Thursday, May 30, 2013

Portrait of Jason (Rhoades)

“Portrait of Jason” --
Old Is New Again

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Yes, the Tropic Cinema shows some pretty cutting-edge indie films. Many are newly released; others only a year or two old. So what’s it doing with “Portrait of Jason,” a shopworn old 1967 film by Shirley Clarke.
Known for her kaleidoscope style, experimental filmmaker Clarke died back in the late ‘90s. You’ve probably never even heard of her.
“Portrait of Jason” is not a pleasant film. Not because of its Avant-Garde style, but rather because of its subject. Clark turned her camera on Jason Holliday, a despondent black male prostitute, and as the title suggests she gives us an unflinching portrait of Jason.
Jason Holliday (né Aaron Payne) was an alcoholic, drug-addled hustler who sometimes worked as a houseboy when not turning tricks. He wanted to become a cabaret performer, an unlikely career path. Jason’s not a very likeable subject, but Clarke seemed determined to find out who he was underneath the black anger and gay confusion.
“Whether Jason is laughing or crying, he holds you rapt with tales that conceal as much as they reveal,” observed John Powers of NPR.
Back in the ‘60s, mainstream critics found the film “disgusting.” However, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman famously declared it to be “the most fascinating film I’ve ever seen.”
Modern-day critics seem to agree with Bergman. The New Yorker terms it “a masterwork of grand-scale intimacy ...” The New York Times calls it “a curious and fascinating example of cinema verité …” And The Nation describes it as “one of the most involving, uncompromising and revelatory human documents in the history of cinema.”
That’s because “Portrait of Jason” is more than just a profile of a down-and-outer. It explores important cultural themes -- including class stratification, homosexuality, and racial politics. Also it is a testament to the development of cinema verité and underground cinema during the ’60s in New York City.
Will you enjoy it? Maybe not. Will you find it thought-provoking and fascination. Absolutely.

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