Portrait of Jason (1967)

“It only hurts when you think of it. And if you’re real, you’ll think of it a long, long time.”

Portrait of Jason Poster

Synopsis:
Filmmaker Shirley Clarke interviews a self-described gay black “hustler” (Jason Holliday) who tells countless entertaining tales of his life as a sexually voracious “houseboy” and aspiring cabaret singer.

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Review:
Shirley Clarke’s cult classic — filmed in her Hotel Chelsea apartment over the course of 12 hours — remains a uniquely structured, unexpectedly haunting entry in her oeuvre as an independent female documentarian. Without explanation or captions, the film plunges into Clarke’s talk with Jason, beginning with how he transformed from “Aaron Payne” to “Jason Holliday” with the help of a budding international spiritual organization which promotes the changing of one’s name to something more “authentic”. (As a bit of trivia, my parents joined this group at around the same time and also changed their birth names.) The film quickly moves on, however, to even more fascinating fare, as Jason, continuously drinking, begins sharing seemingly endless tales of his life as a hustler — or wait, as a houseboy? A companion? What exactly DID Jason do to earn money, and how often did this overlap with his own entertainment? Well, it turns out he did just about anything, and (supposedly) never felt bad about it:

“They think you’re just a dumb, stupid little colored boy and you’re trying to get a few dollars, and they’re gonna use you as a joke. And it gets to be a joke sometime as to who’s using who.”

The stories he has to tell are simply hilarious — at least until the hours wear on and his revelations become increasingly fraught with vulnerability (especially as Clarke’s cameraman, Carl Lee, eggs him on). You’re sure to be engaged — if not haunted, disturbed, and/or entertained — by this most unusual docu-interview.

Note: A docudrama re-imagining what might have taken place during the marathon shooting of this film has just been released; click here to read more.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A surprisingly engrossing “one man show”, covering both light-hearted and much more serious topics
    Portrait of Jason Still

Must See?
Yes, as a unique historical document by an unusual director. Listed as a film with Historical significance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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2 Responses to “Portrait of Jason (1967)”

  1. First viewing. Not must-see, though it will be of interest to those curious about its noted historical (and cultural) significance.

    Even for patient & seasoned ffs, this is not an easy watch. We are basically watching a man get drunk over a period of 12 hours. Granted, to a degree, Jason is accustomed to holding/controlling his liquor intake – so that he’s not a completely incoherent mess.

    But even when he’s more together and lucid, the viewer must pay very close attention. The way Jason narrates his life story, it becomes necessary to fill in some of the blanks of his storytelling. And there are blanks. It’s often like he’s talking in a kind of code. This is especially true when he’s forthcoming about his sexual antics with men. (I’m gay and, while listening, even I had to decipher for myself some of what he was actually talking about.) A lot of times you just want him to be clearer (but then, of course, he’s drinking and part of the deal the viewer accepts is keeping up with the stream of consciousness).

    What’s most compelling about the film is the fact that it was captured in 1966 – and, through Jason, we get some very sharp (and occasionally painful) reminders of what it was like to be lower-class, black and gay (therefore, a criminal) at that time. Possessed of what he calls “an evil nature” (which translates as extremely rebellious), Jason found himself unprepared for anything but a hand-to-mouth existence in a society that was only accepting of him because of whatever chutzpah he had (and he had plenty). He knew how to charm and that got him through doors – though he was also often abusive to (and had resentment against) those who opened those doors.

    For someone with the personality of a hustler, Jason is at least taking a real stab at no-holds-barred honesty (even if he is mostly gaga over the fact that a movie is being made of him and his life). Still, a fair amount of the film is tedious since Jason is not really getting a whole lot of guidance from the filmmaker – and, as a result, much of the film feels shapeless.

    By far, the most effective segments come when Jason discusses his parents – the mother who he holds in high esteem and the father (‘Brother Tough’) who became increasingly aware of and disturbed by the fact that his son was the polar opposite of masculine. (The stories of his beatings are, of course, unpleasant.)

    A lot of the details of his gay adventures (as I said) are muddled but he does recount one cohesive story about a big, muscled, blue-eyed blond worker for the telephone company who he lived with for a time (almost like a wife).

    Myself, I didn’t find much in the film that’s hilarious. To me it all comes across as mostly sad and pathetic.

    The hardest part of the film comes at about the last 20 minutes or so, when Jason is rather soused and is being goaded on by those behind the camera. Personally, that’s when I stopped seeing the point of the excess.

  2. Especially enjoyed reading your commentary on this one.

    “We are basically watching a man get drunk over a period of 12 hours.” Hmmm! True, but not just any man.

    “What’s most compelling about the film is the fact that it was captured in 1966 – and, through Jason, we get some very sharp (and occasionally painful) reminders of what it was like to be lower-class, black and gay (therefore, a criminal) at that time.” — TELL IT!!

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