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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Portrait of a Lady
by Donald Levit

Shirley and Wendy Clarke are the focus of the inaugural “Eye on a Director,” “experimental craft [by] underrepresented voices.” In 16- or 35-mm prints restored by Milestone Films as Project Shirley or else in digital, the Museum of Arts and Design offers five Fridays of mother Shirley (four features preceded by short-shorts and one program of five shorts), followed by three of video-artist daughter Wendy’s work, plus Q&As with her and Milestone’s Dennis Doros and others. Aside from aptness at this time of Oscar boycott, third in the series Portrait of Jason was among twenty-five titles selected for 2015 preservation in the Library of Congress National Film Registry. A different mother-daughter retrospective is at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, nine-day “Jane and Charlotte Forever,” Birkin and Gainsbourgh, with the actress’ appearance.

There is no book about Shirley Brimberg Clarke, and her once scandalous censored films are rarely screened. A dancer, jazz enthusiast, innovative experimental non-linear shoestring cinéma vérité/Direct Cinema filmmaker, female and feminist, the sole woman signer of the 1961 New American Cinema Manifesto, co-founder of the independent Film-Makers Cooperative, Academy Award-winner , Venice- and Edinburgh-honored, she “felt like an outsider, identified with the problems of minority groups, . . . a representative of tokenism.”

Abandoning the loose structure of earlier Warhol-influenced but scripted The Connection and The Cool World, she does not move her single camera during the hour and forty-five minutes of PJ, an interview-performance with a few off-screen prompts. Its thirty-three-year-old subject hustler may be hustling the filmmakers, or a projected audience. How much of his story/stories is true, how much of it invented, and how much of the invented he has come to believe while hustling himself, is beside the point.

US reviews generally labeled the 1967 documentary crude, offensive, even repulsive. On the other hand, it was well received in Europe, where Ingmar Bergman extolled it as “the most fascinating film I’ve ever seen.” Somewhere in between stood Andrew Sarris, who at the New York Film Festival “enjoyed listening” to the African-American male prostitute’s con job on himself, which the critic saw as his essence, until the director’s and friends’ voices broke in to insist on the “real” Jason.

Shot against a fireplace backdrop in Clarke’s Room 822 Chelsea Hotel apartment, the twelve December 3 evening hours were artifice-edited for two months to appear as if the film were not artifice. Born Aaron Payne, Jason Holiday gives the performance of any lifetime, and it is superb artifice. He polishes off most of a fifth, smokes cigarettes and marijuana, gets higher and gets the giggles. At times donning whatever props are lying around, he acts out his life, in the course of which he evidences a talent for humorous self-dramatization and for imitation of famous voices.

Effeminate from childhood and beaten by his Trenton, NJ, “Big Tough” father, he was victim of ”white-boy fever” though he serviced both races and participated in orgies, described theatrically and then clinically. Also a cute houseboy simpering for wealthy white ladies to avoid a 9-to-5, a heroin addict, a jailbird and mental institution patient, he dreamed of and planned for a nightclub career and owes money to those who contributed for that dream or routine.

In distinctive coke-bottle glasses, Jason is endlessly posing, posturing, flaunting affected personalities. He goes tiresome after too much of this act or non-act, but as he loses both mental and bodily control he bares a naked soul, a pathetic human trying through mockery or laughter to disguise weakness and insecurity.

Off-screen prods from the director-producer-editor and particularly from her film and life partner Carl (son of Canada Lee) grow more frequent, more aggressive, and nastier. Whatever the reason, this cruelty deviates from any professed fly-on-the-wall filmmaker as “absent” impersonal observer. The emotional stripping and humiliation of the interviewee-performer only seems sudden but is in any case unexpected and indefensible -- and painful to witness. The unseen presences allow, or goad, Jason to fall apart, reveal and debase himself. Talk about faulting Grey Gardens. Voyeuristic. Perverse. Fascinating.

Clarke learned how and what to avoid from these unique end-minutes, Her final feature, Ornette: Made in America, pulls back, informs and forms itself like its jazzman subject’s free-form riffs in incorporating video, re-enactment, interviews, animation, architecture, music, poetry and archival footage in playful celebration of spirit.

(Released by Milestone Films; not rated by MPAA.)


                                                                                                                                                                               
 
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