Who didn’t pass through the Chelsea Hotel in the 1960s? Iconic, dirty, a salon of creative exploration, I thought I knew of every character until catching the restored print of 1967’s A Portrait of Jason. I’ve known about the film for years but avoided it or, more likely, didn’t have the chance to see it.
Essentially a hour and 50 minute distillation of a 12 hour session with one Jason Holliday filmed from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. in December of 1966 in the Chelsea Hotel “penthouse” of Shirley Clarke, it finally found its way into my life with its screening at the Roxie this week. One friend called it a one-man version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Jason goes from daintily sipping drinks to guzzling from a bottle on the floor towards the end as sunlight creeps in on his lengthy rant.
Clarke is a film-maker I have always known of but never really knew. Born in 1919 to a wealthy family, her career is almost a documentary film making parallel to the works of Diane Arbus. She rejected the privileged life and circles she grew up in but struggled for acceptance and an audience in the pre-feminist era when she made much of her work. Informed and intrigued by jazz, junkies, and the underworld, I am just rediscovering or really discovering her work. She ended up having to teach filmmaking in LA later in her career just to make ends meet.
I remember reading an article about Jason as a kid, or maybe in a textbook. It sounded too academic and depressing at the time. Like some anthropological film that I was required to view but had no desire to do so. Jason as a person is too fierce to be pathetic, too funny to be boring, too arrogant to be completely self loathing. Some will say he is deluded as Little Edie about his gifts as a cabaret entertainer.
This “little’ film from nearly half a century ago pierces through today as relevant and reflective on how much things have changed, how some brave souls endured the past, and how so much has yet to be accomplished.