And with that note of ambiguous identity, so begins Shirley Clarke’s mesmerising and profoundly unsettling quasi-documentary Portrait of Jason, screening as part of the 24th BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival in its Contexts and Rediscoveries strand.
In a comfortable-looking living room, Jason, a gregarious, homosexual male prostitute with dreams of performing a nightclub act, raps incessantly to the camera, constantly drinking and smoking as he goes. Jason fills the frame for the duration of the piece, save for the haunting, blurry fades at each reel’s end, where, visually distorted (and resembling the human skull that lurks menacingly in the corner of the frame for much of the film), he will tail off and then re-appear, either reinvigorated or even more drunk, melancholy and exhausted.
Initially, Portrait of Jason is a performance piece, full of laughter and high camp. Ultimately, though, proceedings take a turn for the vicious, as the detached nature of the film-makers subsides for a more aggressive brand of prompting and prodding – “Tell the truth, motherfucker”. The camera itself, hitherto dispassionate, assumes a searching, intrusive quality, and the mood shifts to intense discomfort.
In many ways, Jason feels like a prototype for a Big Brother video audition. Whilst never quite attaining BB7 walking-open-wound Shahbaz levels (he, unlike the wayward Scot, appears able to control himself to an extent) Jason shares the shameless instinct and drive for self-promotion as viewed in every BB contestant to date. In a hilarious moment towards the end, when told by his interviewer to “be real for once”, he abruptly curtails his histrionics, and gives an “OK, you got me” shrug. Jason, always an outsider, is well practiced in the art of performance and deception, and one of the true pleasures of this piece is trying to figure out when he is having us on, and when he’s being sincere. It’s not easy.
Furthermore, although he is never especially likeable, Jason is wildly compelling. The film’s 105 minutes rattle by, as Jason spins lewd yarns, touchingly recounts his childhood ass-whoopings from father ‘Brother Tough’, and, at one point, breaks into song, showcasing an unexpectedly sonorous (yet not necessarily always in key) singing voice. This moment recalls the scene at the end of Martin Scorsese’s criminally underrated The King of Comedy, when Robert de Niro’s deranged Rupert Pupkin finally takes to the stage to deliver his act and … actually isn’t that bad at all. The King of Comedy is another piece of work which coolly predicted today’s “do-anything-to-be-famous” culture (as embodied by the likes of BB. And Tool Academy) through the prism of an unbalanced individual.
Director Clarke is heard to trill in the film’s final words, “…the end, that’s it, it’s over. The end”, and Jason disappears from your screen, but not your mind.