3/1/2021 0 Comments
The Great American After: A Conversation With Stephen Winter, Badass Extraordinaire
Content warning: Mention of Nazis and rape. Reader discretion is advised.
The following interview contains spoilers for “Nashville” (1975, dir. Robert Altman), “Chocolate Babies” (1996, dir. Stephen Winter), and “Jason and Shirley” (2015, dir. Stephen Winter).
Folks, I hope you’re ready for a doozy. The following conversations were conducted with Stephen Winter, the writer/director of some of the most bizzarely brilliant queer films of the last thirty years (both of which are available to view on Vimeo), as well as the exhiliratingly strange podcast “Adventures in New America.” On Oct. 28, 2020, we sat down to discuss his creative history and wound up in a heated dispute regarding the nature of one Jerry Lewis. I hope you enjoy- I certainly did.
J: How are you feeling today?
S: You know, cautiously optimistic and kind of ready for what’s next. Like many people in the world right now (or at least in my world), I’ve got a lot of election anxiety, but I’m trying to turn that into an excitement. That’s what you do with nervousness. You either transform it into fear or into excitement, so I’m working on that excitement. It is exciting, and it is finally fucking here, so I’ve been watching movies and “New Girl.”
J: Is it good?
S: It’s funny! I watched it when it came out, and they have a Prince episode in Season 3. Prince made a rare appearance playing himself, so I thought, “One way to get through these days is to have the ‘New Girl’ on, it’s funny and it’s a hangout show and eventually we’ll get to the Prince episode, and that is something to look forward to.” So yeah, that is my nostalgia TV of the moment.
J: If you could be anywhere right now and there was no COVID pandemic going on, where would you be and why?
S: Oh, wow...Normally, I would say New Orleans, but it’s still hurricane season, so I wouldn’t want to be there right now. Perhaps in a month. But if it was right now, I would be in the woods of Vermont in a cabin with a wood-burning fireplace, and that is because I like the woods, I like the quiet, and I like wood-burning fireplaces, and to be able to go on cold-weather hikes and drink some hot cider, great conversation over a fire...if I could transform my surroundings right now, that is what I would do.
J: How was it growing up in Chicago?
S: Well, it was the eighties. I grew up in Hyde Park, which is by University of Chicago, so the world I grew up in was populated by former hippies who are now professionals with families. So there was a lot of interracial marriages, a lot of foreign pairings with Americans. My friends circle was a polyglot of different kinds of people. I was very lucky in that way. My father was from Czechoslovakia and my mother was from Jamaica, and we kind of fit right in. Talk about living on a leash- there was no leashes in the 1980s for teenagers. This is before cell phones, of course, and before the world got too wild in terms of kids running around doing things. So we kind of had the run of the neighborhood, the run of the city if we cared to, and we got to live sort of wildweed lives. So we got to explore things and get into nice trouble (sometimes good trouble, as John Lewis called it). I went to my first “Illinois Nazis, Get Out” protest when I was like sixteen-
J: Wait, I’m going to have to stop you there-- you mean that wasn’t just a joke in “The Blues Brothers”?
S: No, no, no! Good reference- I love “The Blue Brothers.” It’s a perfect film. Illinois Nazis was a thing. They probably still are a thing. They were not comic, and they didn’t really live in Chicago proper. They would have to come in from some other place, but they would come to Chicago sometimes to start a ruckus, and one time, I ran into some older kids who said, “We’re about to go and fight the Illinois Nazis. You wanna come?” and I said, “Yeah!” And so we did.
J: When were you first introduced to film?
S: “The Wizard of Oz” would come on TV every year around Easter I believe, and that was a big moment. It was a film that I really responded to. The one-two-three punch was “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters,” and somewhere in that moment, my father took me to a revival theatre to see “2001.”
J: Holy shit.
S: “Holy shit” is right, and it blew my brain right open. Thank god he was a hippie, ‘cause I was young to be going to see “2001,” but I was down. Between all that, I’ve always just gravitated towards film. I started doing Super 8 when I was a real young kid., but I got it. I got film language. I understood how to do it intuitively. Getting into film, there’s some filmmakers who know the back and forth of it all and the cinematographer can always help them out, but they’re kind of hacks, and there’s some people who just get it. They get it, and they understand how the sausage is made, but it still does not disturb the meal. It still gets them excited about eating more. That was always me. The wonder of “2001” mixed with the craziness of “Star Wars,” and “Close Encounters” is a really weird movie. Like, the five minutes that you usually have in another film where there's wonder and suspense and strangeness- that’s the whole of “Close Encounters”! It’s very weird that Spielberg did it that way, and those things sort of got into my DNA.
I remember when I was a teenager in the eighties, in the VHS era, my family had a video store that we could go to (the code was REDACTED - I remember the code!). You could just go into the store and you could put some VHS’s down and say REDACTED and I don’t have to pay any money, I can just take the stuff. So I started getting into the Deep Adult Film section, like Clockwork Orange. I loved The Shining ‘cause it scared the fuck out of me, I love “2001,” this is the same guy! So I bring in “A Clockwork Orange” for the first time, and it’s about violence. There’s a rape scene in the first fifteen minutes, the woman in the theater who’s getting tussled back and forth. And I’m watching this, the classical music is playing, and my mother comes in. She looks at it and she looks at me and she goes, “Ughhh,” and walks away. She knew it was art. She knew what movie it was. She could, as a parent, say, “This is not appropriate. You are still too young to watch this kind of stuff,” but on the other hand, she was like, “But it’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Hopefully the point of the film will land on him” (and, of course, it did). I got to spend my days as a teenager in Hyde Park enjoying a whole bunch of different things, including what was available on VHS at my local store.
I used to teach a film class at Williams College. I came back three times to teach it. “The Artist Responds To Dangerous Times”; that was the name of the course and I could interpret that any way I wanted. One of the ways I wanted to do that was on Week Four, after I got all the students sort of into what revolutionary film was all about, you go into the theater and for that class we watch “Nashville.” And the kids. Don’t. Know. What. They’re. Getting. The Fuck. Into. We’re in the theater- you can’t escape it. It’s big. And then when it’s over, I turn the lights up and I just look at them and then go, “Yeah. Yeah. Alright, go out, write your papers. You gotta write about this now.” It’s always a seismic, seminal moment, and each time I watch it with them, I get caught up. It’s perfection.
J: What about it specifically hits you?
S: The way that he [director Robert Altman] layers all the narratives and characters- nothing has ever existed like it before or since. People try to do it, but it never totally works out. Also, they caught country music at this very particular point in its trajectory. It was still culty. Country was cult back then. It was a middle class business. You could go to Nashville in ‘76 and see Dolly Parton perform for five dollars and have Merle Haggard or someone else on the bill. That was what it was. It captured that and it poked fun at the earnestness, but also took in the heart. Something about it, even though it’s three hours long and it goes at a steady pace, when it gets to the point where homegirl is on stage having a meltdown, you get so caught up with it, you can feel the breeze (she’s so good), and then her man comes out and Sells Her Out and says, “She will appear at that Trumpesque presidential rally tomorrow, she’ll be there”... Even when you know what’s going to happen (that she will be assassinated because nobody that pure can live), it still just fills your heart with so much dread, and when all the different characters start showing up at the rally, it is as suspenseful as any thriller I have ever seen. And then when homegirl gets on there and sings ‘It Don’t Worry Me’, you just start to weep. OH!
J: A lot of your work feels like a collage of performances, conversations jabbering at one another, prewritten diatribes. Where did this jabber jawing something-or-other come about in your mind?
S: Well, I’m also heavily influenced by Richard Pryor and Joan Rivers. I like Borscht Belt stuff, I like Chitlin Circuit, old-fashioned caterwauling. I’m very sophisticated, but I also love low art, too. I love a good take-down speech. I love Bette Davis movies, I love “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”. I’m attracted to things like that. I joined political activism early, where people make a lot of speeches. I was in the era in the nineties of gay bars being the primary hub for social interactions and people make speeches there in a declarative, confrontational way. All of that just sort of feeds into my thing.
I do make my own kind of speeches, but I’m also very much of a listener. One of the things that would happen to me when I was in my twenties is that people, “Oh, Stephen, you’re so fabulous! I’ve got somebody you have to meet.” What they meant was they knew another Black queen [these are white people] who was over-the-top, drag queen, giving you reading, etc. They thought if we’d get us together, sparks would fly! But I’m not a ham like that. When someone like that comes into my orbit, I play the Straight Man: I lob up stuff and they knock it back. Jerry Lewis needs a Dean Martin or it’s not gonna work.
J: What would you describe your creative process like?
S: Things come to me fully formed. I take in a lot of ideas and bounce them around, germinate them for as few seasons, and then all of a sudden something pops and it all just appears. Then, it’s just a matter of getting it down and refining it. I work on instinct, but I’m also really good at story and I’m really good at making things more of what they are.I like for things to be grounded in reality but zany. I have a zaniness to it, but I’m also kind of gruff and evil and sexual and weird. I don’t censor any of those aspects and just let it all flow until it turns into what it needs to become. That is my process. I try not to overthink it. You kind of have an inner muse that you listen to and when she’s talking, I hear her, and when I call upon her, she comes. It’s one of those connective tissues that we have in the Universe with each other, and I realize that my time on this planet in this plane is to do these things and listen to her and get down what I can and bring those talents to bear. A whole lot of it is the discipline of the craft, which just comes from the years of working. But the other parts of it are just going out to see what’s up.
In the aughts, I spent a couple years on the road. I went to the West Coast, I went to Asia and Europe and did a lot of couch surfing and room renting and farming, and it was a good time to do that. Then I came back and started working on films with Lee Daniels. I came back right as he was starting “Precious,” started working on his films with him, and here we are.
J: Did you ever feel represented in the media that you consumed growing up?
S: No. Largely not. I found great representation not in film, rarely in film and TV (which is ironic, because that’s what I wanted to do), but I did see myself in other places. I saw myself in Prince- “1999” album, “Purple Rain.” He’s my god. Always has been. Concurrently, Grace Jones was very important. She scared white people and she scared straight people but she was also mainstream but she was kind of cult and she was Jamaican, so she was sort of related to us, so I loved her. My parents made sure I had all the Beatles and the Kinks in my understanding, so I loved George Harrison. I found myself in him. Reggae was a big thing because, in the eighties, the images of Black people were so constrained. For my mother to bring the Jamaican heritage directly into the home was very important. I had all these images from these albums and this music of Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and how they were all different and how they were all related and what they each stood for and their beauty and their majesty. Images of Black men, Rastafari, being radical and brilliant- that was all over my childhood, so that definitely sunk in and that was helpful. I saw myself in the British rockers who were all giving new androgyny in the eighties.
When I turned thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and my nature started coming down on me, there wasn’t a queer culture to go to in Chicago in the eighties when you’re a teenager, but there was ska, where straight white kids and Black kids would wear skinny suits and sort of bounce around. Sort of reggae-derived but a little faster and a little more white Boy but not. That was an accepting culture, soI could be weird and myself in the ska world and also have more of a polyglot relationship to gender and race. Then, I was lucky enough to be in Chicago during the rise of house music, so once I got to be sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and it’s time now to go to clubs, instead of going to gay clubs (which is kind of white and restrictive), I got to go to house music parties that were Black and gay dominated and Frankie Knuckles is spinning. Even though I couldn’t explain it, I knew I was in the presence of greatness. Even though I was the baby of the bunch, never been kissed, I’m still just able to swirl around and be part of that world. Luckily, Chicago had that to offer me.
Part of my zeal of making films was I could make films with the people that looked like me in them based on the genres and ideas that I’m gravitating towards. I like Bogie and Bacall movies. Part of “Chocolate Babies,” the Max-Sam relationship is a Bogie-Bacall relationship to me. I’m not putting those into direct correlations because I’m still a kid, I’m still doing that naturally, but I can see especially when I’m looking back on it. When I watched ‘To Have or Have Not’ recently, for the first time in years, I was like, “Oh, I stole that! Oh, that’s where I got that from!”
J: How did “Chocolate Babies” come about as a concept?
S: I went to the school of the Art Institute of Chicago, which at that point was a very working class school in a wonderful way. It didn’t cost that much, the teachers were great, there’s lots of different people from different backgrounds there doing different things. I joined ACT-UP Chicago for a summer while I was there, which at first was very exciting. We’re gonna fight AIDS, we’re gonna fight the system, and when I got there, they immediately said, “Great to see you, young person! There’s the Black Caucus. Go join them.” Because ACT-Up, like many things back then, was extremely segregated. This is a reflection of what it was like at ACT-UP New York as well. Even though women and Latinx people and Black people were very important to and leaders of the movement, whenever the TV cameras came, they would send the same five white guys out to talk to the press. So the face of ACT-UP and the face of AIDS activism became a white guy with a muscle shirt on yelling, which was not necessarily the driving force of the situation. Now, I made some great friends there in the short-term. Went to a couple of funerals. Some of the Black people I knew died. Within three months, after a couple of big actions and a lot of nineteen-year-old activist fun, I decided to say, “Fuck it,” and I wrote out a three-page condemnation of the racism of ACT-UP and I got myself on the agenda of a meeting and I took it over and dropped a bomb on them. Boom. And then I walked out, and it worked! It got me free from that bullshit, but it got me in another place where I was like, “Okay, I did that. What’s next?”
What was next was bopping here and there while I was going through art school, different kinds of radical organizations where I would meet a lot of passionate people, and then coming to New York to go to NYU to go to film school, and this story just popped out. Looking back on it, I was taking all of the coming-of-age stories that I enjoyed, the Bogie-Bacall-style love stories that I enjoyed, the John Waters of it all, a little bit of “Do The Right Thing” is in there, a little bit of Cassavetes action is popping around, a little bit of Scorcese action, and just make a thing like, “What if this thing was happening? What if there were HIV-positive Black drag queens and transgender people and one Asian boy and one lady bopping around and doing activist stuff and then flying away?” One of the great things about film is that you can just say that this is what’s going on and that’s what’s going on! I just put in all these classic motifs- there’s a love triangle, there’s a Macguffin to go run after, there is confrontations, there’s second act twists. I just took all these movie tropes about a ragtag band of rebels and moved it into this situation, and I used (sometimes with direct lines) all the fabulous, crazy things that activists had said in my presence and put it in the script.
In all of my life, I had always been around transgender people because that’s part of what the Black gay experience was in Chicago, the intersection of transgender Black people. So when I wrote Lady Marmalade, it didn’t say, “She’s transgender.” It didn’t even say any old-fashioned words. It was just her. There she is. Then when I was introduced to Micheal (she was being brilliant in a play), I was like, “Oh! That’s her!” In the nineties, at least in the circle that I was in, part of what I understand was really revolutionary is that if someone were coming forward and they are who they are, you don’t give it any kind of “never mind.” It’s just, “That’s Michael Lynch. She’s Michael. And she’s Claude, even though Claude’s not transgender. Claude’s a gay guy, a queer guy, a cis guy, but he’s also she.” That was just how we were rolling. I understand we were ahead of a lot of curves back then, but I think that is part and parcel of how transgender people have experienced the gay community throughout the century when they found places where there was acceptance, so I am very proud that that was my natural inclination. Michael Lynch, who plays Lady Marmalade, she’s very proud of having that performance out there being a transgender actor. The character’s transgender, but that’s not what that’s about.
J: How was it received when you released it?
S: It was the point in independent film where a film could be made for a small amount of money and then picked up by a distributor for a slightly larger amount of money and then get to play. But what they did with “Chocolate Babies” was they kept moving the goalposts as to what would make it good enough to get to distribution. It was ahead of its time.
We premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, which is a big fucking deal in 1996. Everybody was like, “This is amazing! You’re going to win the Golden Bear,” and then they gave it to a Canadian film called “Lilies.” And then we went to South By Southwest, back when it was still small, and they gave us an honorable mention: Best Picture. Then we went to the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival at the Castro Theatre. Standing room only. They said, “This is the best film! It got a great audience response. It’s gonna win the top prize!” And then they gave it to “Lilies.” Several festivals popped through and each time, after each event, it was like, “Okay, this is when you’ll get a distributor,” and the deal just never came. Frameline Distribution eventually took it on, but they’re a non-profit and they couldn’t put it in theaters, and then it got a lousy Variety review. It never got the things that the other films of its day did receive and the obvious reason for that is racism. That’s what happened, but it never really went away and people like you are still discovering it. I have no doubt that one day I will become famous on a larger scale and then everyone will wanna look at it again. *Chuckles*
J: What made you decide to switch from doing work on film and television to a radio show sort of thing?
S: Well, Tristan Cohen and I wrote the screenplay version of “Adventures in New America” (at that time, it was called “The Adventures of Cancerman”). We wrote it in the aughts, and everybody was like, “We hate this screenplay! Healthcare will never be an issue that people will care about! Obama’s President! Everything is fine when it comes to race! This is way off the beam! We don’t wanna look at this movie- it is giving us a headache!” We couldn’t get that screenplay any traction whatsoever, but I always liked it and I always kept it in a drawer.
In 2018, a friend of mine named Julian Koster who was a musician, storyteller, he was in a group called the Neutral Milk Hotel. (He’s the boy who plays the saw!) He was doing a podcast fiction radio show on the Night Vale Presents Network called “The Orbiting Human Circus” and it was gorgeous! It was amazing! He came to me and said, “Night Vale would like to reach out to makers who have never done a podcast before to come to them and say what kind of podcast would you like to make and we’ll make it. Do you have an idea?” and I said, “Hell yeah, I have an idea! ‘Cancerman’!” So I took it to Tristan and said, “Let’s turn it into ten or eleven or twelve episodes. Maybe the problem with the feature screenplay was that it’s actually too short. At a hundred and twenty pages, there’s a lot more we could do.” That’s what happened. I came to them and said, “This is the idea, this is the first two episodes,” and they said, “Let’s do it.” But what happened was that we started recording and they set a release date and we still had to finish writing all the episodes, so from summer of 2018 to February of 2019, we’re on a nonstop tread. We had the series mapped out, but we hadn’t written the whole damn thing, so we have to write it, record it, edit it, sound design it, get it out there every two weeks, and hit the mark. We did, and in September, we got a rave from the New York Times when the show was launched, and that was such a wonderful thing because I;d never gotten a rave in the New York Times. It’s a mark, man.
We’ve been working all year on trying to get the next season out, but between COVID, etc… We have written season two for the most part. It’s ready to go. We want to turn it into an animated show, we want to expand the world so it’s more than just I.A. and Simon. It was a crazy time because it was such nonstop work, and doing the double duty of playing the hero made it very personal. I sometimes cringe at my line readings because I would do it so differently now ‘cause I know more now than I knew then, but I do appreciate that it works and I’m not mad at it. Paige, who played Simon, is a genius. She’s the star of the show, I’m the hero, Mr. Deeds is… the whole thing is great. And then we got to bring in our friends to play different parts, we got to bring in different musicians that we like to different songs ‘cause we got the variety hour moment of it all, and Bryan Webster (who plays the councilman in “Chocolate Babies”) is the Narrator. It’s not just about expanding the story- the story didn’t expand that much- but building the world around the world and giving you the idea, if you tune into this episode, you’re gonna get thirty minutes of this whole world that will include what happens next with I.A. and Simon and Tetchy Terrorist Vampire Zombies, but is also more about building the concerns of what is the concerns for the people who are listening to this show in this alternate universe or fictional universe or the future. What is the event that has gotten us to the place? Why is it New America? We never explain that.
J: That was one of my questions- why New America? Why zombies? Why vampires? Why outer space?
S: Here’s the story: Steven Spielberg said, “Never have more than one magic in a movie.” Where there are E.T.s, there can’t also be poltergeists. Makes total sense. Where there are witches, there can’t be ghosts. We decided, “Why can’t we try to put different things together and see what happens?” That was where it started. The idea that these are Ttechy Terrorist Vampire Zombies from Outer Space who are trying to spread malaise and eat your souls. They’re terrorists (which is taking a line from “Chocolate Babies”) because they are bouncing into the system to fuck things up, but unlike the “Chocolate Babies” terrorists, they’re not doing it for a righteous cause, they’re doing it to get power. They’re the antagonists. The “Chocolate Babies” terrorists are very youthful and exuberant in their optimism; there is a pessimistic air to the Terrorist Vampire Zombies. IA and Simon were conceived as your classic mismatched couple, best friends. Simon was loosely based on me, IA was loosely based on Tristan. Like all the other things, it just sort of flowed.
J: What do you think the future will be like and what do you think it will be like?
S: Well, I can tell you one thing: white people on the left can no longer pretend like they don’t understand. I had a major falling-out with a lot of white friends in June because they were not up to speed, and one of them came back in my life recently. We’re patching things up, we’re moving forwards, we’re gonna move forwards always, but that’s the last thing I said to him. I was like, “You and yours will never be able to pretend like this doesn’t exist anymore. Now you know what your life is built upon.” So fair enough. On the other side of things, somebody like myself, who is Black, I can now rest understanding that I am so much tougher than so many people. I do not fold like a flower. I was made tough and brought up by hearty stock, and I’ve got both Eastern Bloc, land-locked, not glamorous white European Jewish ancestry and what I’ve got going on from the Caribbean. All the things that I have done have been made through those lenses, both in life and in art, and that’s why they’re so great and I’m legendary and that’s wonderful.
Moving forward from this day… this year has been so hard. [At the beginning of quarantine], everyone was talking about, “Oh, we’re going to make bread and we’re gonna do all this relaxing!” I couldn’t do any of this stuff because as a Black person, I knew that this was going to hit the community so hard. I was correct. One in a thousand Black people have died. That’s a staggering number that we can’t even wrap our mind around, but it’s true. Post-this-election, we will know who voted for that, and knowing who voted for that takes a lot of the gas-lighting, duplicitous, smile-on-your-face bullshit off the table. As a for-instance, we also know who replaced Ruth Bader Ginsberg with a woman whose intent is to destroy women’s rights and help bring down the country and confirmed her like that. They just sort of shoved her in at the last minute. We now know who did that. They will always ring down in history as the people who Did That. A lot of white people are walking around like, “I’m so shocked and upset!” I’m like, “Where were you when they replaced Thorogood Marshall with Clarence Thomas?” It was happening on TV, and Biden is leading the charge to discredit Anita Hill, going as so far as blocking other Black women who would have corroborated Dr. Hill’s story. There was at least two other women, colleagues, who were ready to testify that Clarence Thomas had pulled some shit with them too. Mr. Biden had said their testimony was unnecessary and inadmissible, and he gave all the har-dee-har for that. So now, we’re voting for him to become the bridge to save the world. How do I feel about this?
Look, when we conceived of “Adventures in New America,” me and Tristan in the aughts, during the Obama years, everyone thought we were crazy. When we were recording it, where Trump was well on schedule for fucking everything up and being a horrific monster, people thought, “Well, they’re on to something, but la-dee-da-da-da-la-la.” Now if you listen back to season one, it gets weird. There’s no parallels to actual events one-to-one, but there is an overall view in that world that we created that there was an event that changed everything and America is now New America. Simon Carr, our hero, a Black, nineteen-year-old, sneak-thief lesbian, self-proclaimed lesbian, says very happily, “America: love it or loath it, you can never leave it!” Proudly!
The good news is Florida, Ohio, North Carolina are in play and they will announce their winners on the night of. If Trump takes even all three of them, he could still lose. We take even one of them, he’s got no path. Everyone’s going around like, “Oooooooh, it could be a shitshow for a month!” and it could be, but it could also be done by eleven PM. And if it’s not done or he took all three of them, it’s still not over.
It was around this point when our discussion shifted to Stephen’s most recent film, “Jason and Shirley,” a fictionalized account of the making of Shirley Clarke’s infamous documentary “Portrait of Jason.” This was a tricky task, as Winter’s film was unavailable on any streaming routes this reporter could find. Fortunately, Stephen generously provided a copy of the film and a date on which to resume our interview, which wound up coinciding with the media’s calling of the 2020 Presidential Election. Eventually, we were able to continue our conversation on Nov. 8, 2020, which is (mostly) documented within the following section.
S: [Regarding the production of “Chocolate Babies”] Making a movie was a rare thing to do back then, and when somebody like me, some kid with no money but a dream and a team of folks who are excited about it, that excitement is very contagious. Everyone who was working on the film, whether it was for three weeks or a day, it was like “Oh, yeah! They’re doing something. I’ll do that!” That was also part of that Gen X ethos. If you’ve got something to say, that sets you apart because there was lots of pressure around those days because it was so hard to do things. All that to say is that one other thing that this year can teach us is that things are a moment in time. Four years feel like a really long time. REALLY long time. Feels like a fucking decade, but I still remember four years ago. I remember that one of the things I reminded myself was, “Well, you gotta play a long game like they do. They know that four years is actually not that long a time.” As we also know, the three months on quarantine (going on twenty) is not such a long time necessarily, so whatever time you’re thinking of in your plans, just keep that in mind. There’s always thirty-day periods, sixty-day periods. It could be a long time but it’s not actually that long a time. But there’s not that many hours in a day- there’s only twenty-four, you gotta spend at least eight of them chilling out.
J: How were things in Brooklyn last night?
S: The neighborhood went up right away. That’s how I found out: I started hearing yelling outside, and it didn’t stop until the wee hours. By the time I got outside, someone had put a big speaker out their window and was playing Mariah Carey, “Fantasy,” which was perfection, and we all started dancing. It went on until I went home at about four in the morning. That’s when I went home.
J: How did the idea for “Jason and Shirley” come about?
S: Sarah Schulman thought it up. She and Jack Waters, who’d been friends for about thirty years and counting, they’d always wanted to do something like a performance where she would play Shirley and he would play Jason. They brought it to me and said, “Why don’t we make it into a movie?” I said, “Okay, but if we do that, let’s make it so it’s the exact mirror image of “Portrait of Jason.” It’s fictionalized and it’s all about the stuff that we don’t see in the documentary, stuff that we do creative extrapolations of what could have happened. Her shoot went from night to day? Ours would be from day to night. Her shoot has just Jason staring down a camera? We’re gonna be everywhere at once, we’re gonna bring in all kinds of people. The camera and the images would be flying all around. This Jason would be very much trying to please a documentary crew? Our Jason is not. From there, we’ll find our creative truth as to what we think about this man and how we feel about what happened to him in this whole situation. This documentation will be part of our response to that as a group.” I wrote the story, Jack wrote all of Jason’s lines, and Sarah wrote ninety percent of Shirley’s lines. We smushed it all together and here we are!
J: Was there improvisation going on?
S: Yes, and you would be surprised how much was scripted. There would be embellishments on things that had been established that would get in there. We’d do things a few different times a few different ways. It wasn’t people coming out of thin air; there was a structure to it and there was writing to it but it wasn’t in a traditional way, neither in a traditional improv situation or in a traditional scripted situation. It was somewhere in the middle.
J: The thing that surprised me most about the film was how little it shared with “Portrait of Jason.”
S: We cover similar subjects. Outside of the line, “My name is Jason Holliday,” nothing is the same. They cover a lot of similar topics, but we are trying to do it from Jason’s point of view and think of how that relationship could be represented as both emotionally and politically, whereas Shirley Clarke is very much concerned with making Jason’s desires pathological. He calls his desires White Boy Fever. I posited, “Who might one of these boys be? How can we depict a piece of one of those relationships?” ‘Cause the way that the documentary illustrates that sort of thing, it’s people objectifying each other, being cruel, and not being in love. But those were love relationships, and if a white boy found himself swirled up in Jason’s world, it was out of love. But within there, there would still be conflict. What if he was a hustler-type like from a Andy Warhol movie? What if he had some bravado? What if he wasn’t like Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate,” some kind of up-tight, suit white boy? What if he wasn’t, or may have been that once upon a time but now, after being with Jason, he’s now something else? What if they could have a conversation even as equals? Even though one’s young and white, one’s older and Black, there’s still something between them that means something. I think that’s the revolutionary thing that we really rescued from the Shirley Clarke text is Jason’s humanity and the humanity of the people who swirled in his orbit, ‘cause I think that’s as much a repudiation of the objectification of Black men as male desire as well as a plea for love and tolerance between the races, because why not? *Chuckles*
J: I heard there was some controversy with Milestone Pictures, the people who own the rights to the documentary. How do you feel about the film looking back on it five years later?
S: It gives you an indication of how far culture has gone. Can you imagine a film coming out in 2019 directed by a Black gay artist starring a Black gay artist about a Black gay historical figure that involves white historical figures as well and had cooked up a wild brew of artistic endeavor and political point-of-view and fabulousness and was a home-grown indie film in the classic sense of the word and it took big swings and it hit, but it was about this white-made museum piece and the heirs and people who were around that documentary came forth and said, “These Black people have no right to do something about their culture. We call foul on them, we say they are incorrect, that they are mean, that they are wrong, and that they have no legitimacy doing this”? Can you imagine somebody in 2019 doing that and there being no outcry, no response? The answer is you couldn’t because we now live in an age where many, many more people understand how outrageous that is. But as little as five years ago, there was zero understanding of this. There was still actually quite the opposite; that if a white person who belongs to a museum said something, then it must be true, and if a Black person says something that sounds angry or unhappy or dissatisfied, then they must be false. That’s what happened to our film.
Within two years, there was the #OscarsSoWhite campaigns. There was an incredible amount of tension brought to bear as to what these problems are, and lots of people getting in line to start the small, incremental, but steady changes to fix things, so much so that we live in a completely different landscape now. But in 2015, there was nothing, and that’s why their attack was successful. Now I knew in my logical head that time would bear this out and that three months is not a long time, but those three months will be the months where my film will not be critically dealt with fairly. It will not be programmed. It will not be distributed. It will be buried because the small group of middle-age-to-old boomer generation, white cultural gatekeepers still had power over this part of things. They could say no to that movie and it would work. That said, we had our champions. We played a two-week, sold-out run at the Museum of Modern Art. That’s because there were people in that film department who knew what was going on, who knew what “Portrait of Jason” was and why the estate was wrong in their attack but also why they couldn’t really say or do anything about it because it wasn’t in vogue yet to do so, but they could do this one thing. They could legitimize it that way, and it also happened that way in Toronto and in a couple other places. There were people who saw that and went, “No, no, no , no. Whenever I hear something like this is going on, I know that means there’s fuckery afoot,” and they would see the film and go, “Oh! There it is.”
On the other hand, I can understand one aspect of their actions, and that is Shirley Clarke, as a woman director, was consistently undervalued and reduced in her generation, in her place in film and in art history and New York history. She was always footnoted. Part of that was because she didn’t play any games, and that’s cool, but she also was a woman. She had the power to do what wanted to do because she came from means, but they had the power to dismiss it and diminish it and et cetera. So there’s that thing and there’s also that she’s hard to categorize and complicated as a hero because a lot of her legacy is tied up in her class issues and in her race issues, where she was completely preoccupied by Black men (which also spoke to her social life) and her addiction issues. Although not singular to her as an artist of her generation (it would appear they all had addiction issues), it was certainly seemingly unseemly for a woman of means and who was white and established to be in bars doing heroin with her Black lovers and in making art about them. I do believe that the people who ended up inheriting the keepers of the Shirley Clarke flame were never quite comfortable with that aspect of the person that they were dealing with, although I would posit it makes her… I mean, Kurt Cobain is cool, right?
It doesn’t really matter what I think of Shirley Clarke. Luckily, history has caught up, and Shirley Clarke now has a more established and rightful place in the history of New York art, Chelsea Hotel art, independent film, New York experimental film, the whole thing. Fabulous! But my critique of her POV is my critique, as are the critiques of my comrades, and we have every right to do such things. Like many white people, Shirley can be really far ahead in a lot of ways, but also really far behind. For instance, our new President, Joe Biden, the first President we’ve had in four years, is on record within the last calendar year of making cavalier jokes about Bladck voters. Seeing that as part of his get-along is like, “Black voters, I can just make fun of them, and har-dee-har-har-har, ‘cause it’s funny to me!” And if it wasn’t for Stacey Abrams, if it wasn’t for Black voters, the entire world would be over right now. That’s what our film was about: giving Jason Holliday his due as an artist, as a human being, as a lover, as a political figure, and as a rock and roller. *
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