This Friday’s screening of Shirley Clarke’s legendary mid-1960s independent film portrait of a black gay hustler, Portrait of Jason, should bring cinephile and culturally-in-tune audiences of various stripes to Upstate Films in Rhinebeck for several reasons. For one, there’s the chance to see a great new print of this seminal work by Clarke, one of independent cinema’s great groundbreakers whose works, from The Connection and The Cool World to her later portrait of Ornette Coleman that incorporated tons of different styles of image collection, were not only innovative but also crisp and unflinchingly smart.
Towards the end of her life, Clarke traveled the deep Catskills with her early works, sleeping on this writer’s couch for a long weekend and making sure that she tried the profiteroles at the French restaurants that then filled the Esopus Valley throughout Shandaken. She visited old friends whom she had come to know from her many years in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel, where she kept apartments most of her life and filmed aging street hustler/band raconteur Jason Holliday for 12 straight hours on a chilly December night in 1966.
The result is a surprisingly fast-paced, entertaining, emotionally effective and inspiringly thoughtful portrait of Jason as he spins tales of his underground life, sings, dons costumes and reminisces about good times and bad behavior as a gay hustler, sometime houseboy and aspiring cabaret performer back in a day before homosexuality was outed or civil rights much more than a dream. As such, the film is also a document of pre-Stonewall gay life, without the commentary or enforced distancing of most documentaries that now cover such times.
Most importantly about this week’s screening at Upstate, the film will be introduced by and include a question-and-answer session with its two intrepid distributors, Amy Heller and Dennis Doros of Milestone Films, who have been bringing to life crisp black-and-white (and occasional color) prints of once-lost feature films that have entered the canon as classics due to their efforts. Among their finds and restorations have been the likes of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery, Marcel Ophüls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, the Mariposa Film Group’s Word Is Out and the hugely influential Russian work, Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba. Their efforts, started in the early 1990s, have resulted in their work being honored with not only a multitude of awards, but also project sponsorships by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Barbara Kopple, Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh, Jonathan Demme and Dustin Hoffman.
Portrait of Jason by Shirley Clarke, presented by Amy Heller & Dennis Doros of Milestone Films, Friday, August 9, 6:30 p.m., $8.50/$5, Upstate Films, 6415 Montgomery Street (Route 9), Rhinebeck; (845) 876-4546, www.upstatefilms.org.