TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large John Powers has a review of Shirley Clarke's 1967 film "Portrait of Jason," newly restored and currently playing in New York. John says that Clarke's story of one man fiercely holds our attention because of the issues it raises about what's real and what isn't.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If reality TV has a redeeming value, it's that it teaches you to be suspicious of claims that you're seeing real people doing real things. This is valuable in an age when memoirs bristle with made-up events, and everyone from the Kardashians to the Obamas orchestrate their media coverage. These days, it's hard to tell whether an article, book or TV show is showing you the real person, or only a performance.
The same certainly lies at the heart of Shirley Clarke's "Portrait of Jason," an extraordinary 1967 non-fiction film just released in a fabulous restored version from Milestone Films. Shot over 12 hours in Clarke's apartment at New York's Chelsea Hotel, the film could hardly sound simpler. It's basically one man with a drink in his hand who talks about his life into the camera.
Yet this man is anything but ordinary. He's a loquacious, 33-year-old, gay black hustler who dreams of having a nightclub act. And from the beginning, he could hardly be more complex or elusive. He starts the movie by saying his name is Jason Holliday, which sounds rather upbeat. But we quickly learn that's not his real name. He was born Aaron Payne.
And for the next 105 minutes, Jason tells you his story about growing up in Trenton, where being gay was not cool, about working as a houseboy for folks who blithely called him a spook to his face, about orgies and hustling and being locked up. Along the way, Jason does impressions of Mae West and Katherine Hepburn, sings a number from "Funny Girl," and tells a hilarious story about Miles Davis.
But as the hours pass and he drinks more and more, Jason starts to melt down behind his handcuffed-shaped glasses. Yet whether Jason's laughing or crying, he holds you rapt with tales that conceal as much as they reveal. Here he talks about the father who beat him.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PORTRAIT OF JASON")
JASON HOLLIDAY: My father is a character of my family. He really is. His name: Brother Tough. When I was a little kid, people used to pass by the house and say, hey, Fannie. Is Old Tough home?
And I had a brother who was a groovy, nice, quiet cat. And my father's got muscles bulging for days and he's a bad operator, you know, big-time gambler, bootlegger. And I'm out in the streets skipping rope. Tough don't dig this too tough. What can he do? I'm his.
POWERS: While Jason's race and sexuality made him a born outsider, Shirley Clarke was a self-made one. The daughter of wealthy New York parents, she began as a dancer, but moved to non-fiction film. There was always something radical in Clarke waiting to be released, and she found it in African-American culture, taking a black lover, Carl Lee, and making groundbreaking films about junkies and gangs and jazz musicians.
These subjects reflected her own estrangement from an American mainstream that wasn't interested in them or her. In that sense, "Portrait of Jason" is a portrait of Shirley seen through the looking glass. Clarke new she had a mesmerizing subject in Jason, whose stories are punctuated by a laugh, whose mercurial meaning - from delight to pain to impacted fury - could keep a psychology class busy for a semester.
Still, she and her colleagues keep goading him to give more, to bare himself more deeply, until he eventually breaks down, offering us the naked truth of his soul - if, that is, you believe we all have a single, secret unified self hidden by myriad social masks. But is the drunken, weeping Jason really a more authentic Jason than the laughing storyteller? Many people think so.
It's not for nothing that John Cassavetes admired the film. Yet if Clarke and company truly did tear off Jason's self-protective armor just to make a movie, its detractors aren't wrong to call the process queasy-making and sadistic. Documentary is nearly always exploitative, and this would be the avant-garde version of newsmen pushing cameras into the faces of grieving parents just to capture their tears.
Then again, it's not clear that Jason isn't simply performing his pain as he performed his amusement, playing the classic role of the tragic gay man. After all, he tells us early on that he's learned to hustle in many different ways. You see, beyond its astonishingly intimate look at one man, Clarke's movie gets you thinking about essential issues that most non-fiction naively or cynically ignores.
It raises profound questions about the nature of the self, about the relationship between fiction and reality, and about the way that film doesn't simply record raw truth, but shapes it into something reflecting the filmmaker's vision of life. Clarke was hip to all this, which is why the movie is titled "Portrait of Jason," and not simply "Jason." There's a world of difference between the two, and she knew it.
GROSS: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and vogue.com. "Portrait of Jason" is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York. It opens later this month in L.A., Chicago and Philadelphia, and in other cities throughout the summer and fall. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.