Portrait of Jason is a movie with motives I find to be a bit troubling, but I can’t deny its power. The documentary’s subject, Jason Holliday, a gay black man, a larger-than-life figure, drinks, pops pills and regales the camera (and us, the viewer) with various stories of his life. He’s an uproarious presence, making himself crack up at his own jokes, but near the film’s end is crying when the filmmakers press him deeper about his life.
Shirley Clarke directed Portrait of Jason, filming Jason over the course of twelve hours in one day. What we see a distillation of the man’s monologue condensed to an hour and forty minutes, in which he tells us the story of his life and how he came to be where he is. He tells stories of his arrests, drag queens, scams, cons and booze. One of my favorite bits is one where a cop asks a drag queen why they always snap their fingers over their heads, and the drag queen responds by snapping her fingers over her head, saying, “I’ll never tell!”
Born Aaron Payne, now assuming the name of Jason Holliday, much of what we wonder as we watch the film unfold is how much of what we’re seeing is an act. Even by the film’s finish, which leaves Jason in tears, we are unsure. He dreams of having his own nightclub act. Watching him for the duration of the film’s run time, he seems like he would be a natural at it. Some people have a gift for telling stories, for entertaining people just by being. In this way, he reminded me of someone like John Waters, who has no shortage of real life experiences to draw from.
The film itself is rather simple, and all the better for it. It’s described as avant-garde, which technically it is since the idea of watching someone speak for that long is not traditional, not something most people would be interested in attending, but it eschews the need for weirdness for the sake of being weird. The director allows Jason to talk and allows us to listen. Like something like My Dinner With Andre, it takes an idea which sounds so absolutely boring, but because of the strength of the conversation at the center of it, what ends up unfurling is rather spellbinding.
With a film like Portrait of Jason it’s impossible not to wonder how much of it is exploitative. And it’s hard not to feel like the film is, indeed, exploitative to its subject when it becomes so hostile near the end, reducing the man to sobs. Documentary filmmaker Connie Field certainly felt that way, according to a TCM post-film discussion with Illeana Douglas, noting that the filmmakers had supplied Jason with alcohol and documented his drunken behavior. And I often wonder, if the film is indeed exploitation, no ifs, ands or buts or about it, how much does that add or detract from your own appreciation of it? A film’s enjoyment is completely subjective, dependent entirely on the viewer and their own experiences. There’s a whole conversation to be had about the nature of exploitation.
Part of my enjoyment with Portrait of Jason, which I do think is a brilliant documentary, comes from understanding Shirley Clarke’s problematic (at the very least) attitude toward Jason. She, a white woman, is absolutely using Jason to her own benefit. The film touches upon racism and homophobia and, perhaps not intentionally (but an end-result all the same), spares no one in its examination, filmmakers included.
Portrait of Jason is a powerful movie, one I definitely recommend watching at least once. It provokes deeper reading and outside research to fully understand the film. It’s less a piece of entertainment and more a piece of brilliant provocation.