Shirley Clarke’s landmark outsider profile made its official premiere at the 5th New York Film Festival in 1967, going on to a theatrical release immediately after. While critics were initially unkind, a response to both the rawness of Clarke’s cinema verité and to her outspoken subject, the documentary went on to be hailed as a classic, pioneering study in black and gay identity. As part of an initiative to re-present Clarke’s films to new audiences, Milestone Films and the Academy Film Archive have restored the doc, bringing their efforts to the Berlinale earlier this year.
The film is stunning in its simplicity, announced from the very beginning of the film, as the audience hears Jason Holliday introduce himself, only to immediately offer up a secondary name, Aaron Payne, his birth name. As video catches up with audio – the film was shot over twelve hours one evening, with the camera needing to be reloaded several times, fading to black or losing focus even as the audio continues – viewers meet the 33-year-old black, gay, self-described hustler who serves as the sole subject of the camera for the film’s entire running time. As signaled by his acknowledgment of the construct of “Jason Holliday,” a name and identity Payne adopted in his time in the mecca of San Francisco, what follows is in many ways also a construct, even a screentest of sorts, as Holliday erupts in a stream-of-consciousness interview/audition, aided by Clarke and her collaborators’ prompting. He covers an astonishing amount of territory, from his abusive family life to his sly manipulation of older white women for profit, frank stories of sexual interests and drug use, and never-to-be-realized, half-serious dreams of putting together a nightclub act. Several times, he’s asked to tell one or another of his standard stories, and Holliday eagerly complies, loving the camera and the chance to be the star of his own film. The effect is mesmerizing, even now in an age when viewers are much more used to documentary or YouTube subjects speaking at length about their lives. Revelatory about race, sexuality, gender, and class, Clarke’s provocative film is an absolute must-see.