Why “Portrait of…”? Why not the cleanly, modern brusqueness that the subject’s name alone would provide, as with Salesman, Woodstock, or Marjoe? That “Jason” isn’t even the first word in the title suggests distance; it denotes a journey taken toward the man, rather than a point of immediate, intimate access to the man himself. And as though to further clarify the lack of clarity with which this portrait will represent its subject, and to underscore the lack of access it intends to grant to him, Shirley Clarke opens her documentary as if glaring at the gay, black hustler Jason Holliday (né Aaron Payne) through a prism. Blurring his visage to the point of unintelligibility, the lens smears his thick-rimmed glasses into a pair of monstrous black ovals; accessory masquerades as menacing essence.
Clarke returns to this distorted view quite often during the nearly two hours we spend with Jason, typically torking the focus knob when she senses that she’ll be able to cut to a fresh reel. (The blurred footage thus provides a clumsy kind of in-camera punctuation.) But Clarke also allows so much of her own voice, prodding and primping Jason’s spontaneous narrative, to remain in the final edit that abstraction can’t be the only objective of such flourishes. Jason claims ad nauseam that this is his moment. “I can say whatever I goddamn please,” he boasts. “And, oh yes. I’m the bitch. You amateur cunts take notice.” But the title of the film, and its garishly deliberate construction, claim otherwise. A portrait is a moment shared by an artist and a subject—a moment that is, of course, rendered and preserved, and thereby controlled, chiefly by the former. It’s Clarke, then, who’s “the bitch.” And she can show us as much or as little of the revelatory performance erupting in front of her as she goddamn pleases.
Still, though much of what Clarke elects to display is pitiful, it’s never quite pathetic; Jason is so convinced that this is his show that he often convinces us of this as well. (In isolation, some scenes could be easily mistaken for a “self-portrait,” or for an Actor’s Studio audition reel.) At first Jason smokes, the cigarette suspended between his lissome index and middle digits while his ring finger and pinky dangle beneath. Then Jason drinks out of a martini glass. Then Jason drinks on his knees, out of a bottle, and he mugs to the camera more aggressively. Jason breaks into “The Music That Makes Me Dance” and impersonates Mae West, Scarlet O’Hara, and Miles Davis. Yet through it all, our awareness of Clarke’s gaze rarely falters. She asks Jason to expound upon stray thoughts; she challenges his proclivity for histrionics. She sometimes lets the screen cut to black while Jason’s voice lilts on, captured by sound equipment. Were these breaks necessitated by technical issues or dictated by stylistic vision?
By tagging this desultory, flamboyant monologue as a portrait, Clarke also aligns it with a tradition as much as she specifies her approach to the material. Both tonally and formally, symmetry is for instance achieved with Carl Van Vechten’s portraits, which were similarly produced by a white creative that was obsessed with metropolitan African-Americans. Hypersensitive to how mouths, overripe muscles, and shadows cast by brows and noses might throw off (or idealize) an image’s composition, Van Vechten cleverly negotiated the arrogance of his subjects (especially that of James Baldwin, Joe Lewis, and Truman Capote) with the arrogance of the camera. Jason’s effete manner, feisty garrulousness, and immense body not insignificantly suggest something of an amalgam of Baldwin, Lewis, and Capote—and Clarke counters this queen-bitch attitude by reminding us with vocal and technological interjections that this is a performance, and that aesthetic judgments have been made while recording it.
Jason eventually becomes idealized within the framework of his own paradoxical self-loathing/self-loving, and the manner in which he and Clarke collaborate on this oxymoronic myth of selfhood makes them equally unreliable expository voices. Our doubt toward the two of them collectively, however, often creates meaning through tension where there wouldn’t otherwise be any. Jason’s waning lucidity, for example, becomes a clever rhetorical weapon against Clarke’s occasional attempts to turn him into an icon of the gay black experience. (We sense that the film lingers a little too long on stories related to Jason’s housekeeping jobs, his drug peddling, and his drag-queen buddies.) Some of his anecdotes deteriorate into pure rhythm, blissfully free of any generalizable wisdom: “A friend told me, ’I spent years bein’ a lover. Now I wanna learn how to play my bass.’”
But Clarke wins out overall, and quite devilishly. As Jason sinks into disorientation, the clarity of the skull perched on the bookshelf behind him increases. When he breaks down after being harangued by off-screen voices, his tears feel nearly funereal. Jason exposes his self-destructiveness to Clarke because he intuits that the resulting object will outlive him—and that it will allow him to outlive himself, and his self-destructiveness. He’s correct. But the film is a conversation between two disadvantaged artists with indelible personalities, both of whom are unabashedly manipulating their way into at least the esoteric side of the everlasting. Clarke’s portrait immortalizes Jason in the same sense that a death mask—one covered in its sculptor’s quick, pithy fingerprints—might preserve its subject’s uncanny likeness.