“Don’t Tell Them Everything”: Portrait of Jason (Shirley Clarke, 1967)
9pm Saturday, December 3rd 1966: shooting begins on A Portrait of Jason. 9am Sunday, December 4th 1966: shooting concludes. Over twelve straight hours in Shirley Clarke’s penthouse suite at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, Clarke and her small crew trained a camera on Jason Holliday and waited for him to detonate.
At the time of its release in 1967, Clarke’s experimental documentary Portrait of Jason screened for almost three months straight at the New Cinema Playhouse in Manhattan, and later played the festival circuit. The film reached legendary status in some film circles, not least because of its backing by filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Ingmar Bergman, the latter who dubbed it “The most extraordinary film I’ve seen in my life”.1 Largely unavailable for many years, a new restoration of Portrait of Jason led to a second world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in 2013 and the film has subsequently enjoyed a mini-revival.
The film’s subject, Jason Holliday (né Aaron Payne), was a gay prostitute, raconteur, houseboy and bon vivant. Holliday is the only person to appear onscreen for the film’s entirety. Dressed in a tailored jacked and coke-bottle glasses, he laughs, drinks, smokes and masterfully narrates anecdotes from his life. The setting is simple: Jason is penned into a small area of Clarke’s apartment consisting of a day bed, fireplace and bookcase. Clarke’s filming style appears simple, too. Filmed in black and white, Jason speaks directly to the camera, prompted by questions off-screen. There are fewer than fifty shots, with scarcely noticeable editing to knit the film together, and a few out-of-focus or entirely black passages accompanied by Holliday’s audio. However, the film’s simplicity is a deception. Although Clarke’s method may seem ‘artless’, David Bordwell notes the transitions only mimic casual shooting. The film appears to unfold chronologically, but the out-of-focus passages conceal edits and obscure the progress of the shoot.2 The missing time is left unaccounted for, and we will probably never know in what order the events unfolded.
Holliday recounts stories ranging from the outrageous and entertaining to drearily repetitive and gauche. These are his personal narratives, but they provide insight into broader racial issues and class politics of 1960s America, as well as about gay culture and masculinity, and a very specific hip 1960s subculture. Told from the perspective of a black gay man – a perspective seldom seen in cinema, even fifty years later – Holliday’s stories take on a significance that has earned the film an important place in the history of the queer community, and anticipated later films documenting queer black culture, specifically Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990) and its unofficial sequel Kiki (Sara Jordenö, 2016). Holliday discusses working as a houseboy for wealthy older ladies (“They always want chicken, all colored folks know how to cook chicken”), his attempts at becoming a nightclub performer (“I’ve been telling people so long that I’m going on the stage…some people say ‘what stage?’ You know, a stage of confusion.”) and his friendship with Miles Davis. He talks about sex “I’ve spent so much of my life being sexy…that I haven’t gotten anything else done” and love (“I’m never going to get hung up on one of those boy-boy marriages”). He talks about his father, a bootlegger nicknamed Brother Tough, and alludes to a rough childhood. Unprompted, he sings songs from Funny Girl and Carmen Jones, and performs impressions of Mae West and Scarlett O’Hara. Jason Holliday is a performer, and Portrait of Jason is his screen test.3
But Clarke is not impressed with Holliday’s performance. “What else you got?” she asks from off-camera. Portrait of Jason is full of these sorts of interjections from Clarke, her crew members, and from hip 1960s personality Carl Lee, one of the stars of Clarke’s 1961 feature The Connection and also her partner at the time. Clarke’s existing familiarity with Holliday, heard in her off-screen prompting, is unambiguous: “Hey Jase, tell that cop story…do the ‘I’ll never tell bit”, she requests. However, the film provides no introduction or explanation about the relationship between Clarke and Holliday, or about the disorienting presence of Lee.4 Clarke had in fact known Holliday for a long time; he was a friend of Lee’s father, the actor Canada Lee. According to Clarke, Holliday would sometimes clean her house and she would give him money to support his nightclub act.5 In Jason Holliday, Clarke had found the perfect subject to explore a long-time fascination: the duality of fantasy and reality. Portrait of Jason became her experiment in cinema vérité. Being already familiar with Holliday’s anecdotes, Clarke wanted to locate a deeper truth, and throughout the film she is heard persistently asking him to “tell the truth”. No doubt briefed by Clarke beforehand, Lee is also on board with her ambition, at one point telling Holliday, “Be honest motherfucker, stop that acting”. Clarke told Afterimage in 1983,
I had every intention of having a climax of something taking place…I was going to let Jason do whatever he wanted for as long as I could, and then I was going to challenge him to come clean, tell the truth.6
As the film progresses Holliday becomes visibly drunker and more exhausted, struggling to keep his eyes open. His stories become increasingly nonsensical, the film’s extended out-of-focus transitions exaggerating the haziness of alcohol and fatigue. Clarke and Lee’s goading interjections are relentless. “Why’d you do that, you rotten queen?” snipes Lee, and Jason begins to break down, crying. “I spent so much time being a nervous wreck, I guess I never really had any fun at all”, Holliday replies. “You’re not suffering”, maintains Clarke. If it was once a screen test, it is now an endurance test for Holliday – how long can he keep performing? Recollecting the twelve-hour shoot, Clarke said “I tried to make a good ending, but each time I thought it was over, he would pull back and do another trip on us: ‘I’m not lying.’ ‘Yes I am’.”7
Portrait of Jason has been criticised by some for its perceived exploitation and condescension of Holliday but, as Angelos Koutsourakis writes in his Senses of Cinema profile on Clarke, the film discloses the power relationships involved in the act of filming.8. Furthermore, as a woman filmmaker, Clarke considered herself an outsider and identified with the problems of minority groups; Portrait of Jason was her third feature film to focus on the experiences of black men in America (following The Connection and The Cool World, 1963). Clarke also understood the ethical issues at stake for filmmakers working with subjects like Jason, who she described as “willing victims” wanting to be stars. She maintained, “I will not allow people to exploit themselves if they don’t win in the end…Jason ends up winning in that film.”9 And Holliday does resist. During a re-telling of a story about his interaction with some “head-shrinkers”, Holliday draws a clear parallel with his current predicament, establishing that he was certainly not ignorant to Clarke’s tricks:
You’ve got two of them in the room, one could be an enemy. Don’t tell them the truth, you’re a colored boy in there telling them all about your life, don’t tell them everything.
Comedy or tragedy, exploitation or altruism, vérité or absurdité; Portrait of Jason, like its namesake, defies easy categorisation – and somewhere, Jason Holliday is still laughing.
- Project Shirley, 2012. Portrait of Jason press kit, p.2. Milestone Film and Video. ↩
- Bordwell, David, ‘I’ll never tell: Jason Reborn”, Observations on Film Art, available at: http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2013/03/17/ill-never-tell-jason-reborn/ ↩
- Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests and his 1965 film Poor Little Rich Girl were perhaps an influence. ↩
- The audience’s unanswered questions around Portrait of Jason‘s production has perhaps contributed to a mythology about the film. This is explored in Stephen Winter’s (admittedly “totally fictionalized”) 2015 film Jason and Shirley, which centres exclusively on the circumstances that led to the film’s marathon shoot and the impact that it had on Clarke, Holliday and Lee. Steve Macfarlane, ‘”The Only Film in the Canon Which had a Black, Gay Man as its Lead”: Director Stephen Winter on Jason and Shirley’, Filmmaker magazine 2015 . Available at: https://filmmakermagazine.com/94610-the-only-film-in-the-canon-which-had-a-black-gay-man-as-its-lead-director-stephen-winter-on-jason-and-shirley/ ↩
- Rabinovitz, Lauren, 1983. ‘Choreography of Cinema: an Interview with Shirley Clarke’, Afterimage, December 1983, p.10. ↩
- Ibid. p.11. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Koutsourakis, Angelos, 2012. ‘Shirley Clarke’, Senses of Cinema Issue 65, December 2012. Available at: http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/great-directors/shirley-clarke/ ↩
- Rabinovitz, Lauren, 1983. ‘Choreography of Cinema: An Interview with Shirley Clarke’, Afterimage, December 1983, p.11. ↩