Portrait of Jason (1967)

SHIRLEY CLARKE

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5

USA, 1967. , . Screenplay by Shirley Clarke. Cinematography by . Produced by Shirley Clarke. Film Editing by Shirley Clarke.

Shirley Clarke and her partner hole up in their Chelsea Hotel penthouse with and interview him for twelve hours, whittling down the most memorable moments to the 110 minutes of this fascinating, lengthy interview. At the prompting of Clarke’s questions, Holliday tells tales of his colourful, incident-rich life, his difficult childhood, the various people he worked for as a domestic and the characters he has met while plying his trade as a sex worker. At times he breaks out performances for the camera of moments from Funny Girl or Carmen Jones, other times the frequent imbibing from the vodka bottle leads to him overcome with laughter or tears as he gets lost in memories both good and bad. At the time of its release, the film’s shocking content was Holliday’s frank sexual dialogue, he isn’t shy at all about the seamier side of his life, while more recent criticism, which has seen the film revisited after having been thought lost for many years, focuses on the problematic set up of a well-to-do white woman provoking a less privileged black man for the purposes of exploiting his story. As the film progresses and Lee and Clarke’s questions get more pointed, the theatricality of Holliday’s personal presentation begins to fall apart and we get him at his most vulnerable. The overall experience isn’t purely entertaining, it’s all done in one angle pointed at the subject with blurry fades to indicate the end of reels and, at times, Holliday’s covering his insecurity with incessant laughter gets grating, but as a direct glimpse into this complicated person’s life and the times that influenced it, there is a great deal of value here.

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