Blu-ray Review: Portrait of Jason

By , Contributor
Shirley Clarke’s spellbinding, influential 1967 documentary Portrait of Jason has arrived on Blu-ray courtesy of Milestone Films. The 107-minute, black-and-white, 16mm feature has retained all of its fascinating, indefinable power. The entire film centers directly on Jason Holliday (born Aaron Payne, 1924-1998), whose gift for spinning an embellished personal yarn commands viewers’ undivided attention. Director Clarke repeatedly reminds us we’re watching an edited presentation (the original shoot was executed in a marathon 12-hour sessions).

Sometimes the film runs out and sound keeps rolling. We often hear director Clarke and actor Carl Lee off-camera speaking to Holliday, guiding him through his stories. As his near-constant intake of alcohol gradual fades Holliday’s focus, we witness cinematographer Jeri Sopanen often racking focus in the extreme. The effect blurs our view of Holliday as his gradually-morphing demeanor makes it increasingly difficult to discern his true personality. Holliday takes us places perhaps barely dreamed of by mainstream viewers (those brave enough to seek out a film like Jason) in the late ‘60s. An unapologetic hustler, we begin to realize Holliday is hustling us—the audience—with his tales of underground nightlife and his services as “houseboy” to wealthy white employers.

When I first saw Jason in college some 20 years ago, it helped me understand that non-fiction filmmaking extends far beyond the form of traditional filmed biographies or nature-based documentaries. It was the absolute embodiment of Roger Ebert’s suggestion, upon being asked by an earnest young filmmaker what type of film he should make, to simply pick the most interesting person in your life and follow them around with a camera. Much has been said about Holliday’s self-aggrandizing storytelling style, casting doubt on how much of what he tells us is true. Perhaps it’s all true in Holliday’s mind. Clarke and cohort Lee are certainly exploiting this troubled, substance-abusing individual.

That said, Holliday knew what he was signing on for and shapes his stories and tall tales to best showcase his carefully-crafted persona. What seems 100 percent real is Holliday’s self-loathing, deep-rooted enough to go beyond even the formidable, unavoidable challenges that faced a gay black man in late-‘60s America. And that’s what hooks viewers, I think, and ultimately inspires sympathy (perhaps empathy in many cases) for Aaron Payne, as opposed to the kind of ridicule that greets modern “reality” media personalities.

Milestone jumped through innumerable hoops to secure the rights to not only release but also to restore Portrait of Jason. The Blu-ray offers the film in its original 1.33:1 framing and the image quality is superb. In the special features we learn a great deal about the work that went into restoring Portrait to its authentically-grainy original appearance. Minor imperfections and scratches remain, apparently inherent in the original 16mm negative, but are not really a distraction. The LPCM audio offers superb fidelity, especially considering the state of previously releases.

A vast amount of additional material has been included, not the least of which being the 25-minute “Where’s Shirley?” featurette in which Milestone Films’ archivists Amy Heller and Dennis Doros chart the difficult process of creating this Blu-ray release. We get to hear 35 minutes of audio outtakes (“Jason Unleashed”). Milestone has even included, as an audio-only feature, The Jason Holliday Comedy Album which was recorded in 1967. A lengthy radio interview with director Clarke is another audio-only feature. A series of shorter pieces range from “The Lost Confrontation” (the film footage is gone, but the corresponding audio is presented), “Jason in Color!,” and “Jason: Before and After” (restoration demo). In other words, Milestone has definitely gone the extra mile in making Portrait of Jason an essential Blu-ray release for anyone with an interest in non-fiction film.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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