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TCM Underground - October 2018
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suppliedTitle,Portrait of Jason

Portrait of Jason

Shot in one night over a breakneck twelve-hour shoot with a sometimes temperamental camera, Portrait of Jason (1967) preserves the remarkable alignment of two fascinating personalities: Shirley Clarke, a pioneering and vibrant artist experimenting with new, honest takes on the documentary form, and Jason Holliday (aka Aaron Payne), a resilient cabaret performer and part-time hustler (not to mention storyteller extraordinaire) who was fending off the slings of prejudice from many sides. The two had been friends for several years when the film came to fruition, providing a snapshot not only of Jason's personality but a key transitional period in American civil rights.

Clarke's roof apartment at Hotel Chelsea forms the backdrop for the 1967 encounter with Jason, whose interviews tread into deeply uncomfortable and painful territory at times. While this approach has since been appropriated by reality TV and tabloid television, Clarke's film (which was presumed to be lost until its 2013 rediscovery and restoration by Milestone Films) gains its power now from what we know was transpiring around Clarke and company at the time. Great Britain had finally decriminalized homosexuality that same year, but in the United States, it was still outlawed in many states; there were no national protections at all regarding employment or family security, and police could harass gay men and women at will. New York was a buzzing center of gay culture at the time, of course, and also in 1967, Columbia University had just recognized the first gay student group. Of course, New York would become the epicenter for gay rights just two years later with the Stonewall riots, a watershed moment in history foreshadowed here by Jason's individualistic outlook. At the same time, the African-American Civil Rights Movement had been rallying since the mid-1950s and had reached a crescendo in the American consciousness with Martin Luther King, Jr. leading the charge; his assassination the following year would mark a close to the movement as it was so defined, but its participants would continue to crusade on into the 1970s.

All of that information provides some context for what was happening in the world when Clarke (born Shirley Brimberg in New York City), the daughter of a wealthy Jewish manufacturer, chose Jason as her next subject. She was already a pioneer in African-American lifestyles on film with her caustic 1961 fly-on-the-wall film The Connection featuring a gripping portrayal of drug use and jazz music. Of course, it's tempting to question the veracity of some of Jason's claims given his dramatic inclinations; however, according to Milestone Films (whose Project Shirley has been a years-long undertaking preserving her art in all its various forms), at least some of his stories have proven to be true: "Holliday talked about appearing on Broadway in Carmen Jones, Finian's Rainbow, and Green Pastures and about performing his nightclub act in Greenwich Village. And while much of his narrative may seem improbable, the Trenton Historical Society found newspaper articles from the 1950s corroborating Jason's claim that he was a performer at New York's Salle de Champagne. So did he study acting with Charles Laughton and dance with Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham? We may never know." Assistant editor Robert Fiore, who was on hand for the shoot, has since spoken of Clarke's further revisions after they worked on the project, including the removal of some verbal attacks against Jason that left him defensive; these can be heard as outtakes in the Clarke archives and on the film's home video release.

"It's exhausting and I don't know if I can stand watching it, but I can't take my eyes off of it." That's what James Baldwin said to critic Elvis Mitchell about the film, which played in only a small handful of theaters but won some fervent admirers including Ingmar Bergman, who famously touted it as "the most extraordinary film I've seen in my life." Time and popular opinion eventually caught up with the film, which was chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2015 at the same time as Hollywood titles like Ghostbusters (1984) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994) - proving that truth is indeed often stranger than fiction.

By Nathaniel Thompson

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