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Peeling Away The Layers In A 'Portrait Of Jason'

Jason Holliday (nee Aaron Payne) is the soloist in front of the camera in Shirley Clarke's seminal 1967 documentary, <em>Portrait of Jason</em>.
Milestone Film
Jason Holliday (nee Aaron Payne) is the soloist in front of the camera in Shirley Clarke's seminal 1967 documentary, Portrait of Jason.

If reality TV has a redeeming value, it's that it teaches you to be suspicious of claims that you're seeing real people doing real things. This is especially so in an age when memoirs bristle with made-up events, and everyone from the Kardashians to the Obamas orchestrate their media coverage. These days, it's hard to tell whether an article, book or TV show is showing you the real person or only a performance.

The same uncertainty lies at the heart of Shirley Clarke's Portrait of Jason, an extraordinary 1967 nonfiction film that's just been rereleased in a fabulous restored version from Milestone Films. Shot over 12 hours in Clarke's apartment at New York's Chelsea Hotel, the film could hardly sound simpler: It's basically one man with a drink in his hand who talks into the camera about his life.

Yet this man is anything but ordinary — he's a loquacious 33-year-old hustler who dreams of having a nightclub act. And from the beginning, he could hardly be more complex or elusive.

He starts the movie by saying his name is Jason Holliday, which sounds rather upbeat, but we quickly learn that's not his real name — he was born Aaron Payne. And for the next 105 minutes, Jason tells you his story.

But is the drunken weeping Jason really a more authentic Jason than the laughing storyteller?"

About growing up in Trenton, N.J., where being gay was not cool. About working as a houseboy for folks who blithely called him a "spook" — he's African-American — to his face. About orgies and hustling and being locked up.

Along the way, Jason does impressions of Mae West and Katharine Hepburn, sings a number from Funny Girl and tells a hilarious story about Miles Davis. But as the hours pass, and he drinks more and more, Jason starts to melt down behind his handcuff-shaped glasses. Yet whether Jason is laughing or crying, he holds you rapt with tales that conceal as much as they reveal.

While Jason's race and sexuality made him a born outsider, Shirley Clarke was a self-made one. The daughter of wealthy New York parents, she began as a dancer but moved to nonfiction film. There was always something radical in Clarke waiting to be released, and she found it in African-American culture; she took a black lover, Carl Lee, and made groundbreaking films about junkies and gangs and jazz musicians. Her subjects reflected her own estrangement from an American mainstream that wasn't interested in them — or in her. In that sense, Portrait of Jason is a portrait of Shirley seen through the looking glass.

Clarke knew she had a mesmerizing subject in Jason, whose stories are punctuated by a laugh whose mercurial meaning — from delight to pain to impacted fury — could keep a psychology class busy for a semester. Still, she and her colleagues keep goading him to give more, to bare himself more deeply, until he eventually breaks down, offering us the naked truth of his soul — if, that is, you believe we all have a single, secret, unified self hidden by myriad social masks. But is the drunken, weeping Jason really a more authentic Jason than the laughing storyteller?

Many people think so — it's not for nothing that John Cassavetes admired the film. Yet if Clarke and Co. truly did tear off Jason's self-protective armor just to make a movie, its detractors aren't wrong to call the process queasy-making and sadistic. Documentary is nearly always exploitative, and this would be the avant-garde version of newsmen pushing cameras into the faces of grieving parents just to capture their tears.

Then again, it's not clear that Jason isn't simply performing his pain as deftly as he performed his amusement — playing the classic role of the tragic gay man. After all, he tells us early on that he's learned to hustle in many different ways.

You see, beyond its astonishingly intimate look at one man, Clarke's movie gets you thinking about essential issues that most nonfiction naively or cynically ignores. It raises profound questions about the nature of the self, about the relationship between fiction and reality, and about the way that film doesn't simply record raw truth but shapes it into something reflecting the filmmaker's vision of life.

Clarke was hip to all this, which is why the movie is titled Portrait of Jason and not simply Jason. There's a world of difference between the two — and she knew it.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.
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