Ernest Callenbach

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

In Portrait of Jason, a man talks to the camera for almost an hour and a half; yet the film is intensely interesting. We hear some other voices besides his—an old friend named Carl, who berates him toward the end from offscreen, and a female voice (Shirley Clarke's) laconically directing the proceedings. The camera tracks Jason around from couch to chair, to hearth, from a fixed position; it zooms in and out on Jason's face; sometimes, when it goes out of focus, moments of soft, abstract image mask a hiatus in camera time (during which, we learn, the camera magazine was changed). Otherwise, it is almost as if we were looking at the Empire State Building with Andy Warhol: we are made to stare, in real camera time, at a real event. Its reality, however, soon proves questionable in every sense except the optical. For Jason is a performer; even his name is adopted. The first role he adopts is the genial, cynical black hustler, conning the white world; and we enjoy and admire the deftness and humor of his stories about a checkered past as houseboy, male prostitute, drifter…. There are, however, glimpses of other levels, when Jason stops smiling and sips a drink, looks for an instant at the camera without talking, or confesses (not for the first time) some ingratiating sin. As the evening wears on, such instants become more intriguing. We begin to watch for the revelation of "the real Jason," for the camera to show us the secret that lies behind his chronic, complex, ironic, and comically self-destructive role-playing…. Toward the end, goaded by Carl, he becomes tearful, self-critical. Is this the real Jason? No, the film forces us to realize; we are no further beneath the surface than with the entertaining hipster of the opening. The role is the man. We now know, in a rough outline such as a psychiatrist might get from a good first session …, what Jason knows or will reveal about himself…. This involuted film portrait, thus, may not be a film in the sense usually attached to the term, but it is certainly an immensely curious psychological and social document. We find ourselves, with such novelties, still further from an answer to Bazin's question, What Is Cinema? Jason proves that cinema may be, among other things, compelling even if used as a simple recording device for a single person. The lens may be an explicit stand-in for the viewer; and Jason, or any of us, can speak to it and be dispassionately observed. The responses given by such a celluloid oracle may be shocking or inscrutable, like those of its ancient precursors; but men will consult it nonetheless. (pp. 75-7)

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Ernest Callenbach, "Short Notices: 'Portrait of Jason'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1968 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXII, No. 1, Fall, 1968, pp. 75-7.

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