Much of queer history has been lost because by necessity it had to be hidden, but in more recent years there’s been a risk of many things disappearing simply because it’s marginalised and nobody’s been properly taking care of it. Portrait Of Jason was in danger of going that way, despite the fact it’s been acclaimed by many as one of the most important early gay-themed documentaries. Even the legendary Ingmar Bergman described it as “the most extraordinary film I’ve seen in my life.”
However, thanks to the likes of the Academy Film Archive, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, crowdfunding and the sterling work of Milestone Films, the movie has now been restored and given a proper release, allowing a new generation to take a look.
Shirley Clarke’s 1967 documentary is a relatively simple set-up. With Clarke and her partner Carl Lee behind the camera, she films her acquaintance Jason Holliday in Clarke’s apartment. Holliday talks about his life, working as a gay hustler, his love and hate of sex, stories of previous jobs and showing off all the well-known names he’s ‘friends’ with. He’s also keen to stress that he’s a performer and that rather than continuing with prostitution (which reading between the lines it appears is becoming tougher for him to make money from now he’s getting older) he wants to be an entertainer.
The whole thing was shot over one 12 hour period, and while initially the idea was that it was just going to be Jason talking, Clarke realised when she saw the footage that the true story of that night included her’s and Lee’s promptings and responses, as well as acknowledging the presence of the camera.
Portrait Of Jason is normally described as belonging to cinema verite, but it’s far from the observational ‘fly on the wall’ style many associate with the genre (which just goes to show that cinema verite is a hideously ill-defined thing where film academicians have happily slammed together documentaries with almost diametrically opposed perspectives for ease of categorisation). It’s a documentary where the presence of the camera and the filmmakers is vital. Right from the beginning Jason knows he’s putting on a performance and it’s up to the audience to consider how much of what he’s saying is real, how much he genuinely believes, how much is obfuscation or rationalisation and how much is just downright nonsense. There are no definitive answers given, but it’s a fascinating ride.
As part of this is the fact that Jason gets increasingly drunk as the evening goes on (indeed there’s a distinct possibility than Jason is a raging alcoholic in severe denial about many aspects of his life), which starts to crack away at his façade. Equally it seems those behind the camera were imbibing, which leads to an increasingly agitated situation between Jason and Carl Lee.
It’s a truly fascinating document on both homosexuality and race, with Clarke capturing Jason at a key moment while the Civil Rights battle was raging for African Americans and before Stonewall kicked off the gay rights fight proper. Jason is a marginalised figure who’s had to fight for everything, and that seems to have resulted in the bravado and laissez faire attitude he shows to the world – for example he outwardly seems proud to hustle and have screwed men in every state, but then he hints towards the fact that it’s often been out of necessity not choice. Similarly he talks about former employers like they were his great friends, but it’s also clear that he was put in subservient positions that were largely the preserve of African Americans at the time.
There are few documentaries quite like it, which manage to be challenging, historically significant and which are constantly asking the audience to question and analyse what they are viewing. That makes it sound very worthy and dull, but thankfully Jason is a very entertaining character. He’s the sort of person where you get the impression he would be quite a handful to deal with in real life, but he’s a good raconteur and fun to spend 100 minutes with.
Portrait Of Jason is a different kind of gay history than we’re used to most of the time, but to be able to see a gay man dealing with his life in the world before Stonewall without the advantage of hindsight (and with the fact alcohol is loosening him up) is rare. I’d be fascinated to know why Jason agreed to take part. You get the impression he thinks it will help him become an entertainer, but he must have been aware that talking on camera about being a ‘stone cold whore’ and having done every drug imaginable would limit his possibilities, especially in 1967. Perhaps it was because Jason was as much in denial about that as he was about other aspects of his life, or maybe he just couldn’t give up the opportunity to take centre stage and show off.
Overall Verdict: What starts off as an insight into one man becomes one of the most interesting documents on race and sexuality from a time before gay rights as we currently know it, and when civil rights for African Americans were only just making headway in the US.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac