Bright Lights Film Journal

Dancing and Dirging with Jason: On Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason

“Going on stage would’ve been awfully redundant”

When Jason Holiday sings “The Music That Makes Me Dance” from Funny Girl in the middle of Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (Film-Makers Cooperative, 1967), he does it with such show-stopping brio that you can practically hear the orchestral accompaniment going on in his head. Standing, sometimes swaying to this silent music in a room that quite aptly resembles the office of a semi-retired New England psychiatrist, he sings straight into the camera and, like any other seasoned performer, gives it everything he’s got, belting the song as if it represented the chance of a lifetime.

Which in a way it does. For the last ten years he’s had this elaborate scheme for a nightclub act he’s been toting around. Most of that time he’s used it as something to gab on about compulsively, or as an effective pretext on which he can skillfully hustle money out of just about everyone he comes into contact with. When Clarke — along with Carl Lee, an old pal of Jason’s and co-author of Clarke’s The Cool World — filmed him talking ceaselessly one night, Jason appeared ready to pursue it in earnest, spending half the money from a bank loan he’d recently conned some doctor into co-signing to hire an accompanist. It’s obvious from the way he talks with such intention about working nightclubs and about the details of his act as he’s mapped it out in his head that he sees his ambition as reflecting the best part of himself, and he can’t wait for the day when he finally gets to go out there and do it in public.

Until that day came, Shirley Clarke gave him as good an opportunity to perform as any.

Portrait of Jason, for those like me who weren’t around back in ’67 for the halcyon days of the New American Cinema, is a black-and-white, 16mm, 105-minute film wherein a bespectacled, aging African-American hustler, looking dapper in a white shirt and blue blazer, rehearses his life, times, ambitions, and philosophies of livin’ before a single camera that does its best to keep up with him and often succeeds quite beautifully (Jason’s rap does occasionally exceed the amount of film in the camera, causing a blank screen from time to time). It’s been described as so many things through the years that one possible explanation for the persistent unavailability — except for a rare, out-of-print VHS tape from Mystic Fire Video — of a film so exceptional has been its unusual way of eluding all categorization. It isn’t a documentary, really; it isn’t even a “cinema verite” exercise (it’s been referred to as both repeatedly, in some instances by critics who are halfway perceptive). Many of the newspaper and magazine reviewers who covered it during its initial run wrote it off as yet another low-budget Underground freak show, the kind of movie Andy Warhol and Jack Smith and the Kuchar brothers might have conjured if they’d all somehow hooked up at the right time (a prospect as forbidding as it is intriguing). Portrait of Jason isn’t really an interview either, since the closest thing to a coherent question throughout is Carl Lee’s repeated prodding of Jason from just off-camera (“Hey, Jason . . . tell the Cop story”; “Talk about Brother Tough”). Waxing poetic, Clarke’s Film-makers’ Cooperative confrere Storm de Hirsch called it a “bold, incisive choreography, a dance of the human ego in all its ugly, beautiful nakedness.” Ingmar Bergman simply said it was the most fascinating movie he’d ever seen (Bergman, of course, was checking in from Sweden, where black homosexual male prostitutes with a compulsive showbiz bent have never exactly been . . . underfoot).

If Portrait of Jason is anything we can give a name to, it is a record of a performance, a performance ably assisted by a filmmaker who most assuredly knew what, and who, she was filming.

Having started her professional life as a dancer, and building a number of her earliest short films around the art, the phenomenon of performance and its endless manifestations had always lain near the heart of Shirley Clarke’s filmmaking (everybody acts out in her work to one degree or another). Her first feature, The Connection (1962), was essentially a somewhat modified performance by The Living Theater of playwright Jack Gelber’s lower-depths stage exercise in junkie tourism, containing in its theatrical performance a few sterling musical ones featuring Freddie Redd and Jackie McLean. Another kind of performance is pivotal to The Cool World, her phenomenal 1964 quasi-documentary about Harlem street life that caused white, poverty-chic audiences and critics to go weak at the knees for all the wrong reasons. In that film, her protagonist’s self-deluding criminality is touched off by nothing less than the jacked-up rhetorical stylings of a charismatic Black Muslim street orator. Three years later, Clarke constructed her next film around a subject who seemed to embody so many varieties of performing within the same skin that getting him on camera was almost a compulsory act.

As a performer in his own Portrait, Jason Holiday is prodigious, altogether tireless. Despite his ironic refrain of “I’ll never tell,” the only evident limits on what he’s willing to recount are fixed on how much anyone wants to listen. There’s his years of playing Houseboy to wealthy, dysfunctional white couples on Nob Hill in San Francisco, for instance. Or his other, more durable vocation as a male trollop, a “stone whore,” in his words, “balling my way from Maine to Mexico, and I ain’t gotta dollar to show for it,” There’s his turbulent childhood as Aaron Payne, an almost militant sissy living in the same house with a father who was anything but. And, of course, there’s that nightclub act. All of it is baseline raw material for the film, and he knows it.

After 105 minutes (out of nearly 12 hours filming) that sees him consuming virtually an entire quart of vodka — not to mention a joint the size of a magic marker — Jason never ceases to act out his life for Shirley Clarke. Sure, the booze and the weed might slow him down a little bit, help shift the act into a minor key, but his capacity for self-dramatization never lags, and the spirit with which he acts it out for the camera — whether he’s raging or crying or brutally indicting himself for an evil-minded, mendacious fraud — only intensifies as the film runs through the camera. It would be baldly, cruelly inexact and easy to dismiss Jason as a benchmark drama queen as some did at the time, or a haunted, tragic figure symbolic of . . . everything. In the first place, drama queens are rarely this compelling. What’s more, Jason is far too intelligent and too keenly awake to the absurdities in his life for his moments of excessive self-loathing to be anything more than another emotional hue on his palette, let alone the remnant of a wholly uncommon tragedy. In a very narrow sense, one could say his entire life has been one glorious hustle, a performance for the ages in which he takes a justifiable pride and finds a twisted but no less deserved dignity. He’s his own living, breathing club date.

Going on stage, while it could have put some much-needed bread in his pocket, would’ve been awfully redundant.