Shirley Clarke began work on Portrait of Jason with Carl Lee. She had already divorced her husband and began living with Carl Lee, the actor who had appeared in her first two feature films, The Connection and The Cool World. Their off-and-on romance lasted twenty years. Portrait of Jason was the first film project Clarke shot in the Chelsea. She produced it with no funding by using donated stock film left over from an NBC television production and a very small crew. “I was the set dresser for Portrait of Jason,” said Wendy Clarke, who was a teenager at the time. “I left before they started filming. It was a very closed set.” This feature-length documentary was distilled from a twelve-hour interview with a gay African American male prostitute who went by the name Jason Holliday and was the only person who appeared onscreen. Clarke and Lee stirred up Jason with their off-screen questions, which ventured into uncomfortable, very personal territory—getting him to respond, riff, and perform for the camera. “It was the first time a black gay hustler had ever been seen by most human beings,” Wendy Clarke said. “It’s a very provocative film, and it raises a lot of issues about race, class, politics, sexuality.” Portrait of Jason was, in part, a pointed critique of cinema verité documentaries, implicating filmmakers who claim to objectively capture real life—without acknowledging how their very presence alters that reality.
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore