, his shifts between being on and off become more dramatic. He'll gesticulate and beam gregariously through a story, and when it's over his eyes seem to go distant and somber before someone off-camera says ''Tells us about...,'' and Jason is back on.


It's easy to view this as Clarke and her crew using Jason for some cinematic experiment. But in fact the reality is more complicated: they were using each other, and the resulting film - not quite a documentary, not quite a performance piece - is a kind of therapeutic bloodletting. Again, from Clarke's 1967 interview with Mekas:


''One thing I never expected was the highly charged emotional evening that took place. I discovered the antagonisms I'd been suppressing about Jason. I was indeed emotionally involved. Since the readers of this 'conversation' haven't yet seen the film, I should say here that while Jason spoke to the camera, other people were in the room, during the shooting, besides myself, who reacted to what Jason said and did, got involved with him. We have a tiny crew, plus two old friends of Jason who knew all his bits and had suffered from his endless machinations as well as enjoyed his fun and games.


''How the people behind the camera reacted that night is a very important part of what the film is about. Little did I expect how much of ourselves we would reveal as the night progressed. Originally I had planned that you would see and hear only Jason, but when I saw the rushes I knew the real story of what happened that night in my living room had to include all of us, and so our question-reaction probes, our irritations and angers, as well as our laughter remain part of the film, essential to the reality of one winter's night in 1966 spent with one Jason Holliday, ne Aaron Paine.''


The result, then, is this odd and authentic document - partly of a friendship, but more importantly of life as a gay black man in New York City in the 1960s. There are undoubtedly questions about how much of what Jason says is part of his direct experience, how much was embellished or made up, and how much was appropriated from others. But the reality is that these things did happen, and to have that voice and that world preserved in this way is beyond invaluable.


ORNETTE: MADE IN AMERICA


The same can be said for what Clarke collects in her final film, Ornette: Made in America. Ornette Coleman, one of the defining jazz musicians of the 20th century, plotted a course from the bop era to the more experimental, funk-infused music that would emerge in the late 1960s through the 1980s with his seminal 1959 album, The Shape of Jazz to Come. Clarke's history with Coleman dates back to the 1960s, and the documentary leverages that to not only track his development as an musician but excavate the interior life of a unique artist.


The film is loosely framed around Coleman's 1983 return to Ft. Worth, Texas, where he grew up in a segregated slum, to premiere his jazz-classical composition Skies of America with the Ft. Worth Symphony. But on those bones, Clarke hangs vignettes of Coleman's days as a kid in Texas through reenactments; rehearsal and interview footage shot by Clarke in New York City in the late '60s; traditional talking-head interviews with painters and critics and other musicians, like his son (and the drummer in his band) Sabir Kamal; and monologues from Coleman himself about where his creative impulse originates.


One of the bigger influences that emerges is architect and theorist Buckminster Fuller, who Coleman calls ''probably my best hero. ''In the film, he recalls being inspired during a Fuller lecture he attended as a student at Hollywood High School. Coleman thought he'd be an architect, before turning to music. And in Fuller he found a kindred spirit. ''The one thing that just really blew me away was his demonstration of his own domes,'' Coleman says. ''And when he demonstrated how his domes are put together and how geometric they were done, it just blew me away because I said, 'This is how I've been writing music!' '' It's unsurprising to learn that Coleman, whose music is way more angular and geometrical than someone like John Coltrane, would find inspiration in someone as creatively progressive as Buckminster Fuller. But his viewpoint and ideas - particularly on imagination - continued to influence Coleman as he continued to refine his personality as an artist. ''The expression of all individual imagination is what I call 'harmolotics,' '' he says. ''And each being's imagination has its own vision. And there are as many visions as there are stars in the sky.'' It's a fitting sentiment - not only for Coleman's iconoclastic work but Clarke's, as well.


In many ways, Ornette: Made in America is Clarke's most conventional film. She bounces around between all the different elements she uses to reconstruct (and articulate) Coleman's experience, but the end result is a pretty straightforward narrative. Yet it's still infused with the restless, probing spirit endemic to all of Clarke's work - as well as the beautiful dissonance of an Ornette Coleman composition - that she uses to investigate not only an individual or group but the contours of national culture and identity. So it's appropriate she used Skies of America to frame Coleman's life. A man who pulled himself out of crushing poverty to become one of the world's premiere musicians and artists, not in some direct line from A to B but via a looping path of experimentation and success and failure and acceptance, while navigating the fault lines of race - that's the kind of story that was once emblematic of the ''American Dream.'' But in 1985, at the start of the Reagan era, it felt like the dream was slipping away, which adds an elegiac note to the film.


And, ultimately, it became the final Clarke's final cinematic statement. She died in 1997, and while Ornette was released 12 years earlier it is a fitting coda to a career that began with The Connection, a film that forced confrontation with the first cracks in that receding American promise.



PROJECT SHIRLEY DISC EXTRAS AND TECHNICAL THOUGHTS


The first three volumes of Shirley Clarke films are each one disc sets, but they are all loaded with extras. The Connection includes: ''The Connection Home Movies,'' six minutes of black-and-white behind-the-scenes footage; ''A Conversation with Albert Brenner,'' a four-minute reminiscence by the production designer of the film; ''Connecting with Freddie Redd,'' a 27-minute interview with the lead musician in the film; a 29-minute radio interview with Clarke from 1959; the four-minute short ''Carl and Max at the Chelsea;'' two marketing songs from 1964; a photo gallery, and the trailer. Portrait of Jason includes: ''The Lost Confrontation,'' a seven-minute bit that was cut from the film; the 25-minute documentary short ''Where's Shirley;'' a three-minute short from 1967, ''Butterfly;'' a 53-minute interview with Clarke from 1967; a 54-minute audio-only piece ''The Jason Holliday Comedy Album;'' a nine-and-a-half-minute episode of Underground New York from 1967 that focuses on Clarke; 35 minutes of audio outtakes; color footage of Jason; a restoration demonstration; and a trailer. Ornette: Made in America includes: radio and video interviews with Clarke; ''The Link Revisited,'' a short documentary about the club featured in the film; the short ''Shirley Loves Felix;'' a trailer; and a booklet with an essay by producer Kathelin Hoffman Gray.


Overall, the extras on the discs are exceptional. But where there's a glaring soft spot is on Portrait of Jason. Of the three films, this is the one that demands the most context. The relationship and dynamic between Clarke and Jason is fraught, and their backstory helps explain a lot about what is going on in what we're seeing. Without it, you have a feeling of being unmoored in this cinematic sea. And, frankly, it can be unpleasant. As noted above, there is a definite feeling of one party exploiting another the first time around.


After watching the film, I worked through the extras hoping to find something to help make sense of what I had just seen - not the actual footage, but the emotional and interpersonal dynamics at work - but I came up mostly empty. It was only in doing my own research that I was able to find more to help fill in the gaps. Once I did, the film became increasingly nuanced. What I had originally seen as exploitative, for example, turned out to be far more complex and faceted. There is certainly a lot to glean from the film on its own - again, as a document of the experience of a gay black man in the 1960s, the film is unimpeachable - but it does feel like a missed opportunity to give viewers the fullest portrait of Clarke at this particular moment.


When it comes to the technical presentation, The Connection and Portrait of Jason discs both feature restored prints and they look incredible. The tonal depths and clarity of detail in The Connection (1080p monochrome 1.33 X 1 with PCM Mono) is especially beautiful. There's a lot going on in Leach's apartment, and it's all crisp and clear. The crisp blacks and subtle grays in the cinematography bring out everything that's happening in Leach's apartment. And there's a lot, from paint peeling off falls to bits of debris caught on shirts and in hair. At the start of the film, Leach wears a black blazer over his plaid button-down. In one shot, the light catches a pattern in the jacket that, frankly, is impossible to believe could be visible in a print of a low-budget independent film made 55 years ago. But there it is, yet that's how good film stock (16mm or 35mm) could be at the time, and it's gorgeous. Portrait of Jason (1080p monochrome 1.33 X 1 with PCM Mono), meanwhile, looks light years better than it ever has (at least based on the restoration demonstration). Clarke's apartment isn't as visually interesting as the set in The Connection, so it's easy for things to feel flat and lifeless. And indeed it was in previous prints. But now, there's a sense of scale and scope in the space, image focus has been improved, and flecks of cigarette ash and details in Jason's wardrobe pop against his dark sportcoat. Ornette: Made in America (1080p 1.78 X 1 (footage from various periods) with PCM 2.0 Stereo) looks the shaggiest of the three, but that's not an indictment. While it's a bit grainer than the other two films, it adds a certain beamed-from-another-dimension quality that absolutely works given the subject of the documentary. Audio-wise, the discs get the job done. None of the three films were made to blow the doors off a theater, and they don't. But dialogue is clean and clear, and in the case of The Connection and Ornette, the musical moments are rich and textured.


Milestone's Project Shirley is a staggering achievement. Not only is it a nearly-complete accounting of one of America's most important independent filmmakers (the lack of The Cool World in any of the volumes is impossible to overlook), it's a dynamic and vital document of an era of American filmmaking that should be on a cultural endangered-species list. As streaming services and home video producers increasingly prioritize hits, name recognition, and guaranteed money makers over smaller or lesser-known titles and commercial failures, and as more and more films get locked away in vaults to be forgotten or deteriorate into dust, it is more necessary than ever to fight for and proactively guard our underground, experimental, marginal, independent, avant-garde tradition. With its work on Shirley Clarke's legacy - as well as those of Lionel Rogosin's and Charles Burns', among others - Milestone has established itself as perhaps the premiere sentinels in this ongoing fight.



- Dante A. Ciampaglia


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