Black gay prostitute Jason Holliday is rigorously interviewed on his story and character, revealing nuanced truths about life and art.Black gay prostitute Jason Holliday is rigorously interviewed on his story and character, revealing nuanced truths about life and art.Black gay prostitute Jason Holliday is rigorously interviewed on his story and character, revealing nuanced truths about life and art.
There is affectionate voyeurism that we have all maybe engaged in. When friends get drunk or do silly things. There's a saying, "God remembers us by our mistakes, not our perfections." But what of more uncomfortable revelations? Made unwillingly or willingly? Does the sanctimonious label of 'truth-telling' justify hurt? Does complicity? Today we are bombarded with Jerry Springer style TV 'confessions'. We are inured to 'reality shows'. In the late 60s, documentary film-making was enjoying new found freedoms in showing 'truth'. Portrait of Jason has rightly been described as a journey into a man's soul. But it mirrors the transformation of voyeurship with the advent of the video. "The very thing that was trying to be hidden is now the thing that is trying to be exposed," Clarke explained. Where the audience was the watcher, the filmmaker is now the watcher. In Portrait of Jason, putting something on film changes the dynamic intensity what was boring in real life becomes fascinating once it is filmed and edited.
The film-making process of Portrait of Jason deliberately interacts with the subject. Not to manipulate truth, but to elicit a deeper truth. It has been called 'self-reflexive documentary.' The eponymous Jason introduces himself at length, but later contradicts himself, admitting his real name is Aaron Payne. The process has become part of the subject matter. What can be believed? Portrait of Jason is Warholian in its simplicity. A middle-aged black man talks on camera for an hour and three-quarters. But the bite is that although willing, he is obviously not only under the influence of drink and drugs: he is tired and repeatedly gets up to go home. That it has been edited down from twelve hours of footage is testimony to the reality of the camera's lengthy cross-examination.
Jason Holliday is a remarkable individual. And also a nobody. For him, this film is an opportunity to be immortalised. "It is a nice feeling," he explains. Something he will always have and treasure.
At the beginning, Jason revels in self-caricature. The fact that he is a drug-user and a prostitute. "I'm a stoned whore!" he boasts with camp exuberance. We learn he grew up with an overbearing father which he describes with the wit of a stand-up comedian. He makes amusing stories out of his road to homosexuality. He always wanted to be a stage performer and delights in showing us his material, donning a hat to do an impression of Mae West.
But the 'evening' wears on. Jason's ability to project his misery as something we can laugh at wears thin. He is tired. But he still rises to the call for 'material'. This, together with the questioning, connects to his desperate side. He wants to show us he is proud of his life. We are drawn in but at the same time maybe not wanting to know. "How did you get the 75 cents for the bed?" When Jason breaks down and cries we know we have hit rock bottom. Documentary 'truth' by a process of wearing down. But is it fair to do this to any human being? I leave the auditorium with a bad taste in my mouth. But days later I realise the film has made a deeper impression on me than many I have seen. The insights into racism in the U.S. ("The great problem of our time," as Shirley Clarke called it) are humbling. Certain phrases stick in my mind. "Are you lonely?" they asked him. "I'm desperate," he replies, "but I'm cool!" And in spite of the hell he has been through he says he is, "Happy about the whole thing," when asked about the filming. It was maybe not the immortalisation he expected. But Jason Holliday will certainly never be forgotten. I start to think that Clarke did him a kindness. Then I read how, in a 1983 interview, she had admitted, "I started out that evening with hatred, and there was a part of me that was out to do him in, get back at him, kill him." Did my previous judgement hold true? Even if her motives were not as clean as I had given her credit for? It seems to me that Clarke maybe uses Holliday as a means to an end, even if that end is breaking new ground in film-making. Films such as Capturing the Friedmans, many years later, although made with the family's consent, would expose their subjects to a scrutiny that was not always favourable. Yet elements of the moral uneasiness of that much later documentary are apparent in Portrait of Jason. In Freidmans, we justify intrusion because of willingness and the possibility that serious harm has been committed. But Jason doesn't stand accused. Then again, it is one of the earliest films to look at a gay protagonist in an open and (arguably) sympathetic manner. It may be that the benefits outweigh any harm. He forever tells us, "I'll never tell." But evidently needs little encouragement to do so.
- Jun 30, 2008