Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Portrait of Jason (1967)

The common perception of the documentary is that we, the audience, are seeing the truth. But it's a "truth" that has been shaped by others, building "performances" out of people seemingly being themselves and often working towards a narrative structure that real life does not always afford. So when Shirley Clarke placed her camera in front of a middle-aged black homosexual hustler in 1960s New York to capture his incredible stories, it takes some poking and prodding to get her subject going in the directions she wants. By the abrupt conclusion of Portrait of Jason (1967), there is the glaring question of what or who exactly it is a documentary about. This question is what continues to make Clarke's work an enduring classic finally reaching a wider audience through its Milestone Video re-release.

The most vivid truth of Portrait of Jason is that its central character, a self-admitted hustler and con artist, is giving the performance of his lifetime. Jason Holliday isn't even his real name; he was born Aaron Payne, but adopted his pseudonym while living in San Francisco. His stories, while involving, can never be fully trusted. But that doesn't stop them from helping to create an engrossing and very human character before our very eyes. Provided with ample alcohol and pot by Clarke and her filmmaking cohorts, who also throw out prompts for good stories ("Talk about Brother Tough. Do some of your act."), Jason's story is his to tell, but it is also molded by the filmmakers, culled from a marathon 12-hour interview session. He recalls his various houseboy jobs, many revealing the world of racial divide he grew up in, but also openly discusses his homosexual liaisons and how well-endowed he is (or isn't). Jason deviates from his established free-wheeling character for hilarious celebrity impersonations, from Mae West to Butterfly McQueen to Katharine Hepburn, which he claims are part of a nightclub act he is actively working to make a reality...before he laughs himself silly at ignoring multiple phone calls from a venue interested in booking him.

This almost constant laughter of Jason's, as he downs tumblers of booze and chain smokes marijuana cigarettes, is at first charming. But as the film progresses, we wonder how someone can be this jovial, even under the influence. Then his stories begin to betray layers of self-hatred and pain. But then, are these feelings genuine? Are the stories real? When Clarke's fellow interrogator Carl Lee (son of blacklisted actor Canada Lee) accuses Jason of betraying him in the film's final act, the hustler's tense and tearful reactions are unlike anything we've seen from Jason before. But there is that question again, are they real? Does it matter? In the long run, not really, because Jason is one unique showman, and keeping we viewers enthralled for a feature's length is no small feat. This is a film you can come back to numerous times and still be surprised by new discoveries in Jason's stories, his delivery, the narrative structure, and what Clarke is truly attempting to do with this unusual documentary form.

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