It was quite a big deal to me and all the other film geeks I know that a few years ago, cystitis the Blue Underground DVD label released a special edition version of David Cronenberg’s 1978 car-racing drama “Fast Company” which also included on a separate disc his first two feature films, cure “Stereo” and “Crimes of the Future”, ampoule which up until had never been available on DVD or VHS (”Crimes” actually had been included on the Criterion Collection laserdisc of “Dead Ringers”, but how many people could actually afford the ridiculous prices those players and discs cost way back when?).

The two films, while short on narrative, both bear the unmistakable Cronenberg stylistic stamp: body horror, vaguely “official” ficitional clinics, and a certain brand hazy dream logic that is unique to the man’s work; “Stereo” just might be my favorite film in the Cronenberg canon altogether. Both films have no spoken dialogue from the characters: “Stereo” features just voiceovers from several different omniscient narrators, while “Crimes” intersperses narration snippets with some electronic knob-twiddling and ambient sound effects. In each case, the narration is filled to the brim with pseudo-scientific jargon and detached delivery.

Recently, I was able to grab the audio tracks from the two films and make MP3s out of them. While the films both run about 65 minutes each, I’ve condensed the audio tracks to about half that length, because both films feature extended periods of silence inbetween the narration, as a stylistic choice.

David Cronenberg – “Stereo” (1969, audio track)
David Cronenberg – “Crimes of the Future” (1970, audio track)


Tom Sutpin, health system
writing in the Bright Lights Film Journal, abortion

“Portrait of Jason”, for those like me who weren’t around back in ’67 for the halcyon days of the New American Cinema, is a black-and-white, 16mm, 105-minute film wherein a bespectacled, aging African-American hustler, looking dapper in a white shirt and blue blazer, rehearses his life, times, ambitions, and philosophies of livin’ before a single camera that does its best to keep up with him and often succeeds quite beautifully (Jason’s rap does occasionally exceed the amount of film in the camera, causing a blank screen from time to time). It’s been described as so many things through the years that one possible explanation for the persistent unavailability — except for a rare, out-of-print VHS tape from Mystic Fire Video — of a film so exceptional has been its unusual way of eluding all categorization. It isn’t a documentary, really; it isn’t even a “cinema verite” exercise (it’s been referred to as both repeatedly, in some instances by critics who are halfway perceptive).

Many of the newspaper and magazine reviewers who covered it during its initial run wrote it off as yet another low-budget Underground freak show, the kind of movie Andy Warhol and Jack Smith and the Kuchar brothers might have conjured if they’d all somehow hooked up at the right time (a prospect as forbidding as it is intriguing). “Portrait of Jason” isn’t really an interview either, since the closest thing to a coherent question throughout is Carl Lee’s repeated prodding of Jason from just off-camera (”Hey, Jason . . . tell the Cop story”; “Talk about Brother Tough”). Waxing poetic, Clarke’s Film-makers’ Cooperative confrere Storm de Hirsch called it a “bold, incisive choreography, a dance of the human ego in all its ugly, beautiful nakedness”; Ingmar Bergman simply said it was the most fascinating movie he’d ever seen (Bergman, of course, was checking in from Sweden, where black homosexual male prostitutes with a compulsive showbiz bent have never exactly been . . . underfoot).

“Portrait of Jason” is anything we can give a name to, it is a record of a performance, a performance ably assisted by a filmmaker who most assuredly knew what, and who, she was filming.

As a performer in his own Portrait, Jason Holiday is prodigious, altogether tireless. Despite his ironic refrain of “I’ll never tell,” the only evident limits on what he’s willing to recount are fixed on how much anyone wants to listen. There’s his years of playing Houseboy to wealthy, dysfunctional white couples on Nob Hill in San Francisco, for instance. Or his other, more durable vocation as a male trollop, a “stone whore,” in his words, “balling my way from Maine to Mexico, and I ain’t gotta dollar to show for it.” There’s his turbulent childhood as Aaron Payne, an almost militant sissy living in the same house with a father who was anything but. And, of course, there’s that nightclub act. All of it is baseline raw material for the film, and he knows it.

After 105 minutes (out of nearly 12 hours filming) that sees him consuming virtually an entire quart of vodka — not to mention a joint the size of a Magic Marker — Jason never ceases to act out his life for Shirley Clarke. Sure, the booze and the weed might slow him down a little bit, help shift the act into a minor key, but his capacity for self-dramatization never lags, and the spirit with which he acts it out for the camera — whether he’s raging or crying or brutally indicting himself for an evil-minded, mendacious fraud — only intensifies as the film runs through the camera. It would be baldly, cruelly inexact and easy to dismiss Jason as a benchmark drama queen as some did at the time, or a haunted, tragic figure symbolic of . . . everything. In the first place, drama queens are rarely this compelling. What’s more, Jason is far too intelligent and too keenly awake to the absurdities in his life for his moments of excessive self-loathing to be anything more than another emotional hue on his palette, let alone the remnant of a wholly uncommon tragedy. In a very narrow sense, one could say his entire life has been one glorious hustle, a performance for the ages in which he takes a justifiable pride and finds a twisted but no less deserved dignity. He’s his own living, breathing club date.

Going on stage, while it could have put some much-needed bread in his pocket, would’ve been awfully redundant.

The film was re-released on DVD in the U.K. in 2005. Here’s the audio track from the film in its entirety, which works remarkably well like a good episode of “This American Life” would.

Shirley Clarke – “Portrait of Jason” (1967, audio track)

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532 Responses to PORTRAIT OF JASON

  1. Gary Morris says:

    Three things: (a) the Bright Lights Film Journal link doesn’t work; (b) the author’s name is Tom Sutpen (not Sutpin); (c) do you have to reproduce so much of the article from my website? fair use suggests a couple of paragraphs at most. Thank you. Gary Morris, editor/publisher, Bright Lights Film Journal.