2 posts categorized "Cinema Verite"

March 20, 2018

PORTRAIT OF JASON — CLASSIC FILM PICK

Portrait-of-JasonShirley Clarke’s 1967 cinéma vérité masterpiece remains a scathing social and character study of race in America for the enigmatic quality of its unreliable subject, Jason Holliday (nee Aaron Payne, 1924-1998).

Filmed in her Chelsea Hotel penthouse apartment on a cold winter night over a 12-hour period, from 9 pm to 9 am, Clarke uses out-of-focus segues to interview Jason, a gay African-American hustler as he talks about his troubled life and uncertain future. Jason Holliday is nothing if not a performer, and a tragic figure for the ages. 

Jason is at once candid, guarded, jovial, sad, articulate, affected, and presentational as he tells of working on a cabaret act, that we the audience may be witnessing excerpts from. The movie lights up when he breaks into song. He is talented.

Clarke and her partner (actor Carl Lee — “Super Fly”) goad Jason from off-camera, peppering him with questions or prompting him to tell specific stories from his troubled past.

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Jason tells of hustling all of his life to avoid the 9 to 5 grind. His involuntary laugh is constant. Infectious as it is revealing of the deep sadness he carries with him, it is Jason’s laughter that keeps you on pins and needles. You can sense him wanting to cry throughout the interview, but he lets the sound of his own laughter carry him through edifying stories about working for rich white folk as a “house boy” or talking to prying psychiatrists about his sex life.

“I’m a stone whore, and I’m not ashamed of it.”

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Jason drinks a cocktail while standing in front of a fireplace mantle, wearing stylish coke-bottle glasses that magnify his heavy-lidded squint. His Oxford shirt’s collar is unbuttoned so that the collar falls over the lapel of a dark blazer, giving him the appearance of a black James Dean whose better survival skills have given him passage in upper class white culture. He may be stoned from drink and pot, but his speech is never slurred. His word choice is rarely less than erudite. The stories he tells of his interactions with Miles Davis ring with anecdotal truth, especially a funny one involving the drummer Philly Jo Jones.

How much of Jason’s stories are real or fiction never comes into question because the force of his being is so convincing. So whether Jason’s sly delivery is merely a persuasive form of carefully constructed editorial narrative or not, doesn’t matter; there is too much intrinsic truth in every word he utters with damaged conviction and regret.   

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Aaron Payne studied acting at the Actor’s Workshop in Hollywood under Charles Laughton before studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. He recorded a comedy album that was released in 2007.

Not rated. 105 mins. (A+) (Five stars  — out of five / no halves)

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June 08, 2015

THE WOLFPACK

Wolfpack-posterIt’s too bad that a first-time documentarian (Crystal Moselle) stumbled onto the extraordinary familial subjects of “The Wolfpack,” as opposed to an experienced filmmaker like, say, Errol Morris who would have better clarified the onion layers of context and indoctrination backstory that this documentary/cinema vérité-blend lacks and sorely needs. Still, despite its glaring flaws, the picture provides a compulsive viewing experience.

“The Wolfpack” works best if seen cold (as I did), so stop reading here if you want to enjoy the pure sense of miraculous discovery that this unusual film offers. Cinematic opportunities such as this are rare, so I advise you to stop reading this review.

The film is an off-kilter document of an unplanned domestic social experiment conducted by Oscar Angulo, a Peruvian-born husband and father of seven children (of which six are boys). Hippie Oscar met his adventurous Midwest American wife Susanne while leading an Inca Trail group hike that Susanne was on. It was the only job Oscar has had since meeting Susanne, who appreciated Oscar’s non-materialistic and antiauthoritarian values. Oscar expresses his intrinsic human freedom not to be “a slave to society,” by refusing to work and indulging in alcohol. Oscar describes himself as self-enlightened, as God. He has many rules for his children, and even more for his wife. Oscar’s Hare Krishna belief system means that he doesn’t want his family to be “contaminated by drugs, or by any philosophy or religion.” He thinks most Americans are the equivalent of programmed robots. He gave his children Sanskrit names (Visnu, Govinda, Mukunda, Bhagavan, Jagadisa, Krsna, and Oscar’s daughter Narayana). All of the boys wear a mane of black hair down his back.

WPA major stumble in Moselle’s doc lies in a failure to use chyron graphics with the Angulo brother’s names when the boys appear singly on-screen. The siblings share their father’s Peruvian dark skin, and handsome facial features. The older brothers are taller, with shockingly skinny bodies. How the children exercise enough inside their relatively small apartment to be in such good physical shape is yet one more of the film’s burning questions.

Circumstances led Oscar and his large family to live on the 16th floor of a New York City public housing project on the Lower East Side where his worst fears haunt him just beyond his apartment walls. The city pays Susanne to homeschool her children as a licensed teacher.

In one scene, Oscar describes how he felt when he first moved into the housing project: “It was like a piece of jail outside.” Elevator drug deals and murders inside the building convinced Oscar not to let his kids outside their apartment, with a few annually counted exceptions. One of Oscar’s sons (between the ages of 16 to 24) describes not leaving their large but modest apartment more than nine times per year. He says, “One particular year, we didn’t go out at all.” Another brother describes, “going though long periods of remaining quiet.”

Needless to say, the boys have lived with an inordinate sense of fear of the outside world. But when one brother describes how a SWAT team broke down their door and put the entire family in handcuffs while searching for weapons that didn’t exist; Oscar’s overprotection scores a big point.

Movies are a big deal for the kids. One brags about the family having over 5000 DVDs. The brothers escape from their physical prison by filming their recreation of gritty scenes from movies such as “Reservoir Dogs,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “Batman: The Dark Knight.” Moselle leans too much on the treasure trove of ready-made video content at her disposal, but well exhibits the boys’ natural talents for filmmaking and acting. We can cull how the boys have gone about creating their own personalities based on Hollywood movies like “The Godfather.”

You can’t help but root for these highly articulate and reserved kids to make good in the real world. You just might be hearing more from the “Wolfpack,” as filmmakers in their own right.

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Rated R. 80 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

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