PRINT November 2013


Still from Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, 1967, 16 mm transferred to 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 105 minutes.

An identity is questioned only when it is menaced, as when the mighty begin to fall, or when the wretched begin to rise, or when the stranger enters the gates, never, thereafter, to be a stranger. . . . Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self; in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned.

—James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work

“MY NAME IS JASON HOLLIDAY.” A brief pause. “My name is Jason Holliday.” A laugh. “My name is Aaron Payne.”

So begins Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967), an extended interview—shaved down from an incredible twelve hours of raw footage—with its eponymous subject: a gay African American man and brilliant raconteur. Recently restored by Milestone Films, the new 35-mm print premiered earlier this year at the Sixty-Third Berlin International Film Festival and has received glowing notices in conjunction with its subsequent theatrical runs. Clarke was a stalwart figure of underground film and the only woman among the founding members of the New American Cinema Group, which included Emile de Antonio, Gregory Markopoulos, and Jonas Mekas, among others. With Bridges-Go-Round (1958), she made a city symphony set in its initial version to the sounds of pioneering electronic composers Louis and Bebe Barron, while her feature The Cool World (1963), about the street life of Harlem teens, helped advance a realist idiom that remains one of the hallmarks of American independent cinema. Yet Portrait of Jason is a unique entry in her filmography.

Like Jean Eustache’s Numéro Zéro (1971) or Wang Bing’s Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007), the work belongs to a curious genre of nonfiction, one that was surveyed in 2011 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. These are films that focus singularly on their respective protagonists—films that are, strictly, all talking head. Unencumbered by the now-clichéd documentary trope of cutaways to archival footage or related illustration, we sit in the dark with Jason for nearly two hours. Sharing the vantage point of the filmmakers, we’re similarly implicated in his testimony, but we don’t speak. Luckily, born with the gift of gab, and aided by a bottle of whiskey and a few joints, Jason picks up the slack, pacing and preening in a corner of Clarke’s room at the Chelsea Hotel. There is little escape for the audience (not that we’d want one), nor, perhaps most crucially, is there any escape for Jason himself, a self-described nervous wreck.

In a fitting marriage of form and content, in which the latter never fully coheres, Jason begins as a blur and pulses intermittently in and out of focus throughout the course of the picture. When asked by Clarke early on what he does for a living, he succinctly responds, giggling: “I hustle. . . . I’m a stone whore, and I’m not ashamed of it.” Portrait of Jason might be the ultimate film about hustling and being hustled. It becomes clear that Jason’s identity is assumed in more ways than one. The piece was made at a time when cinema verité was first ascendant as a documentary mode; yet, as has often been noted, Clarke’s film simultaneously adopts the fly-on-the-wall style of the era and throws its claims of veracity into radical disarray, via both the filmmakers’ audible queries and Jason’s own slippery narrative. He spins hilarious yarns—recounting affairs gone sour, his days of indolent splendor as a houseboy in San Francisco and New York, how he raised money for a nightclub act that he has endlessly deferred—but eventually they start to unravel.

Prompts from the filmmakers (Clarke’s sometime boyfriend and Jason’s longtime acquaintance, the actor Carl Lee, was also involved) are amiable at first. “Hey Jason,” Lee asks offscreen, “tell that cop story.” Jason replies enthusiastically: After spotting some drag queens on Fourteenth Street that he’d originally met in prison, Jason sees a nearby policeman ask, “Why do you girls always do this?,” snapping his fingers to demonstrate. Without missing a beat, one of the group sassily pops her fingers back in response, slicing through the air—“I’ll never tell.” By the last roll, however, the tone from the other side of the camera has become more hostile. Jason’s mendacity eventually catches up with him, calling into question the hour of oration we’ve just seen, and he’s berated by Lee: “Why’d you do that to me? Rotten queen.” Tears well up in Jason’s eyes, but he soon gives up on that act as well. To borrow from Jason’s elaborate lexicon, things get . . . confused. Are Jason’s theatrics for us, or for himself? Who’s bullshitting whom? Are we being had or entertained, or has Jason shifted around the terms of his own identity so often that he’s found it illegible? Maybe all are true, or none. As one character puts it in The Connection (1962)—Clarke’s adaptation of a Living Theatre play about junkies waiting for a fix and a filmmaker who’s trying to make a documentary about them—“The minute I put a camera on you, you change!”

Still from Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, 1967, 16 mm transferred to 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 105 minutes.

These are some of the film’s central concerns, but not the only ones. Portrait of Jason has long been acknowledged as a subterranean classic of queer cinema—replete with emphatic swishes and arched wrists, it is an exemplary study in the somatic vocabulary of pre-Stonewall faggotry—but over the summer it was given a fresh, necessary, and unexpected context. Included as part of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s series “A Time for Burning: Cinema of the Civil Rights Movement,” it was screened between works such as Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand’s incendiary Native Land (1942) and footage from the 1963 March on Washington, thereby drawing out vital if relatively overlooked elements of the film: its anger and its politics. As he smiles through stories of on-the-job racism, queer-baiting cops, and beatings from his father during a childhood where he preferred skipping rope to playing tough, Jason’s rage is sublimated. In a frequently exaggerated and ironic manner, he acts out remembered interactions with his employers, playing all the parts, camping up his miseries. This maneuver, however, isn’t merely masking his wounds; he’s mercilessly ridiculing a world of white supremacy, homophobia, and nine-to-five drudgery that would so often seek to demean him. “It gets next to ya,” Jason explains, “that you’re living some bullshit that really shouldn’t exist, but you’re saying, ‘Fuck it. This is my life,’ you know, and I am going to swing with it.” He continues with a triumphant declaration that could make for an apposite movie tagline—“I’m the bitch!”—showing us that it’s possible to game a system even if it’s always been rigged against you, even if it menaces you to the point of cracking up. Susan Sontag famously wrote that “camp is a tender feeling.” Perhaps, but sometimes it’s revenge.

Watching Portrait of Jason again, in the wake of all this renewed interest, it now strikes me as required viewing for young gay men, because it reminds one of a collective absence that is infrequently discussed yet often acutely felt. Between the time of this monologue and the present lie the plague years that vanished a generation and broke a link to the past. Still, someone has to teach the children. We’re searching for a lost language, a code for which this film could be the key; our task at hand is to decipher a history of sensibility and struggle that otherwise would have been passed on to us more directly. We have so many questions—about the treacherous business of self-knowledge, about the perils and pleasures of getting a job and not doing it, of finding love and fleeing from it—and we might look to Jason for answers, but he’ll never tell.

Thomas Beard is a Founder and Director of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, New York.