Film of the Week: Portrait of Jason

Portrait of Jason (1967) is a documentary by Shirley Clarke about Jason Holliday, a gay, black prostitute who wishes to be a cabaret performer. The film is unique in that it was shot over the course of a night and solely features its titular character Jason, standing in front of the camera and answering questions from Shirley and the rest of her crew.

I’d argue that in Portrait of Jason there’s an autonomy that Shirley and Jason give to the camera by way of circumstance; because Portrait of Jason is about a man answering questions, and a man who wishes to be a performer, the camera essentially becomes an audience for Jason. That “audience” in turn causes Jason to behave the way he does—at times eccentric, at times wistful, and towards the end sorrowful. In short, the existence of the camera causes Jason to become an actor and change his attitude in the same way that a regular actor behaves once a take is about to begin.

What’s interesting, however, and what complicates this argument is that at times, the camera will run out of film, and we can hear Clarke telling her crew to continue rolling for audio. Jason’s behavior then doesn’t arise from the knowledge of knowing that what’s on camera will be on the big screen but rather what the presence of the camera means—stardom.

The camera becomes a signifier for Jason’s ambitions—fame, power, sex, etc. The act of being in front of the camera and then to consequently act means that Jason is able to make his fantasies come true by the way of cinema. Portrait of Jason then may be a film about the aspirations of an amateur hustler, but the act of bringing out that hustler’s aspirations means that Portrait of Jason is also a film about film—the power and effect of cinema.

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