Critics' Pick

Portrait of Jason (NR)

Documentary 105 October 7, 1967
By Ernest Hardy
"I used to work [while wearing] sunglasses," laughs Jason Holliday (né Aron Payne) in the documentary Portrait of Jason. "That was so they couldn't see what I was thinking." Though speaking of his specific circumstances working as a houseboy for often racist bosses, Holliday also—in two succinct lines-- lays bare the survival tactic at the core of that most imitated and misunderstood of cultural commodities: black American cool. The roles of affect and artifice in mediating the realities of racism, homophobia, and poverty are perhaps the true subjects of Shirley Clarke's landmark doc, now gorgeously restored by the technicians at Milestone Film. Shot over the course of 12 booze-fueled hours one night in December 1966, and released the next year, Portrait could be Clarke's masterpiece. Early champions included Allen Ginsberg and Ingmar Bergman, who called it "the most extraordinary film I've seen in my life." Clad in a dark jacket, white shirt, slacks, and round-rim glasses that glamorously set off his face, Holliday (oh so ready for his close-up) alternately stands against a sparsely appointed mantle, lounges on the floor against a chair, or flops onto a sofa, a drink almost always in hand as he drops anecdote after outlandish anecdote. He's a self-professed hustler with dreams of stardom: "I'm a stone whore," he grins. "And I'm not ashamed of it." Holliday is often magnetic, but he's almost as frequently tedious, which does nothing to diminish his overall magnetism-- or the prescience of his being. He's a figure that foreshadows today’s reality-celebrity complex, although his wit and intelligence elevate him above the Real Housewives and other human detritus.
Shirley Clarke Jason Holliday, Shirley Clarke, Carl Lee Shirley Clarke Shirley Clarke


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