Portrait of Jason (Blu-ray Review)24 Nov, 2014 By: Mike Clark
$29.95 DVD, $35.95 Blu-ray
How apt that the restoration of director Shirley Clarke’s once unique one-man-show was both spearheaded, and is now being distributed, by Milestone Films because the picture was indisputably a milestone itself when it came out five decades ago. Though a verbal all-nighter with a black and gay male hustler (and also aspiring stand-up comic) hasn’t the provocative shock value it brandished when playing (precious few) theaters in the same movie year that gave us, say, Thoroughly Modern Millie, part of the fun still here is trying to figure out what the reaction must have been like way back then. I didn’t see Portrait in ’67 and frankly can’t even remember for sure if it even came to the large college-town where I was living at the time. (The so-called arthouses specialized more in early Radley Metzger and mid-period Isabel Sarli.)
Despite its existence on an obscure earlier DVD version (more on this later), this performance-art documentary has, to ape a Jason Robards line in A Thousand Clowns, existed mostly by rumor in recent years. But you can get a fairly reliable idea of what’s coming just by reading about it. Humored and ultimately goaded some by off-camera interviewers Clarke and Carl Lee (who had previously co-scripted Clarke’s The Cool World), subject Jason Holliday, who was born Aaron Payne, knows how to work the room when it comes to relating his experiences with a tough, hard-ass father, white employers who’ve hired him as a domestic assistant and those he’s hustled for money and sex. Sporting large black-rimmed glasses that dominate his appearance, Jason is toned down only when compared to Little Richard, whose speaking voice and cadences bear some similarities.
Jason’s hustles, as he happily admits, have extended to vacuuming money out of donors to aid the launching of a cabaret act that he predicted would never come out — though this release’s copious bonus section includes a live comic album (or part of it) to indicate that his skills as an entertainer were publicly shared with more than just Clarke and Lee. Who knows? — if Moms Mabley eventually ended up going mainstream on TV, maybe there’d have been hope for Jason. But he died in 1998 — and though I didn’t spend a year on Google trying to track down the particulars of his fate, a fairly laborious search only revealed those catchall words, “in obscurity.”
The only movie I can recall quite like this is Martin Scorsese’s American Boy, which only runs an hour and is thus less exhausting to see in one gulp than Portrait, which clocks in at roughly an 1:45. The filming took place over roughly a 12-hour period, and by the time we get to the end, cigarettes, booze (vodka or gin, though it hardly matters) and reefer have taken their nocturnal toll, as apparent fatigue works against the subject being able to sustain his show-bizzy defense mechanisms. Even so, I think it would have been highly understandable for someone not shocked by the subject matter in ’67 still taking the film to task for its manipulation and perhaps lack of trustworthiness because Clarke was using Jason just as he was using her. The interviewers ultimately try to get their subject to cut down on his breezy nightclub-ish b.s. and get to some higher truth, but I was never quite sure if what we are seeing is what we are seeing. There’s a very intriguing audio outtake in the bonus section where Clarke strongly alludes to some very heartfelt but unspecified transgression once committed against her by Jason. They definitely had some history.
The good folks at Milestone have spent a lot of time and money trying to salvage the physically decayed work of Clarke, whose death came not that far apart from Jason’s in the late ’90s; a tandem Milestone release is a restoration of the filmmaker’s final work Ornette: Made in America (about “out there” jazz great Ornette Coleman). One highpoint of the extras section here is the filmed Kickstarter featurette that Milestone’s Dennis Doros and Amy Heller used to seek financing for the restoration — which, as we can see from someone else’s old DVD version excerpted for reference purposes, was really needed. (Sometimes on restoration comparisons, the difference doesn’t knock you on your behind, but this one does.) If you ever want to see what serious archivists do to themselves and probably their health doing the detective work that merely precedes the actual money-raising and then technical labors, this is the place to start for edification purposes. It was worth it; Jason, not surprisingly, was a huge movie fan, and one can easily speculate that he’d have gotten off a good crack or two at the prospect of viewing himself in pristine digital.