Art and Music      
Chianciano Biennale


American Portraits

ELLIE BROUGHTON: Gay hustlers, bayou bohemians, forgotten socialites and ground-breaking jazz musicians star in Close-Up's American Portraits screenings this month. Just as the US is rocked by the suburban arrests of Russian spies, film fans have the opportunity to watch documentaries about 'strangers' in America.

The first, Portrait of Jason (1967), Ingmar Bergman called the most fascinating movie he had ever seen. (Make of that what you will). It's partly a profile, partly an interview of an African-American gay hustler. Jason Holiday wears a dapper suit with hip bug-eye spectacles, he drawls anecdotes, laughs, snaps his fingers and rattles the ice in his tumbler. The 12-hour interview boils down to an hour and a half''s intimate talk, where the line of privacy is drawn and redrawn from moment to moment.

Stranded in Canton (1973 and -74) was filmed on the world's first portable camera and runs like a home video. But its stars are not children and puppies – they are hard-drinking Southerners who piss in the street and bite the heads off chickens for a crowd. Blues music and carnival madness mix with everyday details of the South's Golden Triangle. The indoor and night-time scenes get up close and film right in the faces of its subject. But the weirdness of what is said and done holds the viewer at arm's length. The director, photographer William Egglestone, grew up in Memphis. The naturalism he wants, and the patience he shows his subjects, make Stranded an avant-garde must-watch.

Next, a 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, which was recently remade as a drama starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. Two relatives of Jackie Onassis hole up in a tumbledown mansion in the Hamptons, outside New York. Little Edie lives with her mother Big Edie. Eccentric – and beautifully dressed – the pair fight, make up, sing, dance, pose and natter. They caricature the lives of American socialites, only a matter of years after the authorities threatened to burn the house down to get rid of the vermin. But the characters' quips and quirks make this film an easy trip through what would otherwise be a rotten dream. This was the Maysles Brothers' next film after Gimme Shelter (1970), about the fatality at the Rolling Stones concert, and is as much of a cult classic as its predecessors. Watch, if only for the outfits.

The last film in the series is Let's Get Lost (1988), the story of jazz musician Chet Baker. The viewer is taken back to Kerouac-era California, when Baker was at his most hip as a white West Coast trumpet player. His magnetism on-screen makes him one of America's first screen icons. But like all the greats, his off-screen behaviour was what defined him. At 57 years old, stuck in Europe because of his heroin addiction, Baker looks like another person. He lost his teeth in a fight, and his cheeks have sunken in. He can no longer perform the music that immortalised him. Director/fan Bruce Weber meets the men and women from his Santa Monica days, and weaves beat romance and hard drugs over a sultry soundtrack.

Portrait of Jason shows July 6; Stranded July 13; Grey Gardens July 20; Let's Get Lost July 27. Every film starts at 8pm and shows at Bethnal Green Working Men's Club on Pollard Row, E2 6NB. Tickets are £5, or free with membership to the Close-Up Film Library on Brick Lane.


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