Saturday, June 1, 2013

Portrait of Jason (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Portrait of Jason

In a daring venture,The Tropic unveils Shirley Clarke's uncompromising and infamous 1967 film "Portrait of Jason". The film is an intense black and white character study monologue which focuses without pause on a man who calls himself Jason Holiday. He is a gentleman  of many guises: a male hustler, a social critic, a house boy, a bon vivant, a drag queen, a con man, an addict and a bum. This film caused quite a stir when it first came out, some critics were reportedly disgusted by such a look at a babbling and unapologetically druggy man.

Indeed, those who are inclined will make a bold choice. Here is a bespectacled, flamboyant boozy man, who caterwauls, dances and clowns and who uses an assumed name because of burglaries he committed. In watching the film, you might be reminded of  Warhol and his static camera films. According to research Andy Warhol himself wanted to put Holiday on screen with Edie Sedgwick but it did not happen.

Shirley Clarke was the one to do it. When the camera opens, we see a blurred, somewhat scary image. Who are we watching? A  talking skull? An alien? A cadaverous vampire? No, this is Jason Holiday. He is a self important hipster, a  jazz muse, a man about town. With thick coke bottle glasses, a devil-made smile and a cigarette that winds and winds with an ash-trail as long as a caterpillar, Jason seems fiery and plugged into the world of New York City, 1967. He can seem like a  Sinatra Rat Pack, lounge lord, a man of  sophisticated stars who knows many and is on a first name basis with Miles Davis. But he is also whining and selfish, awhirl in an ocean of alcohol, cheap drinks and self pity. Jason rants and raves, grimacing and screaming.

He gnashes his  nervous teeth. At such times "Portrait of Jason" is not easy to watch. It is tempting to label the film and Jason himself, as wheezy self indulgence, but hang in there.
Jason was beaten as a kid by his father for being a gay man and for always doing the forbidden thing. His father, known only as Brother Tough, overpowered him and knocked him silly every day.

Jason learned the hard life of the street. He stole entire inventory from a house then became a male prostitute, then a houseboy and then  settled in a consensual gay relationship.

Though it all Jason never stopped looking over his shoulder.

As an openly gay man he had to.

Although much of the film is composed of Jason's laughing fits and histrionics and a one bad Mae West impression, we get a lot of the serious and pointed observer that he is. Jason relates tales of having to endure the double bigotry as a gay black male, and listening to unabashed racism. He is unsentimental but not without sympathy. Throughout the interview, he yearns to cut a record and become a performer with a cult of fame. His ambition is right out of Tennessee Williams, an unattainable dream---a reach for The Emerald City.  After a pointed story about his mother, the camera blurs once more and the extra-terrestrial form appears over Jason's speaking mouth. The camera snaps into focus and we see that Jason has been drinking scotch straight from the bottle. He is a drunk, a lost soul ultimately bamboozled by himself or others.

Despite his decrepit state, in watching Jason we have grown to know him as a genuine quirk, be he man, or manic figment of invention. We live for 90 minutes along with him.

 "Portrait of  Jason" remains on film as  an intimate experiment that is certain to disquiet some and annoy others. Yet that disturbance is not without heart or poignance. Jason Holiday (or Aaron Payne) may not be as charismatic as Joe Dallesandro or Taylor Mead from The Factory, but the energy contained in his weird personality does grow on you while his social commentary is untempered by convention and  scathingly truthful.

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