‘Portrait of Jason’ gets a beautiful new restoration

Jason Holliday is the only star of the 1967 film "Portrait of Jason," presented in a new restoration. Credit: Milestone Films
Jason Holliday is the only star of the 1967 film “Portrait of Jason,” presented in a new restoration.
Credit: Milestone Films

On December 3, 1966, filmmaker Shirley Clarke and a modest crew crammed into her two-room apartment in the Chelsea Hotel. For twelve hours they filmed one Jason Holliday, an openly gay black cabaret performer in his early 40s (though he claimed he was thirtysomething). Holliday regaled them with stories from his life — of being harassed by the cops, of being a houseboy for racist whites. His stories are by turns amusing and horrific, peppered with his incessant giggling, as though he was trying to not to cry. (Though he sometimes came close.)

Today, “Portrait of Jason” offers a piercing look at sexual and racial relations before Stonewall — if you’ve been able to see it. And that hasn’t been easy. “Jason” was available on DVD in the U.K., but from a transfer off a faded, dim fifth generation print. The team at Milestone Films — who’ve previously released Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” and “I Am Cuba,” among many others — spent four years tracking down materials for a new restoration.

Traditionally, the money for restorations has come from a combination of Milestone and the archives they work with. But times have changed. Film labs are closing, and the DVD market has dwindled. Amy Heller and Dennis Doros, who run Milestone, had to turn to Kickstarter last fall to pay for the last leg of the restoration.

“It’s a scary thing to do,” says Heller of the Kickstarter campaign, which was successful in just under 60 days, “especially at a moment when you don’t know what the technology will be when you finish.” Many theaters are abandoning film for digital projection. “Jason” still has some 35mm film prints for screening. And it’s not a good idea to abandon celluloid completely.

“Digital restorations are not archival,” says Heller. “If you restore digitally, you’re going to have a digital file. That could be degraded. It may not even be readable at some point down the road.” Technology changes quickly, and a file made today may not have a program that could read it in the future — even the near future. But for film, all you need is a working projector. “It was important for us to get the film exported to 35mm. That way people will be able to go back and transfer it to the best technology of the future.”

Digital restoration has its issues, too. “The real challenge is to make it look like film,” says Doros. “You don’t want it too clean. You don’t want to remove the grain.” He says a lot of restoration artists wind up cleaning up the grain, in part because it’s a different shape than a pixel: grain are little dots, whereas pixels are square. “It’s a little harder to keep the grain in, but it’s not difficult.”

Also important was trying to respect the look Clarke was going for. “I don’t want to say something corny, like we were channeling her spirit,” Heller says. But they wanted to keep it as Clarke would have wanted. “Shirley wanted it to look rough. That’s why it looks like outtakes.” They had Clarke’s daughter Wendy, who was close to the production, on hand to ensure they didn’t make it look too “good.”

“Portrait of Jason,” which will run theatrically at IFC Center, is still thrillingly intimate, both of a person and an era when homosexuality was illegal. (Anti-sodmoy laws were still on the New York books till 1983.) “It was repressive of the whole culture,” Heller says. “How do you mee other people if you can’t go anywhere and be yourself? There were so many oppressions against the day-to-day life of a guy like Jason.”


OMG! Exercise can make skin (and butt) look…

A moderate exercise regime can turn back time and actually reverse the skin's aging process, according to new research. The study showed that a minimum…


Mets mascot Mr. Met target of Bill Clinton…

Mets mascot Mr. Met has told how he ended up in the crosshairs of a Secret Service sniper rifle. The man behind the Mr. Met…


Jews in eastern Ukraine ordered to register, Kerry…

Secretary of State John Kerry condemned reports that Jews in eastern Ukraine had been ordered to register with the authorities "or suffer the consequences."


Chelsea Clinton pregnant with first child

Chelsea Clinton is pregnant with her first child.


'Scandal' recap: Season 3, Episode 18, 'The Price…

Sally is Jesus, Olivia caused global warming, and Mellie's still drunk. Let's recap the Scandal finale. A church full of Washington insiders is about to…


Review: 'Transcendence' is not stupid but sometimes lacks…

The cyberthriller "Transcendence" explores artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and other ethical quandaries, but has too much ambition, if anything.


Dick Wolf to bring fictionalized world of 'Law…

A&E has ordered a pilot called "D.O.A." from "Law and Order" mastermind Dick Wolf that will focus on real detectives reexamining cold cases. A trio…


Shane West talks WGN America's 'Salem'

The actor on history lessons, a new network and showing his butt.


Rangers draw first blood against Flyers in Game…

Brad Richards and Derek Stepan scored power-play goals 47 seconds apart to lead the Rangers to a 4-1 win.


Carmelo Anthony agonizing over Knicks future as season…

There’s still the cloud hanging over the franchise’s head as to the pending free-agent status of All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony.


Jets host players with eye toward NFL Draft

The Jets hosted a number of NFL Draft hopefuls for workouts on Thursday, with an eye toward some under-the-radar players.


Chris Johnson: I wanted to go to 'a…

Now that Chris Johnson is a Jet, the team has to figure out if one of the most explosive players in the NFL over the last half decade has anything…


Light-up nail art syncs with phone

This Japanese technology syncs light-up nail art with your phone.


Why is dance cardio taking off in NYC?

Instructors at some of the city's hottest classes explain why.


Earth Day travel in the Florida Keys

See why this eco-friendly destination deserves your attention.


Sorry, Facebook — FarmVille goes mobile with 'Country…

Zynga has released a version of the hit "FarmVille" tailored for smartphones and tablets in the hope of reaping a bumper crop of players.