Cinematheque’s first showing of director Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason was interesting, to say the least. The documentary, which was filmed in 1967 and readapted this year, shines a spotlight on Jason Holliday, a gay, African-American hustler, houseboy and wannabe cabaret performer. Holliday is the one-and-only star of the show, which is essentially one hour and 46 minutes of him sharing stories. If you don’t pay close enough attention you might assume that the film stars a drunk laughing at himself for 106 minutes, but watch closely and you will see how Holliday magnificently illustrates the struggles and the injustices he faced during his lifetime.
My date and I arrived about 15 minutes before show time, just as a crowd of moviegoers were piling out of the theatre. We paid the $8 to the nice box office attendant and waited. Upon visiting the ladies room, two elderly women waiting in line complained that there were only two stalls; one warned me that the theatre would be chilly.
We entered the empty theatre, which smelled of popcorn, removed our jackets and took our seats. Kernels littered the floor and it was obvious that Cinematheque didn’t have a bustling Saturday night staff. There were nine of us in total in the theatre; my date and I by far the youngest.
The film began with a blurred close up of Holliday’s face, his eyes half-closed, beginning with a story of how he was formerly named Aaron Payne. Five minutes in, two 20-somethings joined our intimate party of nine.
The film was old school—black and white with cracks in the footage. It was set in Shirley Clarke’s New York apartment, decorated with a bed to the left, a fireplace against the back wall and a high back chair with a fur throw to the right. Jason Holliday sported round, thick-rimmed glasses, a button-up shirt unbuttoned at the top, trousers and a single-breasted jacket. Throughout the film Holliday held either a glass or a cigarette.
His stories were entertaining – he wore a boa and snapped his fingers while telling us he was a sexy baller – and they usually ended in his own infectious laughter. He had the 11 of us chuckling on multiple occasions. However, as the film progressed, the stories grew darker in content, ending in fits of laughter that now garnered feelings of guilt for laughing along. And as the stories grew darker, the theatre felt colder and colder. Audience members began putting their coats back on; one woman even got up to check the thermostat on the wall.
Toward the end, Holliday lay down on the floor, lit a joint and drank from a 26 oz. bottle of alcohol. He shared stories of his dangerous lifestyle as a hustler, his father beating him for being different and his substance abuse issues. He exposed the social corruption that plagued America pre-1967 by acting the part of high-class white women, explaining his arrest for being homosexual and sharing the racial inequalities he experienced as a houseboy.
Portrait of Jason ended in similar fashion, with a close up of Holliday’s face, this time tears streaking his cheeks. It was an eye opening, close-to-two hours of drunken confessions.
Unfortunately as the credits began to roll I noticed all 11 of us were bundled up; a woman in the back row was asleep. Perhaps turning the heat up a few notches would have made for a more comfortable viewing of this interesting film.