• Director: Shirley Clarke
  • Starring: Jason Holliday, Shirley Clarke, and Carl Lee
  • Accolades: BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#84)
  • Where to Watch:  Stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video or Apple TV

It can sometimes be difficult to remember when watching Portrait of Jason that it is, somehow, over 50 years old. It feels like the sort of thing that forms a whole genre of documentaries today, a whole feature based on a single talking-head. It would not feel out of place in the filmography of Errol Morris, for example. Further, it takes as its subject Jason Holliday, a Black, gay, occasionally cross-dressing hustler who spends a decent portion of the film smoking marijuana. Which is to say, it is an extremely 2021 subject for 1967. Even today, Holliday is hardly the sort of subject most filmmakers would spend a whole documentary interviewing. But maybe he should be? He certainly has enough to say.

Shirley Clarke was a fixture in the New York underground art scene in her era, directing a series of both documentaries and avant-garde fictional films that generally met with either indifference or controversy among the wider public. We previously featured her work in our article on The Connection, which co-starred Carl Lee, her significant other and collaborator who was also involved in Portrait of Jason. The two of them shot the film in the living room of Clarke’s own apartment over the course of one long, 12-hour, overnight session in early December 1966. The film is basically just Holliday sitting in a chair with a drink in his hand telling stories, with occasional questions or comments from Clarke or Lee off-screen.

Yet Portrait of Jason has a great deal of complexity. As one NPR article reviewing a restored DVD put it, Holliday “has a laugh that could keep a psychological seminar busy for a month.” In the opening moments, he says his name is Jason Holliday, then pauses, gives a wry smile, and announces that his real name is Aaron Payne (this seems to be news to Clarke). He talks about growing up in Trenton, New Jersey, about his time working as a “houseboy” for people who routinely called him a “spook,” about his time begging on the street. He tells enough different, conflicting stories that it’s pretty clear that some of them aren’t true. He talks about his time with “head shrinkers,” one of whom directly asks him how big his penis is and whether his lovers were satisfied. “If I don’t please them, it’s because I’m not trying,” Jason says he replied. He also does impressions of Mae West and Katherine Hepburn and performs a song from Funny Girl.

All this time, it’s not entirely clear if he’s really telling the truth or just trying to make himself look cool in front of the cameras, and because he’s drinking for several hours straight he keeps getting more and more drunk. Having reached their final roll of film, Clarke and Lee suddenly start asking Holliday pointed questions and pushing him, leaving him defensive and in tears. At the end, he says, “Finally, oh, that was beautiful. I’m happy about the whole thing.” And we can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic or not. We hear Clarke off camera announcing, “That’s the end!”

Portrait of Jason’s cinema verite approach remained influential on certain strands of both documentaries and fictional films, like the director John Cassavetes. Nothing Ingmar Bergman made looks remotely like this, meanwhile, but the Swedish director did call Portrait of Jason, “the most extraordinary film I’ve seen in my life.” Yet the film remains controversial in some circles to this day, not so much because of its basic subject matter anymore and more because of the methods employed by the filmmakers. I would not be the first to notice that their technique here seems to consist mostly of getting their subject drunk and pointing a camera at him. There is only so much difference here between this and exploitative journalists shoving a camera in the face of grieving parents after a school shooting. The ending is supposed to be uncomfortable and reveal something about Jason we haven’t seen before, but I found the other parts of the movie not just more entertaining, but more interesting.

Despite the film’s reputation as influential, relatively few original prints were made, and as recently as 2013 it was thought to be completely lost. However, at that time a print was randomly found in the archive of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. A restoration was then carried out using funds obtained from a Kickstarter campaign, and the film has since been released on DVD and is now streaming on The Criterion Channel. This has likely been part of the reason that interest in the film seems to have grown exponentially in recent years, with a 2015 film (fairly avant garde its own right) even being produced called Jason and Shirley, dramatizing the unusual circumstances of the filming of Portrait of Jason.

Few movies are simpler in their presentation and the techniques used than Portrait of Jason, and I’m not sure how productive it is to belabor Jason’s psychology here. I do think the film remains important, not just from a documentary stylistic point of view, but also a record of LGBT experiences from a time when only so many of those experiences were being recorded.

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