Portrait of Jason (Milestone Films, NR)

portraitofjason dvdThe fallacy lies in assuming there is some absolute truth that can be captured on camera and understood by the viewer.

So many films feel like products of the Chinese menu approach to creation—select one element from column A, one from column B, and any two from columns C through E—that when something really original comes along, it sometimes seems there aren’t enough words in our shared critical vocabulary to express the difference between it and the usual run of multiplex products.

Portrait of Jason, a 1967 documentary directed by Shirley Clarke, is one of those films so far outside the mold that it’s hard to express what it’s really like. On the one hand, the film is pure simplicity: Self-described hustler, houseboy, and would-be entertainer Jason Holliday discusses his life directly to the camera, with occasional off-screen prompts by Clarke and Carl Lee. On the other hand, this is no simple autobiographical presentation, as Jason is the creation of Aaron Payne, and it becomes clear over the course of the film (which was recorded over 12 hours) that Jason (or Aaron, if you prefer) is always performing, not just when he’s doing imitations of Mae West and Butterfly McQueen.

If Jason/Aaron is always performing, then what is true in this film? That’s not a simple question, as Clarke would no doubt be the first to agree. Jason may be always performing, but that doesn’t mean his observations about race, sexuality, and class are any less true. Jason’s apparent increasing loss of control over his performance—as he becomes worn down by the long filming session, the considerable quantity of alcohol he consumed during it, and the repeated off-screen questioning (which sometimes becomes abusive)—doesn’t necessarily make his performance any more real at the end of the film than it was at the beginning. The fallacy lies in assuming there is some absolute truth that can be captured on camera and understood by the viewer, independent of human choices and interpretations.

The remarkable originality of Portrait of Jason lies not only in the performance of the title character, but also in Clarke’s filmmaking style. Put bluntly, it looks like a collection outtakes, with odd cuts and image-free stretches, with the camera going in and out of focus. In fact, the completed film was classified as outtakes by the archive where it was stored. The result is a film that achieves a feeling of spontaneity, ironically by emphasizing it is a heavily edited human creation, just as the apparent artlessness of Jason’s onscreen persona is doubtless the result of innumerable hours honing his act.

The DVD release includes many extras, including a featurette on the process of locating and restoring Portrait of Jason (“Where’s Shirley?”, 25 min.); a short featurette on a dispute between Clarke and Jason (“The Lost Confrontation,” 7 min.); a clip from the 1967 film Underground New York (9:37 min.) including Shirley Clarke; Clarke’s short film “Butterfly” (3:41 min.); an audio interview with Clarke (53 min.); and a audio comedy album by Jason (53 min.). | Sarah Boslaugh

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