"Portrait of Jason" begins with a test tone and a blurry image. And then, as the screen slowly comes into focus, the tone stops and you hear a crew member say: "This is Shirley Clarke, 'Portrait of Jason.' Roll one, sound one. Sound rolling, camera rolling."
And in that instant, the black-and-white picture comes fully into focus, revealing a man in round, thick-framed Mr. Magoo glasses, considering the camera as he puts a cigarette to his lips. He's wearing a white button-down shirt underneath a dark double-breasted sport coat.
"My name is Jason Holliday," he says, and then repeats it with different inflections, laughing. "My name is Jason Holliday. My name is Jason Holliday!" And then, with a look, he offers up his given name: "My name is Aaron Payne," followed by a long, self-amused laugh as his image dissolves out of focus — as if the man before us can never really exist unless he's Jason Holliday, a moniker and persona he adopted several years before while living in San Francisco. "And San Francisco is a place to be created, believe me!" he says.
A newly restored print of the 1967 documentary comes to Chicago for a screening Wednesday at the Portage Theater (co-presented by the Northwest Chicago Film Society, Reeling and Black Cinema House).
Filmmaker Shirley Clarke (who shot the footage over 12 consecutive hours in the living room of her penthouse apartment in New York's Chelsea Hotel) has only one subject: Holliday himself, an otherwise anonymous raconteur who cannily subverts his outsider status — that of black gay man in the '60s who made his living as a houseboy (his term) — with a mirthful ability to spin a tale. "I've been in love once many times," he says in one of the film's many wonderfully quotable lines.
"He was someone who was just kind of a mainstay in the New York underground," said Kyle Westphal (who works as one of the Northwest Chicago Film Society's programmers). "He was always trying to get a cabaret act together. Always making appearances. Always just being around."
Clarke (who won an Oscar for her 1963 Robert Frost doc) chose Holliday, whom she had known for years, on a whim. "She was at a particularly fallow point in her career," said Westphal. "She had made some other features, she had done a lot of shorts, and her agent kept saying he would get her a studio contract, which never materialized. And one day Clarke simply ran into Jason on the street and said, 'I know, I'll make a film about you.' He was obviously such a wellspring of stories and personality."
Early on in the film (which runs 105 minutes) Clarke, off-camera, asks: "What do you do for a living, Jason?" which prompts a giggling fit from Holliday.
"These people are fascinating," he says of the rich white women who employ him to cook and clean and amuse them. "I mean, they think you're just a dumb, stupid little colored boy. You trying to get a few dollars and they're gonna use you as a joke. It gets to be a joke sometimes, as to who is using who. So I figure, as long as they pay enough, whatever they say 'do' I'll do. But some of them are pretty ridiculous."
There is a remarkable patience to the film, Clarke's camera never straying from its subject.
"Right now, as a culture," said Westphal, "I think we're in the process of reclaiming a lot of aspects of queer history and black history and looking at them not as specialized things but part of a broader story of American history. And the idea that there was someone who had lived this life and felt totally comfortable with telling these stories and saying what he said, on film, to be seen by thousands of people — at a time before Stonewall — is really staggering to think about."
Later in the film, Holliday — tumbler in hand, ice quietly tinkling as he gestures — talks about a stint in prison and another in a mental institution. He does a credible impression of Mae West. Nearly every story is punctuated with a laugh that straddles the line between genuine and mask-like. At several points the camera runs out of film and the screen goes black; Holliday just keeps on talking until another magazine is loaded. Clarke leaves all of this in, intentionally underscoring the artificiality of the set-up.
By the film's final 20 minutes or so, Holliday has been drinking steadily (he smokes at least one joint, if not more), and there is a subtle but palpable shift. Clarke's boyfriend, off-camera, starts berating their subject, and it is brutal and cutting. Holliday's facade falters. How much of this is a performance? Is he playing at being vulnerable or have the hours in the front of the camera finally worn him down?
"The film had great critical success when it came out," Westphal said, "so much so that at one point Jason was actually under contract to cut a comedy album, if you can believe that. It was recorded and never released" (although it is currently available on iTunes as "An Audio Portrait of Jason").
Clarke died in 1997, Holliday a year later, in obscurity.
"You know, it's a funny feeling, having a picture made about ya," he says in the film. "I mean, I think I really dig it. I feel sort of grand sitting here, you know, carrying on. People are going to be digging (it), or I'll be criticized or loved or hated or what have you. What difference does it make? I am doing what I want to do, and it's a nice feeling that somebody's taking a picture of it. This is a picture I can save forever.
"No matter how many more times I may be good or be ridiculous, I will have one beautiful something that's my own, you know, that I really, for once in my life, was together, and this is the result of it."
Update: Because the Portage Theater was shuttered indefinitely by its owner last Friday, the Northwest Chicago Film Society has found an alternate location for the showing of "Portrait of Jason," which will now screen at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Music Box Theatre. Go to northwestchicagofilmsociety.org.
"Portrait of Jason" screens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Portage Theater. Go to northwestchicagofilmsociety.org.
Indie band, indie movie
The Siskel Film Center's Asian American Showcase (through Thursday) includes a screening of filmmaker Akira Boch's "The Crumbles," about a band from one of LA's more hipster-friendly neighborhoods floundering in matters personal and professional. The Los Angeles Times calls the film a "low-key multiethnic rock 'n' roll doodle about the ups and downs of Echo Park artistic strivers," but I can't help thinking that if the 1988 Justine Bateman-Julia Roberts girl band flick "Satisfaction" were remade today, it might look and sound a little something like this — and that's not an insult. Boch will be in town for a post-show discussion at the 8 p.m. Friday screening. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org.
Architecture on film
If you've ever stared longingly at the kind of open, glass-dominated modernist architecture of something like Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, you will experience serious house envy watching the documentary "Coast Modern" from filmmakers Mike Bernard and Gavin Froome, who offer a cinematic tour (with expert commentary) of some of California's more stunning modernist homes. 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Chicago Filmmakers and 7:30 p.m. Monday at Studio BE. Go to chicagofilmmakers.org.
Despite its realistic-seeming graphic violence, the notorious 1980 film "Cannibal Holocaust" was in fact not composed of real-life found footage depicting a missing film crew that had run afoul of cannibalistic tribes in the Amazon. The film is an incredibly elaborate, amazingly gross exploitation movie, but try telling that to the Italian government. Accusations that it was a snuff film persisted until a year after its release, when director Ruggero Deodato rounded up the actors in question to prove they were indeed still among the living. It screens midnight Friday and Saturday at the Music Box Theatre. Go to musicboxtheatre.com.
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