Revisiting Shirley Clarke's 1967 'Portrait of Jason'
He's indeed the life of his own party — increasingly smashed as wee hours encroach in Clarke's Chelsea Hotel room — but there's a certain desperation to this act that she and particularly Lee eventually pounce on. The exact nature of the two men's relationship intrigues once Lee starts goading Jason to cut the "bullshit" and pony up some truths. "We know you're a big con artist and you don't really give a shit about nothin' and nobody," the off-camera Lee barks, later referencing some "dirty lies" Jason had allegedly spread about him.
By the time the former is calling the latter a "fuckin' nasty bitch," the film has become a queasy mix of exploitation and collusion. "Nervous and guilty and simple as I am," Jason has a braggadocio that camouflages a self-loathing he's just as willing to expose. When actual tears-of-a-clown are shed, the filmmakers seem cruel. Still, the "portrait" is incomplete — Clarke and Lee don't press their subject to explicate the past spousal abuse, suicide attempt, and "nuthouse" and jail stays he drops into conversation as casually as he mentions a friendship with Miles Davis.
Two years later Yoko Ono and John Lennon would film the extremely disturbing Rape — 77 minutes of a camera crew silently, aggressively following an increasingly bewildered and panicked young woman around Manhattan, reducing her to a whimpering wreck. It was a human experiment in the name of art as striking as it was sadistic. While less traumatic, Portrait of Jason also stretches a very 1960s notion of cinema-as-angry-analyst's-couch to uncomfortable lengths.
Clarke, who died in 1997 — one year before Jason — remains a fascinating, underappreciated figure who suffered all the consequences of being a stubbornly individual filmmaker in an era when women directors were rare and little-respected. (Not that that's changed greatly since.) Switching from dance to movies in the '50s, she earned an Oscar nomination for a 1960 short, then won one outright for a 1963 documentary about poet Robert Frost. Yet her career was constantly stymied, finally forcing her into academia. French director Agnès Varda's 1969 curio Lions Love has her playing herself, a matter-of-fact New Yorker baffled equally by the Hollywood industry she's trying to enter and by the upscale hippie ménage à trois antics of her hosts, Warhol star Viva and Hair co-creators Gerome Ragni and James Rado.
PORTRAIT OF JASON opens Fri/16 at the Roxie.