A Portrait of Jason screened last night as StudioFilmClub’s offering for the ttff/13. The film played to a full house, and audience members lounged on garden chairs, sat on benches, found crates or simply sat on the ground locked on to the black-and-white masterpiece of the late American documentary filmmaker Shirley Clarke.
Made in 1966, Portrait of Jason is Clarke’s most celebrated work. The film came out of a 12-hour interview Clarke conducted in her penthouse New York apartment with Aaron Payne—or rather Jason Holiday—a gay, African-American hustler and aspiring cabaret artist. Holiday recounts the story of his life, filling up the screen for an hour and forty-five minutes, revealing the best and the worst of himself with a theatrical flair that becomes more and more ironic with each intimate detail that he offers.
At this point he is 33 and he describes his life as he waits for his dream to become a nightclub performer to come true. Without reticence he speaks about his experiences attending orgies and all that he did as a hustler, his lifestyle of doing “anything to keep from punching the nine to five,” which eventually lead him down a path to addiction and eventually jail. Holiday also spent time in a mental ward, a fact that becomes exquisitely relevant when one watches him perform for the camera. He also talks about the confrontations with his family growing up, which had infiltrated his consciousness and defined his actions.
“I am scared of responsibility and I am scared of myself because I’m a pretty frightening cat,” he says at one point. “Like I don’t mean any harm, but the harm is done.”
Clarke made this film at a time when she was rediscovering her roots as a dancer and began experimenting with the concepts of performance and live video. Holiday is absolutely dazzling in his performance and Clarke presents it beautifully. The fact that it is shot in black and white lends another layer of texture to the arc of the narrative.
With Portrait of Jason, Clarke experimented with cinéma vérité techniques and subtly reached out to the man hidden underneath all of the theatrics so that the eye of the camera was able to see through his exaggerated airs. What is true and what is made up is entirely up to each member of the audience to decide and, to be quite honest, also up to how much of the film they are willing to admit they can relate to.
The film provoked quite polar reactions. Here is what a few of the audience members had to say.
“He believed that by living his dream, changing his name and going to New York, that as a black man he would be a better person. It’s sad but it’s also very beautiful because one must live one’s dream. It doesn’t really matter how it turns out.”
“I felt like the character was supposed to be loved or admired but he came across as narcissistic and a drunkard and more as an opportunist that a hustler per se. I didn’t really enjoy his character but he was animated and interesting.”
“The things that he had to say, the racial undertones and overtones…it’s brutal, but that’s life. And the way that he masked everything, all of the pointed moments in his life, everything was with a chuckle and a laugh. It was a cast of a thousand characters. It was mythical in a way.”
Founded by artists Peter Doig and Che Lovelace, Studiofilmclub (SFC) began screening independent and art-house films in Building 7 of the Fernandes Compound, Eastern Main Road in Laventille in 2003.
In 2006, SFC began hosting screenings and guests as part of the ttff. Guests of the SFC included British-Caribbean artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien (ttff/08), and Hilton Als, theatre critic for the New Yorker (ttff/09).
An exhibition featuring some of the iconic posters Peter Doig has created for the regular screenings at SFC was hosted at the ttff/11. In 2012, the work of British-Caribbean filmmaker Steve McQueen took centre stage.