Portrait of Jason
November 26, 2020
1 Hr., 47 Mins.
ust because something sounds simple to achieve doesn’t always mean it actually will be. What the 1967 documentary Portrait of Jason wants to achieve is particularly ambitious. Before production, its director, Shirley Clarke, mapped out a way — a simple way — to plausibly realize her objective. The goal of the movie, which is for the most part a feature-length, roaming monologue by Jason Holliday, a Black, gay,
middle-aged hustler and aspiring nightclub entertainer, is to capture “the essence” of its subject. “I was going to let Jason do whatever he wanted for as long as I could, and then I was going to challenge him to come clean, tell the truth,” Clarke recalled in a 1983 interview.
How do you capture the essence of a man — render his most accurate portrait on film? The route Clarke and her camera crew took was straightforward. They sat with Holliday in a Chelsea hotel room for 12 hours straight, with no break, starting at 9 p.m. on a Saturday. The idea was that if Holliday told enough stories about himself (eventually “running out”), if Holliday responded to enough prompts from Clarke and her co-conspirators, if he drank enough, if the strenuous filming window got to his head enough, then Holliday would eventually let his guard down and reveal to the audience the “real” him. “Jason Holliday” is itself something of an adopted persona — he was born Aaron Payne. Throughout the movie, we hear interjections from Clarke. Lurking behind the camera, she nudges her subject to “tell the truth.” Theirs is a familiar relationship. Holliday had cleaned Clarke’s house a few times for work, and she had lent him money before to help him see through his artistic ambitions.
Holliday is immediately charming. One can see why a filmmaker would take an interest in him. With aplomb, he can rejigger a sad story into something darkly funny, and tell it with evocative detail. He theatrically cackles infectiously and often — almost as punctuation. In the course of the film, Holliday will discuss his abusive childhood, his work in his early adult life as a “houseboy” for wealthy white women, his experiences as a sex worker, his friendship with Miles Davis. He gives us a taste of his in-development nightclub act, replete with imitations of Mae West and Scarlett O’Hara. He sings. As noted by Senses of Cinema, Portrait of Jason is one part screen test, one part endurance test. The warmth of the spotlight gets progressively harsher.
What, exactly, does Clarke have in mind when she envisions authenticity? Does she want Holliday to finally break down — admit to her, while she’s licking her lips, that his life is tragic, that his animatedness is a coping mechanism, that this coping mechanism is pathetic when all is said and done? Offering about two hours of this 12-hour-long session, Portrait of Jason is fascinating mostly because of its limitations and the relentless drive from Clarke to get something “good,” and what those limitations and those directorial manipulations birth. Is it possible to offer an audience a true portrait of anyone? When there is a camera in the room, there will always be an element of performance. And as long as you are interacting with someone or multiple someones any time, any place, you are going to be performing for them, too. Can you locate the person behind an image — assuming that the image one conveys somehow isn't authentic — by parsing 12 hours of footage down into two? Is alcohol an effective truth serum?
Portrait of Jason is a compelling exploration of the fallacy of locating real, unadorned truth through a subjective art like the movies. It’s also a riveting study of a man who, even when edited in a way Clarke finds suitable, is singular to us. Although Clarke and her crew might like to conflate performance with artificiality, for Jason there is always truth to be found in his performativity. The people in the room don’t seem to understand, at least not until they have spent a few hours in their experiment, that however much they think it is going to get them what they want, Holliday is not going to be so easily coaxed into the despondence they seem to be thirsting for. “You amateur cunts take notice — I’m the bitch,” he says to them with a grin.
Holliday loses some of his control toward the end of the movie, when he is so drunk and tired that he struggles to keep his eyelids up, when Clarke and others get more aggressive and confrontational to speed up the process of getting to the “real” Holliday. The aggression is, of course, genuinely hurtful to Holliday. But it’s so contrived to evoke a reaction that we almost instinctively want not to trust it — it’s so conspicuously planned. But what isn’t in Portrait of Jason? What’s astonishing about the film is how much it can reveal despite its obvious — and rampant — construction when it is pushed against enough. Even through the elision-heavy editing and Holliday’s initially, almost defensively romantic storytelling, we see so much. A