Portrait of Jason (Shirley Clarke, 1967)
Gay black conman and aspiring entertainer Jason Holliday sits before the camera in a posh Chelsea Hotel apartment getting more and more inebriated as he recounts his troubled childhood and hustling lifestyle to the interviewers, namely director Shirley Clarke and ‘Carl’ (who I later read was actor Carl Lee).
Smoking one cigarette after another (in theatrical queer style, like he does everything else), sometimes writhing emotionally about, yet always returning to the comfort of an incessant euphoric giggling, no matter if the story he tells is amusing or deeply tragic, what a fascinating figure Jason reveals himself to be.
Seemingly a man bereft of real intimacy, desperately relying on a love of attention, creating constant surface presentations of self that appear to bravely include gobs of the painful reality of his life; and, yet, also somehow managing to hide behind those coke-lensed glasses (making me think tangentially of the late great horror director George Romero, a big bear of an introverted man, who I always felt when I saw him in public was managing to remain tucked behind the rims of his overly large thick glasses, only occasionally peering out) and a lot of inebriants, Jason may seem to bare all of the details, yet it’s hard not to wonder if he has any true sense of who he is; as do his interviewers, apparently, as they grow increasingly more hostile, with Clarke and Lee surprisingly grilling him near the end of the film (as the proceedings grow even more fascinating) about past transgressions we know nothing about but that have clearly left some wounds.
Even as Jason, in an obvious alcoholic fog by this point, breaks down and weeps (while still alternately holding on to his giggling self), revealing a deep inner self-loathing (something it’s already apparent is there from the very beginning), it’s hard to tell where the honest raw truth starts and where the self-preserving narcissistic performance ends. Certainly Lee, with his harsh condemnations right up to the conclusion of the interview, doesn’t believe any of it. He only sees the con and he’s having none of it. Perhaps the most truthful thing Jason says, whether he realizes it or not, is when, his eyes filled with tears, he desperately hisses ‘Teach me! Teach me!’ to Carl, begging the contemptuous, unseen Carl to show him what actual moral behaviour is.
I haven’t seen any of the other works of noted avant-garde, experimental filmmaker Clarke (who, no surprise, came from uber-wealth – as did most of the celebrated underground figures that arose at the time – I mean, how else could you afford to live in New York while playing bohemian artist at the same time??) but this is the second time I’ve seen Portrait of Jason (a few years back at the Cinémathèque Québécoise on tattered 16mm, and now as the month’s entry in the always reliable DeuXX program at Cinéma Moderne) and while I can’t quite accept it as the work of ‘cinema verité’ that many critics at the time ascribed to it (I mean, ultimately, it’s an interview), it’s a fascinating glimpse at a multi-faceted figure. This simple interview with a very complex figure ends up a meditation on many things, but it seems mostly about how truthful any of us are, or can be, to ourselves or to anyone else.
I was interested to learn from the introduction to the film that Jason Holliday apparently mustered up a one man show at some point that was recorded on video. Couldn’t find it on youtube but I’d love to track that one down and see what further it reveals.