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Searching for Jason


Jason Holliday in Shirley Clarke's Portrait of Jason. 

Have you seen Portrait of Jason?

Shirley Clarke’s 1967 filmed portrait of Jason Holliday (né Aaron Payne) was recorded during a 12 hour span inside Clarke’s Chelsea Hotel apartment. And thanks to the recent restoration championed by Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, the film from the 5th New York Film Festival is ready for its close-up once again.

This weekend’s debut of the restored black and white documentary seemed impossible for quite some time. Many thought a pristine print of the film could never be created because the only known original assets were thought to be long gone. All that remained were high quality outtakes of the movie. But, this particular story has a happy ending.

A few years back, Heller and Doros embarked on Project Shirley, an initiative aimed at restoring Clarke’s films and returning her to a place of honor among cinephiles. Like her films, Clarke’s image had faded a bit and she was increasingly overlooked, so five years ago the husband and wife business partners began their quest to preserve all of her work.

An American indie filmmaker, Clarke began making movies in the 50s. She started by directing dance films, received an Oscar nomination, and then co-founded the Filmmakers Co-Operative in the early 60s, the decade in which she made her most well known works: The Connection (1961), The Cool World (1964) and then Portrait of Jason (1967).

With this film, Clarke hoped to push the boundaries of cinema in the late 60s. She told Jonas Mekas at the time, "Cinema Vérité has called to our attention that people are the most interesting subject. Yet we have rarely allowed anyone to really speak for himself for more that a few minutes at a time."

Portrait of Jason offers a window into a person even as it documents an individual performance.

The titular figure evokes Little Edie in The Maysles’ Grey Gardens or even Speed Levitch in Bennett Miller’s The Cruise. A performer and self-described hustler, Holliday is on stage in front of a fireplace, showing off and telling tales for Clarke and her small crew. Off camera, they prod him to relate specific stories and he enthusiastically agrees.

In selecting Jason Holliday for her experiment, Clarke chose to record someone with whom she had a complicated relationship. Abrasive, funny, dramatic and probably a bit mean, Jason Holliday laughs and cries over the course of the twelve hour conversation with Clarke and her crew. Shirley Clarke kept the recorder running the entire twelve hour period and shot the film in ten minute segments. 

“I’ll never tell,” Jason Holliday says with a sassy snap multiple times during the movie. And yet he tells a lot. Black and gay, apparently always hustling, Holliday shares stories about his own life and of a particular moment in American culture. He said he took his new name while in San Francisco and in Portrait of Jason, Holliday is projecting a persona he's created for himself. The audience is left to wonder about the truth. It is nothing short of fascinating.

The film is comprised of highlights from Clarke’s marathon session with Jason Holliday. Scenes are stitched together with out-of-focus moments and segments where the screen goes dark and includes only audio (of Holliday, of Clarke, or of her crew). The audience is always aware of the filmmakers' presence.

“It was Shirley wrestling with the idea of verité,” Amy Heller said., explaining that Clarke felt that The Connection, which debuted at Cannes in 1961, looked too clean. So with Portrait of Jason she tried something different. Her ragged approach to editing Jason ultimately led preservationists to think her film was actually lost.

Amy Heller paused when asked what drives her passion for film restoration. She said that she relishes challenging the notions of which films are considered significant.

“I love the idea of fucking with the canon,” she said simply, laughing.

Doros, her partner at Milestone Films, characterized his interest in this project as an obsession. He was determined to find and restore Clarke’s Portrait of Jason. It was his favorite of all her work, yet only a print labeled dismissively as outtakes from the shoot remained. Hidden in those outtakes was a silver lining that Doros, Heller and preservationists wouldn't discover for years.

“The finish line keep moving farther and farther away,” Doros said of the project. He tried for two years to track down the movie. “I wanted it to look like it should; once i started I just couldn't stop. I thought it had to be out there.”

Dennis Doros always thought he was just one phone call away from finding footage from Portait of Jason that could be restored. But the calls went on for years.

“How could this most important film in Shirley Clarke’s filmography have disappeared,” Heller said she wondered at the time. “Somehow it just didn't seem that it could have happened.”

The search was futile until Doros decided to revisit that batch of outtake footage. It had a runtime that was surprisingly close to the length of the original film. It didn’t take long to figure out that the print was mislabeled, perhaps because of the way Clarke assembled the movie. Her unique editing style led someone along the way to believe that footage was non-essential.

Miraculously, that film was in fact a print just one generation removed from the camera negative. It had apparently screened at MoMA in a private screening for luminaries like Andy Warhol, Robert Frank, Tennessee Williams, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and others prior to the film’s public debut at the 1967 New York Film Festival. It opened in theaters days later.

Heller and Doros have found success restoring and re-releasing nearly lost films like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sleep. But in the case of Portrait of Jason, once they realized what they had on their hands, the duo turned to Kickstarter to help finance the restoration.

It was a unique case where the financing for the project seemed to come easier than the search for the original materials. “It was like our fairy godmother waved her magic wand and gave us a community," Heller said of her experience raising funding for the restoration on the crowd-funding platform. She likened the experience to the famous scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where George Bailey learns how loved he is.

Milestone partnered with the Academy Film Archive, the Toronto International Film Festival, and many others, to raise the funds for the preservation. The Academy is outputting the film to 35mm because, in Heller’s words, “Digital is not archival.” But that's another story.

The preservation of Portrait of Jason comes at an important time for archivists. This is nearly the conculsion of the film era.

“We are at the end of analog," Heller explained. "We are at the end of photochemical film showings. This is the last year of 35mm film," she reiterated, noting that labs like DuArt are shutting their photochemical business.

“Things are going to get lost,” Amy Heller said definiteively, “Its kind of a crucial moment. We are very glad to be involved in this at this moment when its so important.”

Eugene Hernandez is the Director of Digital Strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Follow him on Twitter: @eug.

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