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