Restored and back in distribution thanks to the tireless folks at Milestone Films, the 1967 documentary “Portrait of Jason” is, without a doubt, Shirley Clarke’s most radical, as well as her most personal, film.
Clarke adapted her first feature, “The Connection” (1961), from a stage play and her second, “The Cool World” (1962), from a novel. The text for “Portrait of Jason” was to be a person — the 42-year-old hustler, hanger-on, and would-be cabaret performer who called himself Jason Holliday. That Jason (née Aaron Payne) was black, gay, and apparently shameless made him an all the more intriguing objet trouvé; that Clarke was following a trail recently blazed by Andy Warhol made her notion of a movie in which a “found” personality would riff for the camera in real time all the more au courant.
The most resonant of the 70-minute talkies produced by the Warhol factory in the mid ’60s at a rate of one per week were, in effect, portraits of charismatic or loquacious (and sometimes drug-driven) personalities, notably the beautiful ex-debutante Edie Sedgwick. The precursor for these, Ken Jacobs’s 1962 found-footage portrait of Jack Smith, “Blonde Cobra,” was hardly known outside the underground but by 1966, several Warhol talkies — “My Hustler” and “Chelsea Girls” — were playing in uptown movie-house theaters and attracting mainstream media attention.
“Portrait of Jason,” which was shot, over the course of a single grueling session at Clarke’s penthouse at the Chelsea Hotel, on the night of December 2-3, 1966 (less than three months after “Chelsea Girls” had its sensational premiere) could have been named “My Hustler at the Chelsea.” At the same time, Clarke brought a racial component to the Warhol formula and by compelling her subject to perform on film for 12 hours, considerably upped the existential ante. Jason is initially charming and quite hilarious but, drinking heavily and goaded by the off-screen director and, especially her openly adversarial partner, the actor Carl Lee (Cowboy in “The Connection”), Jason’s brittle narcissism cracks to reveal an abyss of tearful self-loathing. Or does it?
“Portrait of Jason” reeks of ambivalence (in subsequent interviews Clarke would describe her intense negative feelings towards Jason) and it also inspires it. Audiences and critics were divided when the movie had its premiere at the confrontational 1967 New York Film Festival that opened with the scandalous “Battle of Algiers” and closed with the excoriating denunciation of U.S. foreign policy, “Far From Vietnam.” Viewers could not determine whether Clarke was exploiting Jason’s hunger for recognition or if Jason was exploiting Clarke’s need to make a movie. Forty-six years later, one can say the use was mutual but Clarke got much more out of the deal. Filmmaker trumps filmed. Where even “Little Edie” Beale got a few nightclub gigs on the basis of “Grey Gardens” (one of “Jason”’s verité descendants), Jason Holliday never crossed over, although shortly after the movie he did cut an unreleased comedy LP. Meanwhile, Clarke, her underground bona fides established, toured college campuses with “Jason” (if not Jason), which is how I first saw the movie as an undergraduate at SUNY Binghamton in 1968.
It disturbed me then and, seen again last week, it disturbs me still. Jason is a gifted raconteur with an undisciplined act. His stories are fascinating and funny, if increasingly painful, and he has more than one spritz worthy of Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce. But, falling back on impersonations, he camps rather than performs. There’s no question that there would be a place for him in today’s show biz universe, still, as Carl unkindly but precisely puts it, “There’s only one role you can do Jason, and that’s you.” That, of course, is the movie’s point.
It was said, back in the day, that cinema was truth 24 times a second and, more self-reflexive than most documentaries, “Portrait of Jason” is obsessed with authenticity — its own and Jason’s. Jason is at once pathetically self-deceptive and totally honest. “I hustle… I’m a stone whore,” he says, with a big smile, by way of an introduction. Laughing throughout, he’s open about and even perversely proud of his fuck-ups until Carl calls him out and accuses him of putting on an act. But isn’t that what the filmmakers wanted? I’m sure their subject thought so. All entertainment evaporates in the supremely discomfiting last 15 minutes — the train wreck seems real. Jason (who is consistently framed with a memento mori on a shelf behind him) is not only incoherent but seemingly caged, broken down, humiliated, and more or less compelled to admit, if not take responsibility for, his failings. To what end? Is he confessing his sins?
“I’m happy about the whole thing,” is the star’s not altogether convincing last comment with reference to the movie, even as the giddy filmmaker can be heard chanting, “This is the end — it’s the end.” Well that’s certainly so, and the experience has been real. The larger truth is that Jason, who died in obscurity in 1998, and “Jason,” opening Friday at the IFC in New York, still have things to teach us about the nature of race, sex, and success in America.