Wednesday, February 2, 2011


Not that I'm trying to play in to the idea of "black history month" being the only month we should celebrate, study or focus on anything that has to do with African American history in this country, but i figured this would give me an excuse to recommend some good films on the subject through out the month of February. And if anyone is interested, BAM will be having a series on black films through out the month of February (including the criminally underrated 'Chameleon Street').
There was quite a bit of interest in Shriley Clarke's films last year. Anthology Film Archives did a retrospective on her, and a few months ago, IFC screened the movie of discussion: 'Portrait of Jason'. With all this sudden interest, i cant help but hope that the masters of cinema, kino or criterion (specifically their sub-label; eclipse) will finally release Clarke's work on dvd. Shirley Clarke has always gone against the grain (sorry to sound so cliche, but its true). Not only was she an American female director working during a time when there weren't many (still aren't today), but the subjects of almost all of her movies were black people or some kind of black subculture. I'll always give credit to Melvin Van Peeples for pretty much starting the black film movement (which eventually turned in to the silly "blaxploitation genre"), but Shirley Clarke definitely planted the seeds for the African American film movement. Aside from the fact that her movies were a big hit among the NYC film underground, Europeans, and other demographics who weren't regularly exposed to (respectable) black films, but she even played a Major role in black films that she didn't even direct. She loaned John Cassavetes her camera equipment so that he could make his first (and groundbreaking) film 'Shadows'; a movie about racial identity among 3 black siblings (2 brothers and 1 sister) who are all different skin tones. From then on, John Cassavetes himself encouraged his friend Ossie Davis to direct his first film, and set up a meeting for Gordon Parks with warner brothers so that Parks could make his first film; 'The Learning Tree'. Shirley Clarke's un-patronizing look in to the lives of black people as actual people and not "subjects", paved the way for other white female filmmakers with a similar focus, namely; Claire Denis (no fear no die, 35 shots of rum and i cant sleep).
For a movie made in the mid 60's, 'Portrait of Jason' was a head of its time. Its not like homosexuality wasn't explored in films, but it certainly wasn't explored in (the few) black films that were around. Typically, an almost 2 hour long documentary that pretty much takes place in one room, interviewing one person sounds like an incredibly boring movie, but trust me, 'Portrait of Jason' is far from boring. The title of the film is pretty self explanatory. Shirley Clarke interviews a gay black, conman/prostitute/hustler (Jason Holiday) about his far from normal everyday life. Through the course of the film he gets more and more drunk, and talks about his disdain for living a "normal" 9-5 lifestyle. He also gets in to his different hustles and schemes while making fun of himself at the same time. Jason Holiday is such a great interviewee, and you never lose interest in him (a few times in the movie, you can clearly hear the crew in background break out in laughter at his responses). In fact, you almost cant wait to hear what he's going to say next. The combination of his hilarious personality mixed with his stories make the documentary just as hilarious as it is tragic. As you watch this movie unfold, you can see the blueprint for future films like; 'Paris is Burning' (probably one of the most intriguing documentaries ever made) take place right before your eyes. The open homosexuality of the documentary, while at the same time not being the "focus" of the film, may have very well inspired future filmmakers like Gus Van Sant, and it also shares similarities with the works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Andy Warhol as well.


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