‘Portrait of Jason’: Performance, Expression, and Art

It’s a funny feeling, having a picture made about you. I feel sort of grand sitting here carrying on. People are gonna be digging you, or I’ll be criticized, I’ll be loved or hated — what difference does it make? I am doing what I want to do and it’s a nice feeling that somebody is taking a picture of it. This is a picture I can save forever.

— Jason Holliday, Portrait of Jason

“They think you’re just a dumb, stupid colored boy, and you’re trying to get a few dollars and they’re just gonna use you as a joke, And it gets to be a joke sometimes, who’s using who, you know. As long as they pay enough, whatever they want me to do, I’ll do, but it gets to be ridiculous.” Jason Holliday’s assessment comes early in Portrait of Jason, and seems an extension of what he’s been talking about to that point, what it means to him to be a houseboy and a hustler. But further reflecton– further assessment, if you will — might give pause.

Even apart from the vernacular sentence structure, the shifting objects and subjects, the pronouns in flux, what Jason says here seems an aptly untidy assessment of the film as much as his experience, as these are or may be the same thing at this moment. Still more reflection might lead to another set of questions, having to do with what movies can do, how they might affect not just your understanding of a world or events or subjects, but also of yourself. For if it does nothing else, Portrait of Jason throws a serious wrench into your own ability to assess.

One starting point for dealing with this wrench is the film’s reputation. Famously disappeared for decades, Shirley Clarke’s movie has made its way back into theaters courtesy of Milestone Films‘, Project Shirley. To an extent the production and exhibition saga shapes its appeal and controversy: filmed over 12 hours in Clarke’s apartment at the Hotel Chelsea, the conversation with Jason Holliday was then assembled into a feature length film, sometimes called verite and other times not. The process of labeling is itself part of the film’s legacy, for such process has as much to do with changes in expectations and perceptions over time, as it does with how films are made, framed, and marketed.

And so, as Portrait of Jason has been variously understood as a sympathetic or exploitative representation of a black gay hustler in 1966 New York, an authentic depiction of a difficult experience and a sensational reimagining of same. It might be a canny collaboration of filmmaker and subject, a contest of wills: Was Clarke trying to “get him drunk?” Was Holliday aware of her ideas and if so was he playing along or resisting? If not, was she aware of what she was doing? All of these possibilities and others have been raised regarding the movie, all helping to sustain its seeming transparency or its mystery, its off-putting difficulties or its seductive charms. That none of these seems resolved now, 46 years after its initial release, is itself a remarkable achievement — if that’s the right word.

Indeed, the right word is hard to come by when talking about Portrait of Jason. Certainly, such complexity is not unique to this movie, but it does raise questions more insistently than many others might. In part, it has to do with the status of the film as documentary (or not), and the inclination to impute particular sorts of intention to documentary makers. That Clarke tended to cross lines between documentary and fiction filmmaking is well known. These lines can be differently defined, now and in the ’60s when she and also when Andy Warhol, Bill Jersey, Melvin Van Peebles, and Jim McBride were working, all artists who made a point of challenging generic definitions and also, what’s real and what’s not), doesn’t mean that makers, viewers, and distributors don’t make assumptions. It does mean, frustratingly or happily, depending on how you think about the world and your place in it, that those assumptions tend to say more about people making them or cultures producing them than about the objects of them.

One major assumption is that viewers might suss out a filmmaker’s intention, that you can know what Shirley Clarke meant. It’s an idea supported by interviews and other supportive promotional material, or by film classes and the internet. This is, on one level, the job of any reader, professional or not. But these are notoriously vexed steps along searches for meaning: even as Clarke told said she wanted to show “what’s really happening on the scene of young Americans,” it’s hard even to say what that can mean, “what’s really happening.” Is this a matter of accuracy? Affiliation? Description? Maybe it’s approximation or representation. Maybe it’s delivering to expectations. Maybe it’s contradicting them.

Clarke’s performance is thus of a piece with Holiday’s, especially if you wonder who uses whom, when and to what ends. Holliday’s performance raises questions concerning the very basic dynamic between all artists and their subjects, questions that are abundantly, sometimes excruciatingly, visible in Portrait of Jason. It can be hard to watch Holliday as he drinks and laughs and performs himself, as he plays flamboyant and expresses his desires, describes the anguish, trauma, and manipulation he’s survived and the manipulations he’s devised to do so.

Holliday’s performance is extraordinary, certainly, named immediately as such when he explains the origins of his name and his aspirations to perform on stage (or for a camera), as well as his several stories about performers he knows. His performance is moving and grim, entertaining and alarming. It is also, vividly, a performance, directly addressed to the off-screen Clarke, as well as at least two other crewmembers and men in the room. As much as this address appears to be so directed, however, it is equally addressed to the camera, partly because of what Holliday says but also because of the film’s structure, the result of editing, blurring in and out of focus (as the camera operator changes reels), the use of black screens and sound as transitions, and the assembly of stories into what may or may not be a faux chronology of the night’s activities.

The performance can be assessed, as Holliday does, as a kind of ongoing hustle, his conscious use of his audience. And it might also be ascribed to the filmmaker’s intention, her use of her subject. It might be constructed here for the film, or it might be the film. And that’s the enduring unknown of Portrait of Jason, whether and how it’s a portrait of a person or a hustler, an artist or a self, and whether it gives the lie to “intention” as a legible, assessable story. All of these possibilities remain in perpetual, alluring play, Clarke’s use of Holliday and vice versa, the film’s use of you and vice versa.

It’s always the case that such relations — among artist, subject, and viewer — are informed by what this movie makes explicit, that is, race and class, gender and age, and any other means of identifications, positions that make for assumptions and assessments. This movie makes it impossible to read any of these straight. That is its genius and its challenge, how it upsets and also reflects what you think you know.

RATING 10 / 10