Courtesy of Cornell Cinema

November 11, 2015

The Life of the Party at Cornell Cinema: Portrait of Jason

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Jason Holiday is the life of the party. He’s the guy that can talk and talk, and save a get-together from being a total bust. He gets drunk while he tells you his many tales, some of which may be tall, and makes sure to impersonate the other characters in the story — and his stories are good. This is no surprise, as Jason Holiday is a gay African-American hustler, aspiring cabaret performer and all-around interesting guy in the 1960s. Who wouldn’t want to spend an hour or two with him?

Courtesy of Cornell Cinema

Courtesy of Cornell Cinema

The answer: no one. At least, no one with a sense of humor and an interest in people. And that is what makes Shirley Clarke’s 1967 documentary Portrait of Jason so entertaining to watch. Filmed entirely in a hotel room, Jason tells countless stories with no one and nothing else other than questions and directions posed by the filmmakers.

What keeps this film alive is that Jason is so alluring. When he tells a story he paints the picture, literally acting out and imitating his characters. He is as candid in his descriptions of others as he is guarded about deeper feelings about himself. Just when Jason’s smile and laugh seem like they are about to take a turn for the personal and more disappointing moments in his life, you realize just how much he can hide with his over-the-top personality. It’s what makes him so interesting: He is someone with a love for life, acting, drama and thrills, but it is very hard to know how he really feels about himself. There are glimpses into this throughout the film that are complicated by their funny tongue in cheek delivery. One line he says is, “I’ve spent so much of my life being sexy, as you can see, that I haven’t gotten anything else done.”

The filmmakers wonder how Jason feels about himself as well. Their questions become less friendly as the documentary goes on. There are not many filmic tricks here; the film is solely focused on Jason. There are a few exceptions, though. You hear their questions, laughter, directions, calls to cut or keep rolling, Jason asking for a drink. The film also has a thrifty element: Jason’s voice carries on while the image goes black and the shots of Jason go in and out of focus. It’s a fun technique which makes you feel like you’re in the room with the filmmakers as they explore this character. And as they get more hostile it is clear they have the same questions as the audience. They want Jason to tell the truth, not just the story. It all adds to the idea that you are not watching a tell-all. You’re watching a performance.

Still, for someone who can be very guarded, Jason is candid about race and class relations in a way that is refreshing. Jason tells stories of smiling for his bosses, who adore him, only to turn around and badmouth them with the other employees. Sometimes it’s deserved … and sometimes it’s not. He talks about his hustle, taking advantage of people, and past friends he used to have. He laughs at his jokes the loudest as he tells stories about the cops, alcoholics and transgender inspirations. How many of his stories are true? I don’t know — and I don’t care.

Jason says, “Everyone is full of shit … to a certain extent.” It’s comments like this that make you wonder how self-aware he is as he entertains. It’s part of what makes this movie so interesting, as it tries to paint a portrait of someone who is so complicated. Jason is tortured, funny, full of shit and sometimes cruel. He drinks more and more as the movie goes on and it becomes increasingly clear that he is probably a narcissist.

Someone once told Jason that if he “[hasn’t] had any experiences, he should go out and get some.” It’s great advice and I think Cornell students who live in a bubble would do well to learn from it. Maybe they shouldn’t become a hustler (or maybe some should, I don’t know), but it’s always good to at least be interesting.

So who is Jason? See Portrait of Jason and hang out with him to decide for yourself.