Portrait of Jason – Shirley Clarke, 1967



Shirley Clarkes avant-garde feature is an invitation to witness the unraveling of a flamboyant character, Jason Holliday, and to question the roles of performer, director and audience. Filmed in Clarkes penthouse apartment in the Chelsea Hotel on a winters night in 1967, the 12 hours of recorded conversation between Holliday, Clarke, her cameraman Jerry Sopanen and her partner, the actor Carl Lee, were subsequently edited down to 2 to form this ill at ease film.

Have you ever been to a party where the early hours of the morning have crept silently in through the cigarette smoke, the mood in the room has become lethargic and one incredibly charismatic, narcissistic person takes to the floor and begins to hold court? Well this film is like watching the last 2 hours of that party draw to a close. It’s even shot as though the viewer is slipping in and out of consciousness. Clarke sometimes lets the camera go out of focus so that all you can see are grey shapes pulsing on the screen every time Jason comes to the end of an anecdote. Sometimes the sound is rolling without the film so you can hear Jason but you can’t see him. It will pick up again maybe straight away, maybe sometime later and he floats back into focus again. Just like an inebriated viewer drifting pleasantly in and out of consciousness, head lolling over the side of the sofa, unable to piece together the stories in any coherent way. You might have been asleep for a second, maybe an hour. Who knows. The elasticity of time is something that Clarke is particularly interested in.

Pacing back and forth between the divan and a sheepskin swathed armchair, Jason tells stories of his experiences as a houseboy, his desire to be a cabaret performer and his experiences of being a hustler. He is flamboyant, defiant and equivocal. Clarke and Lee guide the narrative by asking Jason to recount certain stories or experiences. They ask him to perform with the props he has brought and he channels characters like Mae West, while pouting at the fireplace wearing a large black hat. Towards the end of the film however, things turn sour as Lee starts to accuse and berate Jason, reducing him to tears. It is an attempt to reveal the person behind the mask but as Clarke later admitted, ‘…you realize whatever pressure you put him under he’s going to cry and they’re going to be crocodile tears…..’. Jason, it becomes clear, doesn’t even know himself so he is unable to reveal the truth she’s seeking.

She is also concerned with the merits and limits of the Cinema Verite style of filmmaking, where the director seeks to present the ultimate truth through film. This piece is an exploration of the dichotomies inherent in Cinema Verite. To expose truth rather than to entertain or distract the audience, there’s no set, no special lighting, no script, no formality and no set structure. It is entirely improvised. It is obvious that everyone involved is ‘aware’ of the camera, as are the audience. Clarkes voice, and that of Carl Lee, can be heard at intervals behind it. It’s almost televisual in it’s interview style. But Clarkes intention is also to show that it’s almost impossible to witness absolute truth on film. By manipulating the conversation, she sets the agenda, so it can never be truly objective. Equally, you can’t force your subject to reveal what is hidden. And by the very act of editing, the film inevitably becomes a skewed version of events.

Race, class and sexuality are also strong themes in this film but to be honest, I’m not actually sure how to interpret the messages Clarke is trying to communicate. It’s obvious that Holliday is being manipulated for Clarkes cause and that made me feel uneasy. He’s been selected as her dancing monkey. She knew he’d be narcissistic enough that he’d jump at the idea of having a film made about him. It’s quite clear that she doesn’t actually like Jason and her willingness to tear down someone so vulnerable makes it uncomfortable viewing.

I think she is trying to make a point about how degraded the American Black man had become at the hands of white American society. As she saw it, Jason had adjusted to it by constantly apologizing, begging, hustling and covering his pain with humor. Whilst Black men were afforded no respect or autonomy she felt they would forever be kept down and forced to respond in a similar way to Jason. And not only is Jason black, but he’s also a homosexual to boot. So perhaps she’s saying anyone who identifies as ‘other’ in this society is forced into an impossible situation, forced to play the part that white society has cast them in and be forever imprisoned by it. Which, to an extent, still chimes true today and so makes this film an unsettling watch.

And it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test.