In anticipation of the upcoming 2015 Toronto Hot Docs International Festival of Documentary Cinema, herewith is a review of the Milestone Film and Video Blu-Ray of their Shirley Clarke restoration series featuring one of the greatest documentaries ever made: Portrait of Jason (screened during the 2013 Hot Docs festival) and now available to own. See this important work NOW and possess it FOREVER.
Ingmar Bergman proclaimed Portrait of Jason as being “the most extraordinary film I’ve ever seen in my life.” Its first screening in 1967 included an audience of Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, Andy Warhol, Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and Terry Southern.
In spite of this, decades passed, yielding little more than a film that disappeared - so cast away that the original elements were thought to be lost, thoroughly and utterly untraceable. The prints that existed, crude 35mm blow-ups to begin with, were so worn and scratched, they were beyond salvation.
After a painstaking search that took years, Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, God's Gifts to saving what was thought to be unsalvageable, eventually found and identified mislabeled “outtakes” as the original 16mm inter-positive negative of Portrait of Jason.
For this, we must all feel beholden to these efforts.
Portrait of Jason is with us now and here to stay.
Portrait of Jason (1967)
Dir. Shirley Clarke
Starring: Jason Holliday (aka Aaron Payne)
Review By Greg Klymkiw
To be gay in America right now shouldn't be so fraught with hate and invective, but attitudes and legislation in many pockets of the Red, White and Blue still seem so frustrating and backward. As such, gay bashing and murder are still a real threat.
To be Black in America right now is to also be a target of hate-filled repressive castigation, often ending in murder at the hands of racist police.
To be Black and Gay in America in 2015 - well, let's not even go there - especially not states like Alabama, Indiana, Mississippi or, say, Arkansas, to name but a few. Stay away. Stay far away. Don't believe for a moment that any useless amendments (or lack thereof) made to their boneheadedly hate-filled legislation will do anything to stem the tide of hatred.
Shirley Clarke's Portrait of Jason, a stunning, groundbreaking feature documentary has always held a place of importance in both cinema and, most notably, in its power and insight into what it must have been to be Black and Gay in American during the 1960s. First released almost fifty years ago, it's a window into racial and sexual politics as presented by one of the most fascinating subjects one will find in that period of documentary film. Clarke's picture will indeed have equal resonance in today's era of intolerance; maybe even more so, in light of the aforementioned current conditions plaguing much of America, land of the not-so Free.
Restored and released by the visionary Milestone Films and Video, the film's importance to the art of film and gay history can't be stressed enough. Current attitudes towards both the gay and of-colour communities that still exist in so-called "progressive" societies means, due to Milestone's commitment to saving, preserving and showcasing forgotten and/or lost works, that this vital film can now be experienced by whole new generations of audiences all over the world and, no doubt, for generations to come.
Portrait of Jason is the essential cinéma vérité doc that focuses upon the irreverent gay American houseboy, hustler and wannabe cabaret perfomer, Jason Holiday. Shot over the course of one very long night in Clarke's home in the legendary Chelsea Hotel in New York, the picture is essentially a monologue performed by her old friend as he tells the story of his extraordinary life with equal parts humour and sadness.
Captured in glorious standard-frame black and white 16mm film stock, the camera never leaves the realm of Jason save for cuts or fades to black and occasionally, to sound with no picture when the camera needs to change film rolls. This real exigency of production led to a superb, imaginative editing approach to the picture. Clarke uses the blacks as breathtaking exclamatory bridges between the various segments, which provide an indelible series of transition points in the "narrative" flow of the work itself.
Stylish, dapper and adorned in his trademark heavy-black-framed coke-bottle lenses, often armed with a fortifying drink in one hand and cigarette in the other, Jason recounts both his philosophies of life and extraordinary life story. For good measure, he tosses in plenty of hilarious impersonations and jokes. These are the bountiful maraschino cherries on the - ahem - ever-so delectable Chocolate Holliday Sundae.
His tales begin entertainingly and amusingly enough, but as the film progresses, Jason adds copious reefer ingestion and booze swilling by the bucketful, until the whole affair slowly unravels into a veritable Walpurgisnacht.
What we learn during the 105-minute confession seems mostly truthful, albeit tempered by Jason's abilities as a born raconteur. He gives us snippets of his childhood, his relationship with parents and other family, in addition to friends, employers and lovers, life on the streets, in the baths, in the bars and in the homes of those whom he worked for as a houseboy" (and the various permutations - mostly implied - of what that entailed). He shares his secrets in the arts of hustling, cajoling, stealing, "borrowing" and making his way through life with as little effort as possible.
"I'm lazy," he declares, "I've always really wanted to jump into it, but I kept avoiding it somehow. I always made an excuse for accepting other people's problems and putting down my own. I always became this one or that one's flunky - anything to keep from facing what I really wanted to do and now, I want to do it."
Doing it won't be as easy as he thinks.
His first order of business is a moniker makeover. Jason's given name not only brought back "unpleasant memories", but led to states of deep "despression." Changing his given name of Aaron Payne to the decidedly flamboyant "Jason Holliday" not only helped to erase (or at least suppress) the past, but ultimately gave him the strength to pursue his dreams.
"If the name rings a bell to you, makes you feel well, then take the name," he states emphatically when describing his epiphanies in San Francisco's famed Gay Mecca of Castro Street, a magical place where he met way too many cool "cats" with "hip" names, that he decided his own rebirth was in order.
Hence, a new name.
"I was created in San Francisco," he says with pride, then, with a smile, "and San Francisco is the place to be created in. Believe me!"
By the time Jason is in front of Clarke's camera, he's left San Francisco to be back in his beloved hometown of New York. Here, Jason hopes to rekindle his dream of being a nightclub performer. As Clarke's film proves, he's imbued with more than enough talent to do so and most notably, he's certainly not without material. However, he has one hurdle to overcome - not wanting to work. He relays an anecdote about a close friend who works as a teacher in the public school system; she's so devoted to teaching that after work, she goes from house to house in her neighbourhood teaching kids who either don't go to school or need the kind of additional tutelage and attention they don't get in school. What she says to Jason is as inspiring to him as it is a tool in which to morph his notion of hard work into doing as little as possible.
"One day she said something to me that was really hip. 'Jason', she said, 'everyone in New York has a gimmick. Mine is teaching school.' And from her I learned that mine was hustling."
Jason, of course, prides himself on the diverse nature of his skill. "I have more than one hustle. I'll come on as a maid or a butler; anything to keep from punching the clock from 9-to-5, because every time I've punched that clock it's been a job that's such a drag it makes you sick, and what I really wanna do is what I'm doing now [in front of the camera] and that is to perform."
In the same breath, he subtly drops the aforementioned subject of "performing" and brilliantly segues into a whole new patter. Well, it's an old patter, really, but Jason's crafty enough to know that everything old becomes new again. "I'm scared of responsibility," he continues. "I'm scared of myself, because I'm a pretty frightening cat, as people who know me will tell you." He's quick to elaborate: "I don't mean any harm, but the harm is done. A friend of mine keeps telling me that I'm always going to find a way of fouling it up, but I'm always trying to get in there and pitch." Then, just as smoothly and brilliantly, like he's been doing standup comedy for decades, he segues into a very telling, but funny story about seeing a psychiatrist:
"These head shrinkers are very interesting cats. Sometimes they let you talk. They keep wanting to know who you sleep with. Someone asked me, 'What do you do? ...Do you please them?' I say, "If I don't please them, it's because I'm not trying."
THEN, he uses this to leap into a riff on sex:
"I've spent so much of my life being sexy, as you can see!" he cheekily exclaims with the flourish of a runway model's twirl of the head, until, with his ever-impeccable timing, the requisite self-deprecation and a winning smile, he returns to the theme of his sloth: "Lord knows, I haven't gotten anything else done."
Jason is clearly gifted and it's to Clarke's credit that she's made this film if only to capture Holliday's crazy genius and by extension, fashioning a macrocosmic view of a life and lifestyle which feels at once, locked in time and yet, replete with resonance to our modern world.
He describes one of his employers as "a tall, lanky, sad looking blonde from Alabama." With giddy delivery he recalls, "She'd say 'Jason, fix me some of that chicken.' They always want chicken, cuz, of course, all coloured folks know how to fix chicken, so I'd be in the kitchen, frying the ass off this chicken, 'Yas'm, I'd say.'" He then takes a deeply racist slur and turns it into a joke: "One time she says, 'You know Jason, I never really much liked niggers, but you're the first one I ever really cared for.' And I said, 'Well that's very sweet of you, I guess that means I should have this job for a very long time."
As masterful as Jason's delivery is, it's tempered with seep sadness: "I think as a house boy I really suffered" he admits with genuine sadness before flipping it around with: "But this hasn't all been a waste. They think you're just a dumb, stupid little coloured boy who's trying to get a few dollars. They think they're gonna use you as a joke, but the real joke is this: who's using who?"
By expressing deep pain over the prejudicial views assailing him at every turn, he's clearly able to turn the tables on his oppressors. Though it doesn't seem like mere rationalization, one gets the sense that the tit-for-tat is probably more one-sided; that the notion of empowerment is imbued with a high degree of self-delusion. This surely speaks to anyone and everyone who has been the target of deep-seeded hatred and sought to fight back, only to find that they're using a shield to repel the blows that in fact, have virtually no genuine resonance upon the attacker.
Clarke deftly takes hours upon hours of footage and recreates a powerful dramatic arc in which Jason, by his words and actions, eventually takes his shield and transforms it into an ostrich hole of drug and alcohol abuse, and in so doing, Clarke captures an encapsulation of generations upon generations of prejudicial abuse and its effects upon even the most accomplished and intelligent human beings who were, and frankly, continue to be targets of ignorance.
This has got to stop. One hopes a fifty-year-old film will have the requisite power to do so.
As important as the film itself, is its restoration. Milestone Film and Video's work earned the company's founders Amy Heller and Dennis Doros a Special Award from the 2012 New York Film Critics Circle for preserving "the work of pioneering indie filmmaker Shirley Clarke." The greatness of Clarke's Portrait of Jason cannot be underestimated, nor, frankly, can the painstaking work of Heller and Doros.
The film must be seen by as wide an audience as possible and the Milestone Film and Video Blu-ray should be in every home of anyone committed to great cinema as well as work that stands as a testament to those who fought, lost and won in the battle for dignity and the most basic human rights.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars (for both the film and the stunning Milestone Film and Video Blu-Ray)
The Milestone Film and Video Blu-Ray of Portrait of Jason includes: Where's Shirley? (25 mins) a lovely, heartfelt documentary from Milestone's original crowd funding plea to have the film restored and detailing a bevy of important information about the painstaking efforts to bring the film back into the public eye, The Lost Confrontation (7 mins), Jason in Color! (2:30 mins), Trailer (2 mins), Jason: Before and After (1:30 mins), Butterfly (1967, 3:34 mins) Shirley Clarke in Underground New York (1967, 9:37 mins), Jason Unleashed (Audio outtakes. 35 mins), Pacifica Radio Interview with Shirley Clarke (1967, 53 mins), The Jason Holiday Comedy Album (1967, 54:00 mins, audio) and SDH Subtitles
Read the original Film Corner crowd funding plea for the film's restoration in 2012 HERE
Feel free to read my RAVE reviews of other great Milestone Film and Video releases: ON THE BOWERY HERE. My Review of THE DRAGON PAINTER can be read HERE. And be on the lookout for my full-length Film Corner reviews of RAGS AND RICHES: THE MARY PICKFORD COLLECTION HERE, CUT TO THE CHASE!: THE CHARLIE CHASE COLLECTION HERE and ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S "BON VOYAGE" & "ADVENTURE MALGACHE" HERE.
Don't forget you can order PORTRAIT OF JASON from the Amazon links below and in so doing, contribute to the ongoing maintenance of the Film Corner:
In USA and the rest of the WORLD - BUY Portrait of Jason - HERE!
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In the UNITED KINGDOM - BUY Portrait of Jason - HERE!