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The Show Must Go On: Portrait of Jason Will Screen At Music Box

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on May 27, 2013 3:30PM

image via Milestone Films
We love Chicago's classic movie theaters, but it's a dirty shame when a film's venue overshadows the film itself. That's exactly what "Eddie" Carranza did when he shuttered the Portage Theater on Friday, callously screwing moviegoers out of the chance to see Shirley Clarke's landmark 1967 film Portrait of Jason in the Portage's environs. Luckily the Music Box has stepped in to save the day, and will host the screening instead. Much has been written about the Portage (and, trust us, you ain't read nothin' yet). Right now however we'd like to turn our attention to Clarke's film.

Ingmar Bergman pronounced it “the most extraordinary film I've seen in my life ... absolutely fascinating." We wish we could tell you firsthand how brilliant and amazing and wonderful Portrait of Jason is. But, truth be told, though we've been reading about it for years now, we've never actually seen it. We've never had the opportunity. Until Milestone Films launched Project Shirley, it was largely out of circulation. The kind of detective work which led to the rediscovery and restoration of Portrait of Jason would not be out of place in a Robert Ludlum novel, including a late 1960s telex from the Swedish Film Institute and dream involving a math equation. (Seriously, check out this video for the whole story.)

The setup couldn't be simpler. One evening in 1966, in filmmaker Shirley Clarke's apartment at the Chelsea Hotel, a skeleton crew trained their equipment on Jason Holliday. Black, unapologetically gay, a hustler and omnipresent figure of the New York underground, Jason was a born storyteller. Or perhaps a gifted bullshit artist. Or both. Under the prodding of Clarke and her then-boyfriend Carl Lee, Jason talks about his childhood, New York nightlife, does celebrity impersonations, sings and jokes around and poses with a feather boa. But as more alcohol is consumed, and more joints are smoked, his mask begins to slip. Whether the "real" Jason is revealed by the movie's end, or whether we're only watching another act, is part of the fascination. As in her earlier film The Connection, one of Clarke's themes is the line that separates "truth" from mere performance. Today's reality TV deals in the same currency, but usually squanders the chance to reach a deeper meaning. You can begin to see why Portrait of Jason such a seminal work in film history, and why we're so excited to finally see it.

Portrait of Jason, presented by the Northwest Chicago Film Society in conjunction with Reeling and Black Cinema House, screens Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport Ave. Admission is $5 (cash only).