Portrait of Jason Review

Where do you begin with a film like Portrait of Jason? With the fact that it was directed by a woman? With its place within gay cinema? Or experimental cinema? Or the documentary movement? Perhaps it’s best to start simply with Jason, the subject himself. After all, this is where the filmmakers began, with a middle-aged African-American gentleman, or so he appears bespectacled and dressed in a blazer.

Indeed, as the title suggests, Portrait of Jason sticks with him throughout, director Shirley Clarke accommodating his monologue with as many rolls of film stock as she could get her hands on. Most definitely a performer in the strictest sense, our host if you will becomes his very own cabaret act – part fabulous, part pathetic – as he flits between Mae West tartness, Butterfly McQueen melodrama and his own sorry life as a gay hustler with clear drink and drug problems.

Coming after her two seminal sixties works, The Cool World and The Connection, but before the psychedelia inflected Ornette Coleman documentary film, Ornette: Made in America, Portrait of Jason is undoubtedly Clarke’s most straightforward work. Indeed, we’re continually alerted to filmmaking process and those behind the camera, yet it’s all included to aid our attentions. The camera flitting in and out of focus between takes or running out of film as the sound continue only forces us to listen even more attentively, as does Clarke’s silence, which she only breaks when truly necessary.

That said, she isn’t doing this solely out of respect for her subject, but also for her experiment. The long-form interview is common enough nowadays (The Fog of War, Blind Spot), but not so much in 1967. As such, Clarke’s intentions for the film were simply to see what happens when it continues beyond the standard allotted interview space and the revelations this entails. Of course, it’s not dissimilar to the theory behind Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, though in the case of those efforts it was often the famous people, or those with a public face – Bob Dylan, Dennis Hopper – who proved the more revealing. Here, however, it is the ordinary which is more greatly accommodated.

Yet it’s important to state that Portrait of Jason is not a set-up. Unlike another Warhol film, Paul Swan (an interview with an old-time dancer which kept the mistakes and effectively ditched the rest) there are no ulterior motives here. Then again, it is difficult to fully buy into this notion at times. With the drink and dugs imbued over the duration, the film becomes a kind of waiting game. And what we’re waiting for is for the cracks to appear, for Jason’s laughter to attain a hollow ring, for the tears to begin to flow. Indeed, as we progress his early talk of this being “a picture I can save forever” and his “moment” takes on a slightly queasier ring.

However, the reasons for this lie more with Jason himself than the filmmakers. Portrait of Jason was effectively predetermined by the amount of film stock Clarke had access to and as such it’s difficult to detect much in the way of manipulation. Rather we have a cinematic rigour which means that when Jason’s mask does slip, everything is picked up. Yet the only reason why it slips in the first place is because he is putting on such a performance.

It’s worth noting however that Portrait of Jason doesn’t succeed solely because it is able to capture this disintegration. Of course, this plays its part, but there are other areas which prove just as important. The manner in which the film treats black gayness in such an unassuming fashion and with such openness is really quite remarkable and prefigures the likes of Looking for Langston or Marlon T. Riggs’ oeuvre by many years. Plus there’s the technical simplicity which makes it such a marvel to behold and the directness of the experimentation. Indeed, all told it’s a quite astonishing piece of cinema, even if we don’t always want to look in its direction.

The Disc

As the back of the sleeve states, this Region 0 release of Portrait of Jason is taken from a “new digital transfer of the fully-restored film print prepared by the Film Department of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York”. As such we’re getting the best presentation that we should expect and it’s often quite impressive. Certainly, the image is as clear as should be expected from black and white 16mm film stock and the intermittent damage is easy to ignore. More impressive, is the soundtrack which remains remarkably clear – far more than we have any right to expect. Of course, we can’t hear everything (specifically the voices from behind the camera), but then this is owing to the source and not the disc itself.

As for extra, Second Run should be applauded for the pieces they’ve compiled here. Shirley Clarke’s daughter, Wendy, provides an introduction which discusses not only the film but also its context within her mother’s career as a whole. Certainly, it’s a big ragged and Clarke has a tendency to “um” a great deal (plus she’s seemingly unaware of Maya Deren), but such elements are easily overlooked.

Also present are a sample of Wendy Clarke’s Love Tapes (again complemented by an in-depth introduction), a video project not dissimilar to Warhol’s Screen Tests in which subjects before the camera discuss love for exactly three minutes. This is fascinating stuff, an aspect also aided by the fact that Shirley Clarke herself also contributes a piece.

8 out of 10
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