Interview with Jason Holliday aka Aaron Payne, house boy, would be cabaret performer, and self proclaimed hustler giving one man’s gin-soaked pill-popped, view of what it was like to be coloured and gay in 1960’s America.
La società americana Milestone insieme all’Academy Film Archive and Modern Videofilm, aiutati da una consistente raccolta fondi e dalla collaborazione di ricercatori e scrittori in tutto il mondo, dopo due anni di intenso lavoro, hanno recuperato e restaurato questo film del 1967, con la sola mancanza di una decina di minuti rispetto all’originale. Il film è stato distribuito prima nelle sale nell’estate 2013 poi in dvd nella primavera 2014.
Shirley Clarke admitted she made films for people who already understood her wavelength. While that cannot be used as an excuse, it does make Portrait Of Jason a challenge. Will you dismiss it as the nauseous ramblings of an aging black homosexual prostitute? Or might you even pronounce it, as revered Swedish director Ingmar Bergman did, “The most fascinating film I’ve ever seen”?
There are films that you enjoy. And films that stick with you. Ones that make an impression even if it wasn’t a pleasant one. This is maybe one of those. Jason, talking of his own life, couldn’t have put it better. “It only hurts when you think of it. And if you’re real you’ll think of it a long, long time.” I have a limited appetite for gay humour. And an even more limited one for gay humour that isn’t very funny. The same could be said of my interest in the more sordid revelations of a gay prostitute ‘choosing’ to do all manner of things rather than a regular job. But the human tragedy is quite another thing. And the moral tightrope the filmmakers are treading in making the film – pushing a man to the brink of despair – is mesmerising. The techniques, which also question the nature of documentary itself, leave many questions unanswered.
There is affectionate voyeurism that we have all maybe engaged in. When friends get drunk or do silly things. There’s a saying, “God remembers us by our mistakes, not our perfections.” But what of more uncomfortable revelations? Made unwillingly or willingly? Does the sanctimonious label of ‘truth-telling’ justify hurt? Does complicity? Today we are bombarded with Jerry Springer style TV ‘confessions’. We are inured to ‘reality shows’. Michael Barrymore re-living the pain of his private life on Celebrity Big Brother. Werner Herzog documenting a man who thinks he can talk to bears. We secretly enjoy the pain or stupidity of others.
In the late Sixties, documentary filmmaking was enjoying new found freedoms in showing ‘truth’. Hand-held cameras could record fly-on-the-wall action. Viewers could ‘draw their own conclusions’ in movies like Don’t Look Back. European cinéma vérité was persuading audiences of a simple objective truth. One that could just be ‘noticed’. Portrait Of Jason has rightly been described as a journey into a man’s soul. But it mirrors the transformation of voyeurship with the advent of the video. “The very thing that was trying to be hidden is now the thing that is trying to be exposed,” Clarke explained. Where the audience was the watcher, the filmmaker is now the watcher. In Portrait Of Jason, putting something on film changes the dynamic intensity – what was boring in real life becomes fascinating once it is filmed and edited.
Unlike the fly-on-the-wall technique of Don’t Look Back – or even Shirley Clarke’s own biopic of the poet Robert Frost – the filmmaking process in Portrait Of Jason deliberately interacts with the subject. Not to manipulate truth, but to elicit a deeper truth. It has been called ‘self-reflexive documentary.’ The eponymous Jason introduces himself at length, but later contradicts himself, admitting his real name is Aaron Payne. The filmmaking process has become part of the subject matter. How far can identity be uncovered by means of interview? What can be believed?
Portrait of Jason is Warholian in its simplicity. A middle-aged black man talks on camera for an hour and three-quarters. But the bite is that although willing, he is obviously not only under the influence of drink and drugs: he is tired and repeatedly gets up to go home. That it has been edited down from 12 hours of footage is testimony to the reality of the camera’s lengthy cross-examination.
Jason Holliday is a remarkable individual. And also a nobody. For him, this film is an opportunity to be immortalised. “It is a nice feeling,” he explains. Something he will always have and treasure.
At the beginning, Jason revels in self-caricature. The fact that he is a drug-user and a prostitute. “I’m a stoned whore!” he boasts with camp exuberance. We learn he grew up with an overbearing father – which he describes with the wit of a stand-up comedian. He makes amusing stories out of his road to homosexuality. He explains how he turned a racist environment to his advantage working as a houseboy. He always wanted to be a stage performer and delights in showing us his material – from Gone With The Wind takes to Carmen. He dons a hat to do an impression of Mae West.
But the ‘evening’ wears on. Jason’s ability to project his misery as something we can laugh at wears thin. He is tired. But he still rises to the call for ‘material’. This, together with the questioning, connects to his desperate side. He wants to show us he is proud of his life. We are drawn in but at the same time maybe not wanting to know. “How did you get the 75 cents for the bed?”
When Jason breaks down and cries we know we have hit rock bottom. Documentary ‘truth’ by a process of wearing down. But is it fair to do this to any human being?
A confrontation with one of the off-camera interviewers (Carl Lee, Clarke’s collaborator and Jason’s friend) results in an almost Springer–like outtake. I had doubts about being able to listen to these extended monologues but now I am feeling decidedly uncomfortable. What is the point? I hadn’t found many of his gags particularly funny. I couldn’t even accurately decipher all of his slang. I just wanted to wrap the man in a warm coat and put him in a taxi home, to get the sleep he obviously needed.
I leave the auditorium with a bad taste in my mouth. But days later I realise the film has made a deeper impression on me than many I have seen. The insights into racism in the U.S. (“The great problem of our time,” as Shirley Clarke called it) are humbling. Certain phrases stick in my mind. “Are you lonely?” they asked him. “I’m desperate,” he replied, “but I’m cool!” And in spite of the hell he has been through he says he is, “Happy about the whole thing,” when asked about the filming. It was maybe not the immortalisation he expected. But Jason Holliday will certainly never be forgotten. I start to think that Clarke did him a kindness. Then I read how, in a 1983 interview, she had admitted, “I started out that evening with hatred, and there was a part of me that was out to do him in, get back at him, kill him.” The sentiment seemed shared by boyfriend Carl Lee, who lashes out at Jason, calling him a “rotten queen.” Did my previous judgement hold true? Even if their motives were not as clean as I had given them credit for?
It seems to me that Clarke maybe uses Holliday as a means to an end, even if that end is breaking new ground in filmmaking. The use of dramatic fictional techniques for documentary purpose, in films such as Herzog’s Grizzly Man or Spurlock’s Super Size Me, had not really been invented. Films such as Capturing The Friedmans, many years later, although made with the family’s consent, would expose their subjects to a scrutiny that was not always favourable. Yet elements of the moral uneasiness of that much later documentary are apparent in Portrait Of Jason. In Freidmans, we can justify the intrusion on the bases both of willingness and the possibility that serious harm has been committed. But Jason doesn’t stand accused. Then again, it is one of the earliest films to look at a gay protagonist in an open and sympathetic manner. Nor is he stereotyped or romanticised. But is he self-exploited? Or does the film entrap him? It may be that the benefits outweigh any harm. He forever tells us, “I’ll never tell.” But evidently needs little encouragement to do so.
(Chris, eyeforfilm.co.uk – VOTO: 4/5)
“I used to work [while wearing] sunglasses,” laughs Jason Holliday (né Aron Payne) in the documentary Portrait of Jason. “That was so they couldn’t see what I was thinking.” Though speaking of his specific circumstances working as a houseboy for often racist bosses, Holliday also—in two succinct lines—lays bare the survival tactic at the core of that most imitated and misunderstood of cultural commodities: black American cool. The roles of affect and artifice in mediating the realities of racism, homophobia, and poverty are perhaps the true subjects of Shirley Clarke’s landmark doc, now gorgeously restored by the technicians at Milestone Film.
Shot over the course of 12 booze-fueled hours one night in December 1966, and released the next year, Portrait could be Clarke’s masterpiece. Early champions included Allen Ginsberg and Ingmar Bergman, who called it “the most extraordinary film I’ve seen in my life.” Clad in a dark jacket, white shirt, slacks, and round-rim glasses that glamorously set off his face, Holliday (oh so ready for his close-up) alternately stands against a sparsely appointed mantle, lounges on the floor against a chair, or flops onto a sofa, a drink almost always in hand as he drops anecdote after outlandish anecdote.
He’s a self-professed hustler with dreams of stardom: “I’m a stone whore,” he grins. “And I’m not ashamed of it.” He holds the camera with the intensity of a Hollywood pro as he recounts his childhood: violent, homophobic father; a mother about whom he’s ambivalent. He covers the subcultural milieus he’s inhabited (prisons, mental institutions, the heady queer and queen cultures of Harlem and San Francisco); the tortured history of his nightclub act; and his friendships with jazz legends Miles Davis and Carmen McRae. The abundance of tales and the wisdom he distills from them seem to add at least a decade to the age (33) he claims on camera, and there’s a weatheredness to Holliday’s face and eyes that suggests the wear of experience.
Holliday is often magnetic, but he’s almost as frequently tedious. The latter quality does nothing to diminish his overall magnetism—or the prescience of his being. He’s a figure that foreshadows today’s reality-celebrity complex, although his wit and intelligence elevate him above the Real Housewives and other human detritus.
But just as interesting as Holliday are Clarke and her co-interviewer, Carl Lee, both heard off-camera. Clarke famously identified with black culture because she felt like an outsider in white America. That identification has rarely been dissected, just reflexively cited to afford her hipster/counterculture cred. But Portrait complicates that in fascinating and disturbing ways. When Jason remarks on how he’s suffered, Clarke scoffs from the sidelines, “You’re not suffering,” oblivious to all she’s truly captured. At one point during a lull in his storytelling, she barks, “What else ya got?”
Lee’s interactions with Jason are even more revealing, fraught with an unexplained backstory that is filled with homoerotic tension from Jason’s end, but disdain and dismissiveness from Lee’s. At one point, Jason is dismantling the insecurities that have tormented him, saying, “They told me I was cute. I thought I was the ugliest thing in town.” Lee commands, “Talk about the nickel-and-dime shit, not about being cute.” It’s the Negro trickster he wants, the entertainment that is spun from black pain, not serious consideration of that pain. And that, of course, is the demand at the heart of the consumption of that most imitated and misunderstood of American cultural commodities: black cool. (Ernest Hardy, VillageVoice.com)