APRIL 19, 2013
“PORTRAIT OF JASON” AND THE LIFE OF MOVIES
POSTED BY RICHARD BRODY
The cinema is the great compensatory art, the one that natural-born artists who lack any particular technical skill, craft, or knowledge gravitate toward, because it’s the one where the equipment itself supplies most of the needed technique. The artists need only bring their being—because being is the cinema’s very stuff and subject. That’s why it’s wrong to call movies a visual medium; it’s a shorthand that I’ve indulged in, too, but there’s actually no such thing as a beautiful image. If a director happens to be endowed with a visual gift (such as Stanley Kubrick, who started as a photographer), so much the better, but what makes an image beautiful is that it’s infused with a beautiful soul. That’s why there’s no formula for recognizing or identifying a beautiful image; it’s not definable as a geometric or formal quality, but rather, essentially, as a communion of kindred spirits that’s describable only in terms as literary as literature itself.
In other words, movies that are any good save people’s lives, and the 1967 film “Portrait of Jason”—which opened at IFC Center on Friday, in a deep-toned, richly textured, and (most importantly) sonically sharp restoration by Milestone Films—is one of the greatest cinematic salvations of all time, because it helped to save two people, one in front of the camera (its eponymous protagonist—indeed, its soloist), and the other behind it (the director, Shirley Clarke). I wrote a capsule review of it in the magazine, but it’s worth revisiting the movie in detail because its details are so extraordinary, starting with the question posed, at the very start, regarding the title.
The entire movie was filmed in a single all-night session in Clarke’s apartment in the Hotel Chelsea, at the start of which its performer introduces himself, twice, to the camera, first as Jason Holliday and then, with laughter, as Aaron Payne, which, he says, was his given name. He launches into the tale of how he changed it—an instant picaresque, involving his encounter in San Francisco with Sabu (“Jason was created in San Francisco—and San Francisco is a place to be created, believe me”).
Holliday (1924-98) is on camera for an hour and forty-five minutes, but he fills them with his whole life. He’s a monologuist of mercurial, Falstaffian genius—a gay black man who says that what he does is “hustle” and explains, “I’m a stone whore” (and adds, “I’ve been balling from Maine to Mexico”).
He speaks at length of his frustrations—of his longstanding desire to perform (“as I’m doing right now”), of his arrest (he tried to pick up a man on Sixth Avenue who turned out to be an undercover cop), his incarceration on Rikers Island along with drag queens, his legally enforced psychiatric treatment. He worked as a domestic, or “houseboy,” doing cooking, cleaning, and errands for the wealthy, and describes stifling anger at the smiling racism he encountered. He delves into his failed attempts to perform—the money that he borrowed from friends and family to put a night-club act together, the co-signature of a psychiatrist for his bank loan—and, to prove his point, he delivers a version of his act, with extraordinary, uproarious impersonations of Mae West and Katharine Hepburn, as well as a scene from Otto Preminger’s “Carmen Jones” and a song (his voice is somewhere in style between Nat King Cole and Johnny Hartman). He also talks about his family, and, in particular, his father, nicknamed Brother Tough (“a big-time gambler, bootlegger, and I’m out in the street skipping rope”), who beat him habitually with a strap.
Holliday’s exuberant, floridly expressive personality and extravagantly uninhibited self-revelation was also an act of self-creation; it’s as if he created, on screen, in real time, a new identity from the scattered and broken pieces of his life. The voice in which he does so is a miracle and a treasure. In discussing the movie, I’m tempted simply to pass along as many of his zingy quotes as I wrote down—and, if there were any justice in the world of awards, Holliday would have won that year’s Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, not William Rose for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
But for all the riotously expansive energy that Holliday delivers under pressure, his wall-rattling laughter at his own tribulations is a mask for his lifetime of scrutiny, evasion, and turmoil. It isn’t just ambient legal and social racism and the sanctioned persecution of homosexuals that drives him into frenzy, it’s the pressure to pass as a proper citizen in white society. (In one anecdote, he says, “As long as the white boy finds out that you don’t want to screw the white girl, then you’re in,” and he tells a remarkable story about Miles Davis’s response to seeing the great drummer Philly Joe Jones at the Village Vanguard in the company of a white woman.) It’s also the dangers he faces as a prostitute who often more or less masks his intentions (“You can always out-talk them”).
Holliday tells stories about life outside the official channels of mass media—pickups on the prosperous streets of the East Fifties, liaisons with workingmen, the ways and wiles of drag queens who sold stolen goods on the corner of Fourteenth Street and Third Avenue. He restores the term “hip” to its basic sense—being knowledgeable about deep, arcane, and vital things, having a survivalist sensibility in the menacing corners of society high and low. “Portrait of Jason” is, among other things, a classic of wisdom literature, not a bildungsroman (because Holliday remains, until the time of the filming, essentially unformed) but an unfurling of knowledge about parts of America, and parts of the soul, that few would acknowledge and fewer would discuss openly.
“Jason Holliday,” the character in the film, is the performance of the frustrated performer who performs everywhere but where he wants to (on stage), the mask for a man who lives with masks, whose very persona is that of the mask and whose most scathingly self-revealing stories concern his ruses, his evasions, his deceptions—and Shirley Clarke, the director, played a key role in composing that mask and revealing its essential authenticity. There’s no biography of Clarke (there ought to be one), and the most substantial text I’ve read about her, and, for that matter, about Holliday is Milestone Films’s ample and lovingly assembled press kit (it can be downloaded here). Clarke (1919-97)—born Shirley Brimberg to a prosperous New York family (her sister was the novelist Elaine Dundy)—was a dancer who took up film by accident in the early fifties (she “had received a 16mm camera as a wedding present”) and was nominated for an Oscar (for the short film “Skyscraper”) in 1960. She and Holliday were friends, though her relationship with him was fraught with conflict; she said in a 1983 interview (cited in the pressbook) that she ran into him in the street and told him, “I’d like to film you doing what you do, telling those stories you tell and talking about your life. It would just take one day.” The idea came to her suddenly, and, when the camera was rolling, she had an idea of the stories that she wanted him to tell (and can be heard frequently on the soundtrack, prompting him).
Her own career was centered on identity. In “The Connection,” her first feature, set in a loft where jazz musicians are waiting for a dealer to arrive with their heroin, she turned a character from a visiting playwright to a documentary filmmaker shooting footage of the musicians. She thus turns the actual connection in question to that of the filmmaker to his or her subjects and makes the film pivot on the radical identification that the filmmaker makes with them. (I’ve got a scattershot dossier here of capsule reviews of her films “The Connection,” “Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World” (scroll down), “The Cool World,” and “Ornette: Made in America,” as well as “Rome Is Burning,” a superb 1970 documentary about Clarke by Noël Burch and André S. Labarthe, in which she discusses the making of “Portrait of Jason.”)
In “Portrait of Jason,” Clarke invests herself in Holliday’s tales as a meticulous yet passionate insider; it’s as if she and he were involved in a mutual possession, Clarke unfolding her own psychic marginality and spontaneous artistry in his own dangerous self-dispersal and recovering her own artistic identity in his self-discovery—even as Holliday delivers himself, vulnerably and trustingly, to Clarke as the “material” he knows his life to be. Midway through the film, he delivers a sort of epilogue on the wing: “I’m doing what I want to do and it’s a nice feeling that someone’s taking a picture of it… I will have one beautiful something that is my own.” He could as easily be speaking for Clarke as to her. In a fairer world, “Portrait of Jason” would have done what her earlier works didn’t—it would have launched her, turned her into one of the most sought-out, most admired, and busiest directors of the time. Instead, it was something of the beginning of the end. She began her film on Ornette Coleman soon thereafter but didn’t finish it; she worked in video, taught at U.C.L.A., finished that film in the mid-eighties. The utopian project of self-composition through cinema was too far ahead of its time, but very much of ours. Had she lived longer (and had her health held out longer), she would likely have been the era’s endlessly rising new filmmaker.
P.S.: There are two other films that enact a similarly powerful personal reclamation from both sides of the camera: Jean Eustache’s “Numéro Zéro” and, of course, in an altogether different dimension, Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah”; both came later.
P.P.S.: F. Scott Fitzgerald had a notion of the compensatory aspect of cinema, as, in the story “Mightier Than the Sword,” from 1941, he wrote:
Director Dick Dale was a type that, fifty years ago, could be found in any American town. Generally he was the local photographer, usually he was the originator of small mechanical contrivances and a leader in bizarre local movements, almost always he contributed verse to the local press. All the most energetic embodiments of this “Sensation Type” had migrated to Hollywood between 1910 and 1930, and there they had achieved a psychological fulfilment inconceivable in any other time or place. At last, and on a large scale, they were able to have their way.
If you'd like to read this on the New Yorker website, click here.