“Portrait of Jason,” at the Music Box

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We are proud to co-sponsor this once-in-a-lifetime screening of Shirley Clarke’s film Portrait of Jason at the Music Box, 3733 North Southport Avenue, on Wednesday, May 29 at 7pm. Note: It was originally scheduled to show at the Portage, but the venue has changed. It’s presented by our friends at the Northwest Chicago Film Society and co-sponsored by the Reeling Film Festival. We can’t emphasize enough how important this screening is. And it’s only five bucks!
Portrait of Jason: Background
by KaSandra Skistad

Shirley Clarke’s fourth feature film fixes its gaze on one Jason Holliday—a gay black man and self-described hustler—as he presents to the viewing audience an extended autobiographical monologue, interspersed with fragments of unfinished cabaret routines and frequently goaded along by the at times hostile interrogations of Clarke and her collaborator Carl Lee. Shot in black-and-white 16mm film over the course of twelve straight hours in the director’s Manhattan apartment, Portrait of Jason provokes significant questions regarding the nature of performance, authenticity, and the politics of representation. While filmmaker Clarke employs various techniques of cinéma vérité, the film’s subject, Jason, continuously destabilizes the borders between fiction and reality with his seemingly unreliable narrative voice. The film defies easy classification, and critics and scholars have variously theorized about its genre, positing everything from documentary to screen test, and Holliday’s performance alternately as inebriated confessional and/or sly performance art. Adding to the ambiguity, Clarke herself once pronounced, “there is no real difference between a traditional fiction film and a documentary. I’ve never made a documentary. There is no such trip.”

Premiering at the 5th New York Film Festival in 1967, Portrait of Jason initially drew mixed reviews in the United States, though faring better in Europe and considered groundbreaking by many, including the likes of John Cassavetes. Ingmar Bergman proclaimed it “the most extraordinary film I’ve seen in my life… absolutely fascinating.” In subsequent years, the film has been critiqued by some reviewers as exploitative, an unsurprising and understandable charge considering the imbalance of power inherent in the interactions between Shirley Clarke, a wealthy, white, heterosexual woman, and the man at whom she points her camera, as well as her occasionally vitriolic commentary. Yet despite, or perhaps even because of, the film’s both problematic and problematizing nature, Portrait of Jason occupies an important and enduring position within queer black cinema, not least of all due to its portrayal of a black male subjectivity that is often maligned or marginalized to the point of near total erasure.

In his final film, the award-winning exploration of African-American identity entitled Black Is… Black Ain’t (1995), Marlon Riggs asks the following, over scenes of Jason Holliday recounting details and observances from his life’s experience:

Jason, dear Jason…
When the people sang the freedom songs, do you think they also sang
them for you?
How long, Jason? How long have they sung about the freedom and the
righteousness and the beauty of the black man and ignored you?

Following long periods of severely limited availability, Milestone Films took on the task of rereleasing Portrait of Jason as part of its effort to restore and bring renewed attention to the works of Shirley Clarke. After a successful Kickstarter campaign and a painstaking, two-year search for the film’s original components—ironically impeded by Clarke’s distinctive style as the unedited look of the film caused its original cut to be mistaken for a reel of outtakes—Milestone restored and rereleased Portrait of Jason as part of Project Shirley. Following the restoration’s premiere at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival and a recent run at the IFC Center in New York, Portrait of Jason comes to Chicago for a one-night-only screening at the Music Box, projected in 35mm by Northwest Chicago Film Society and co-presented by Reeling and Black Cinema House.