Shot in the living room of Shirley Clarke’s Chelsea Hotel penthouse from 9:00pm to 9:00am one December night in 1966, Portrait of Jason captures a slice of American hustler and aspiring performer Jason Holliday (né Aaron Payne, renamed and thus “recreated”). Holliday boozily fiddles with cigarettes, occasionally to the point of collapse, while detailing his tumultuous home life, gay subcultures, and 1960s racial and class politics. Despite his lax, feathery approach, Holliday is a raw wound, buried in quippy self-creation myths: Jason as bullshitter, cabaret performer, houseboy, sex worker, pill-popper, Black gay man in a pre-Stonewall, peak-Civil Rights America.
Clarke’s work frequently involves illusory motion, wherein still, inanimate objects are given life through camerawork, the sharp opposite of Portrait of Jason, where a fixed camera foregrounds Holliday’s eccentricities—pouring himself into corners of the frame, reclining, walking the room with purpose and irritation. It’s a vérité method of blocking which asks us, how captivating can one stranger be? How generous? As Holliday oscillates in and out of focus, through reel changes and offscreen provocations, he gesturally welcomes an audience.
“I had every intention of having a climax of something taking place… 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.” SHIRLEY CLARKE
The ambit of Clarke’s camera has been fairly interrogated. The question of whether she is exploiting a tortured, marginalized man or platforming and fulfilling his unmet desire to be seen (or both, simultaneously) is continually raised. The trilateral agreement between subject, documenter, and viewer hinges on Holliday’s theatricality and largesse, his willingness to produce more speech—whether we are watching a reliable narrator recounting an honest, holistic past is almost irrelevant; Holliday’s determinedly opaque mythology is hypnotic and self-canonizing.
An American indie filmmaker, Clarke began directing choreography films in the 1950s after emerging in the New York avant-garde modern dance scene. Her 1959 documentary short Skyscraper—about the construction of the 666 Fifth Avenue high-rise—received an Academy Award nomination, after which time she went on to make her most acclaimed features, The Connection (1961), The Cool World (1963), and Portrait of Jason (1967). Clarke’s approach to cinematic nonfiction, as both critical of and practicing vérité, has reshaped the independent documentary genre at large.
Text written by Saffron Maeve. Special thanks to Milestone Films and Kino Lorber. You can find more films by Shirley Clarke on Kino Now.