Film Review: Portrait of Jason (dir by Shirley Clarke)

The 1967 film, Portrait of Jason, is one of the most fascinating documentaries that I’ve ever watched.  It’s also one of the most exhausting.

Directed by Shirley Clarke and filmed over the course of 12 hours in Clarke’s apartment, Portrait of Jason is, at its most basic, an interview with a self-described “hustler” who goes by the name of Jason Holliday. Holliday starts things off by explaining that he was born Aaron Payne but that he was renamed Jason Holliday by a friend of his in San Francisco.

“Jason Holliday was created in San Francisco,” he explains, “and San Francisco is a place to be created.”

The entire film is Jason either standing or sitting in front of a fireplace and talking about his life as a gay black man in America in the 1960s.  (Occasionally, voices are heard off camera, asking him questions.)  From the start of the film, it’s obvious that Jason is a great talker.  He has a way with words and it’s almost impossible not to get swept up in his stories, even if they are frequently hard to follow and sometimes contradict themselves.  As Holliday admits from the start, he is a man playing a role.  Over the course of the film, he smokes, he drinks, and he gets stoned.  He talks about being both a cabaret performer and a prostitute.  He wraps a feather boa around his neck and, when he sings, he takes on a totally different persona.  In fact, it can be argued that the entire film is about Jason taking on different personas.  Over the course of his marathon interview, he is sometimes happy, sometimes angry, sometimes sad, sometimes manipulative, and sometimes defiantly honest.  He admits to using people but, at the same time, when he suddenly very coldly announces, “I can make you feel like the most desirable human being on Earth,” you can’t held but admire his honesty.

In the beginning, Jason laughs.  Jason’s high-pitched giggle almost becomes a separate character, we hear it so often.  He uses the laugh in the way that some people use a period to end a sentence.  The laugh comes out when a story is over.  And yet, over the course of the film, we come to realize that the laugh is Jason’s left defense.  Whenever he feels that the story is getting too personal or that he might be revealing too much of what’s underneath the surface, Jason laughs.  The laugh is what Jason Holliday uses to keep Aaron Payne from coming out.

And yet, as the film progresses, the laugh is heard less and less.  Drunk and stoned, Jason starts to let down his defenses just a little bit.  The off-screen voices, which originally had been so encouraging of Jason, starts to become vaguely hostile.  They ask him about specific instances that Jason has used all of the unseen people in the room.  And Jason starts to change.  His tone becomes sarcastic.  When he breaks down crying, the camera gives us a close-up of his face and it’s hard to watch.  You realize not only how exhausted Jason is but also how exhausted you are as well.  And yet, at the same time, you wonder if Jason is really crying or if this is just a part of his extended performance.

To be honest, this is one of those documentaries that raises all sorts of ethical questions.  Jason’s a fascinating character but it’s obvious that he was set up by the filmmakers.  Much as the film will leave you with mixed feelings about Jason Holliday, it will also leave you with mixed feelings about the people who got him drunk and then filmed his subsequent breakdown.

At the end of the film, we hear Shirley Clarke telling Jason, in almost comforting tone, “That’s it, that’s the end.”  When I first saw this film, I was happy to hear that it was over because I didn’t how much more of Jason’s breakdown I could take.  However, at the same time, I found myself looking forward to the next time that I would watch Portrait of Jason so that I could search for more clues as to just who Jason Holliday actually was.

Long thought to be a lost film, Portrait of Jason occasionally shows up on TCM Underground.  Keep an eye out for it.  It’s not always an easy film to watch but it’s worth the effort.

2 responses to “Film Review: Portrait of Jason (dir by Shirley Clarke)

  1. I’m utterly delighted you saw this movie! I’ve seen it twice on TCM Underground and both times I was utterly and totally mesmerized. If I had to make a list of the Ten Best Documentaries made to date, PORTRAIT OF JASON would be in the top five.

    And yeah, if you watch the movie again and this time pay more attention to to what director Shirley Clarke and her off-camera crew are saying to Jason, it’s clear they got the guy drunk off his ass so that they could start picking away at his defenses and get him to the emotional state they wanted. It’s some strong stuff to watch.

    But it’s a movie I would unhesitatingly recommend to everybody. Jason Holliday is truly a remarkable character and his observations about race, class, sexuality and the institutionalized, uniquely American hypocrisy embedded into the very DNA of this country are still frighteningly relevant and applicable today.

    Liked by 1 person

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