Another Portrait of Jason

by Matt Wolf

The life and times of Jason Holiday. “Brilliant moments in a total run-down of his soul history.”

“Another Portrait of Jason” was commissioned by Triple Canopy through its 2010 call for proposals for the Research Work project area, supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Portrait of Jason, Shirley Clarke's 1967 film about Holiday, is currently being restored and will be released later this year by Milestone Films. Special thanks to Wendy Clarke, Bob Fiore, and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research for generously providing documents and photos.

I had a fantasy that Jason was alive, living anonymously in a cabin somewhere upstate or hosting parties at retiree resorts in Florida. Maybe I could find him and reinterview him, like the legendary independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke once did for twelve hours in 1967. I wanted to know more about Jason and what happened to him after he starred in Clarke’s arresting film, Portrait of Jason. This is what I found.

—Matt Wolf

Undated college paper by Sandra Wood.

Who is Jason? … I loved you and I hated you, Jason; you were a man in an honest way, even in your little dishonesties, and you became MAN, and yet you’re a mixed up, good-for-nothing, degraded and lonely soul and I feel not just contempt and shock at you and your values and your life, but I despise the system, the man, (me?) that made you like this.

—Sandra Wood, a student of Clarke's, on Portrait of Jason

Press blurb for Portrait of Jason by Allen Ginsberg, July 4, 1967.
Dictionary of slang used in Portrait of Jason, compiled by Shirley Clarke for the Swedish Film Institute.
Promotional postcards for Portrait of Jason.

Bob Fiore, production assistant, April 2010
Portrait of Jason is the first film he works on as a NYU film student. He goes on to work extensively as cinematographer for avant-garde and independent filmmakers, including Robert Smithson and Brian De Palma. The rest of the Portrait of Jason crew is deceased. He recalls Shirley’s intentions to humiliate Jason. Clarke said with mocking vengeance that Jason had stolen her boyfriend, Carl Lee (actor in her film The Connection, cowriter of The Cool World, and the second voice behind the camera provoking Jason). He perceived Clarke’s antagonism and jealousy as half facetious and half serious, like the tone of the film.

Bob Fiore shooting Richard Serra’s The Prisoner’s Dilemma, 1974. Photograph by Cosmos Andrew Sarchiapone.
Shirley Clarke’s initial notes on Portrait of Jason.

His entire life is a role. … What has happened to Jason and what makes him what he is is definitely the fault of American white society. You can’t leave that film and not be aware of what has been done to him. Not only his de-emasculation. I’m absolutely convinced, for instance, that Jason is a made-up homosexual. This is extremely convenient for him to be. It’s part of his act. He’s talked himself into it.

Shirley Clarke

Aaron Paine (alias) Jason Holiday. Born Trenton New Jersey, June 8, 1934—Began career at 5 years old as errand boy for prostitutes, pimps, bootleggers, school teachers, doctors and lawyers, etc.—and any one else who I could get a buck out of. Lonely old men and hot old maids.

—Jason Holiday’s unpublished autobiography, date unknown

More sociology than art, and pretty superficial sociology at that … by forsaking all traditional cinematic techniques in favor of a calculated ragged visual style, Shirley Clarke obviously hoped to penetrate beneath the surface of her “star” to learn some unvarnished truths.

—Variety, November 8, 1967

Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, a 105-minute near-monologue by a Negro male prostitute that demonstrates the difference between an artist (i.e., Miss Clarke) and a commercialist (i.e., Andy Warhol and other recorders of the boring prurience that evolves on the screen in freak-show terms as The Chelsea Girls). … Jason himself, of course, is a fascinating and multifaceted one but Miss Clarke’s remarkable achievement is that she demonstrates the penetrating power of film in an artist’s hands.

Today, NBC, 1967

I felt I’d be put down by squares and nowhere type people. That upset me for a few seconds. Then I said, well, fuck them anyway. I know I am a great actor and I got a chance to prove it. I am ready to take anything that comes.

—Jason Holiday, quoted by Jonas Mekas
in the
Village Voice, 1967

Box-office accounting showing net losses.
Legal notices on behalf of Jason Holiday and Shirley Clarke.

When Clarke’s film was released, it was seen by fledgling recording engineer/record producer, Michael Rashkow. Captivated by the character, Rashkow set out to present Jason in a different persona—warm, fuzzy, funny and loveable—in a free wheeling comedy format on vinyl.

—Liner notes of Holiday's
An Audio Portrait of Jason

Wendy Clarke, art director, daughter of Shirley Clarke, April 2010
She’s in her early twenties in 1967, and she dresses the set, rearranging furniture, books, and flowers in Shirley’s Chelsea Hotel apartment. She meets Jason through her mom’s boyfriend, Carl Lee. Jason had a crush on Carl, and they’d been friends for years. Shirley makes Wendy leave the room during the filming.

Decades later, she’s contacted by a gruff private detective, who interrogates her about Jason. The detective is mysteriously hired by an anonymous UCLA professor, who’s doing “academic research.”

Years later she hears from a much friendlier researcher, who returns in several days with a copy of Jason’s obituary. Aaron Paine, aka Jason, died in a small upstate New York town in 1998. The obituary made no mention of family, lovers, or friends.

Shirley lived with Alzheimer’s disease for fifteen years before her death in 1997. Her ashes were scattered in her beloved roof garden on top of the Chelsea Hotel.