Director Without Borders

The restless innovations of independent pioneer Shirley Clarke
by David Cairns  posted July 14, 2008
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In Profile: Shirley Clarke,
Edinburgh International Film Festival, June 18-29, 2008

Shirley Clarke was put on earth to eradicate meaningless distinctions. A dancer who switched to choreographing filmed images, she slid effortlessly between performance film and documentary, drama and video art, and would blithely combine radically different approaches in a single project.

Always working as a truly independent filmmaker, Clarke made only four features and (approximately) 16 varied shorts, plus an uncharted plethora of exercises and doodles. The 2008 Edinburgh International Film Festival brought together all the films, along with documentary material about Clarke. Seeing it all together made it clear that she was a unique talent. Celebrated in the ’60s and ’70s, she seems to have been progressively erased from film history, just as the Eastmancolor sequence of Skyscraper (1959) has faded to pink. Stalinist revisionism or cultural amnesia?

Clarke's early works explored the possibilities of filmed dance. Her very first short, Dance in the Sun (1953), jumps in with an innovative yet stunningly simple approach: as Daniel Negrin prances around his rehearsal space, Clarke cuts to the same movements performed by the same dancer on a sunlit beach. Negrin leaps in the theater and lands on the sand. He raises his arm in the open air and lowers it back indoors. The truly magical (note Clarke’s top hat) transitions lift the film beyond a simple recording of a performance. It’s as if the dancer teleports out of our reality through his ritualized movements, pulling us along with him.

Around the same time, Clarke began working on observational documentaries. In Paris Parks (1954) is a modestly conceived portrait of children’s activities in the parks of Paris, but it shows Clarke's eye for behavior and her skill as an editor. There’s even a bit part for a red balloon, taking flight in search of Albert Lamorisse to make it a star.

But the short "city films" Bridges-Go-Round (1958) and Skyscraper (1959) show the young Clarke really hitting her stride. Bridges-Go-Round is an abstract-impressionist dance film starring New York City bridges, with a choice of two soundtracks. Teo Macero's jazz score matches the dynamism of Clarke's filming, while his use of multitracked vocals directly echoes her use of double exposure to move ghostly images of steel and concrete across each other like animation cels. The alternative score, by electronic beatniks Louis and Bebe Barron of Forbidden Planet (1956) soundtrack fame, emphasizes the modernity and inhumanity of the city.

The Oscar-nominated Skyscraper portrays the construction of 666 Fifth Avenue through a soundtrack of songs, jazz tunes, and faked conversations between construction workers. It's a musical and a documentary and an avant-garde piece of kinetic art all at once. The titular monolith jumps around through edits, glides like an urban ocean liner through traveling shots, and finally explodes into color (well, pink anyway) upon completion.

Niall Fulton, curator of the Edinburgh Film Festival's retrospective, suggests Clarke's fondness for Felix the Cat cartoons as an indirect influence: "In the backgrounds of the cartoons, the buildings always dance." Clarke was learning to choreograph the cityscapes of her films. But her first feature creates an entirely interior world.

The Connection (1962) was based on a supposedly improvised play about a group of addicts awaiting a fix. Clarke added the characters of a documentary filmmaker, played by William Redfield, who eventually samples heroin himself because "there's something dirty about just peeking into people's lives," and his cameraman (Roscoe Lee Browne) who, we are told by an explanatory title at the start, has finished the film from the director's abandoned rushes. A beatnik Blair Witch Project?

Since the footage we see is supposedly shot by Redfield and Browne, Clarke was faced with two problems. First, the theatrical nature of the event, with its exaggerated use of beat slang, heightened performance style, and Richard Sylbert's artily designed set. The second, more serious, issue was the union cameraman, Arthur J. Ornitz, who refused to shoot the film handheld with convincing documentary-style technical flaws because he feared it would damage his professional reputation. (Clarke explains this with good humour in Rome Burns, the 1970 Cinéastes de notre temps documentary about her by Noël Burch and André S. Labarthe. Meanwhile the crew buzzes around her with several cameras, capturing the interview in exactly the style she intended to use, as Jacques Rivette sits shyly in the corner and Yoko Ono disappears under a blanket.)

Somehow, the artifice of the strenuously "spontaneous" performances meshes with the artifice of the polished cinematography. When Redfield wields a handheld camera, we cut to its POV and the shot we see has clearly been taken from a tripod. But Redfield's super-square performance is already driving the film into theatrical make-believe, so the mismatch is weirdly helpful. The film plays as simultaneously a documented performance and a performed documentary. And Blue Note legends Freddie Redd and Jackie McLean provide live onscreen musical accompaniment, also “improvised,” which adds another layer of both artifice and reality.

The filmmaker-as-character approach allows Clarke to get deeper into the drug experience. After Redfield shoots up, his camera drifts from his supposed subject, taking brief shots of objects around the room, losing the narrative thread and becoming hypnotized by irrelevancies.

Clarke injects more of the required feeling of amateurism through skillfully off-kilter editing. Shots begin or end on swish-pans (a favorite trope), giving the material an unfinished feel. The first half of the plot plays like a junkie Godot, but when "the Connection" finally does arrive, Browne’s camera runs out of film, reducing the first appearance of Cowboy (Clarke's long-term partner, Carl Lee) to a dazzling series of flash-frames and bursts of white light, as if he were some supernatural figure incapable of being captured by mere celluloid. It's testimony to Lee's magnetism and zest that, once a fresh reel has been loaded, his performance lives up to this dramatic entrance.

The uneventful lives of the addicts are fleshed out with inconsequential subplots. Warren Finnerty, acting in proto-Steve Buscemi mode as junkie householder Leach, is suffering from an agonizing boil on the neck. His "friends," who he knows are only spending time with him so they can score, forcibly pop it when they grow tired of his complaining. Stuff emerges. "This cat is corroded, man!"

Cowboy shows up with an old Salvation Army lady (Barbara Winchester) he has picked up for obscure reasons and whom he wishes to protect from any understanding of his true profession, also for obscure reasons. Sister Salvation drifts through the junk-den like an alien visitor, in search of tea.

Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel With the World (1963) has its subject's engaging presence to carry it, but lacks the director’s usual experimentalism. Disputes between Clarke and the producers seem to have resulted in her departing the project before completion. The finished film, a conventional documentary hagiography, achieved the kind of mainstream acceptance (winning the Best Documentary Oscar) Clarke would never again achieve.

With her next dramatic feature there was to be no such compromise. Produced by Frederick Wiseman and adapted from Warren Miller's novel by Clarke and Carl Lee, The Cool World is a frank, bleak portrait of Harlem gang life. Duke (Hampton Clanton) is a teenage boy who needs to save 50 dollars to buy a pistol from Lee's apparently supercool gangster, Priest, so that he can become "a stone killer." His voiceover muses, "When you're a kid, you don't think one day you're going to need a Colt....When I think of all those pennies I spent..."

Around this slender narrative, Clarke and her team wove a series of wrongheaded encounters that chart the course of a society gone off the rails. Everybody is doing the wrong thing. The mainly nonprofessional actors built their scenes by improvisation—some of the genuine gang members did without a script because they couldn't read.

"The kids are given a lead-in to what they are to accomplish in general in the scene,” Clarke said, in an interview with Films and Filming in December 1963. “At all times they were asked if this was something they would do, or wouldn't do; if they believed it, or if they didn't believe it. If they said no, we didn't do it." The impression of reality is such that the many documentary shots of Harlem life fuse seamlessly with the staged action. But even with this docudrama approach, Clarke was subtly stylizing: the movements of the camera were choreographed with the actors, creating a loose dance of mise-en-scène (admired by Rivette). Sometimes the camera bobs from one close-up to another, picking up successive lines of dialogue at each stop, and Mal Waldron's jazz soundtrack is as likely to react to the camera’s movements as to those of the characters.

Where The Connection had a disconcerting professionalism, here there are photographic rough edges galore. Filming is mainly handheld and entirely on location (it was the first feature shot in Harlem). Clarke’s sound and image editing blends actuality with drama, notably and surreally when Duke is hauled off by the cops and we hear a radio newscaster reporting exactly what America’s astronauts are going to leave on the moon.

In Agnès Varda's 1969 quasi-mockumentary, Lions Love, we see Clarke in L.A. trying to get a feature greenlit, only for the deal to fall apart over her right of final cut. It seems like a fairly accurate portrait of Clarke's relations with Hollywood. Attempts to make a feature with her actress friend Shelley Winters went nowhere. Interviewed by Roger Corman for a job, Clarke realized he regarded her as a novice he could mold. She told DeeDee Halleck: "And he listed a whole bunch of filmmakers that are 10 years younger than I am, all these men who did their first movies with him. And I realized that he didn't have any idea who the fuck I was."

But Clarke was far from finished. Portrait of Jason (1967) may be her most extreme work. A 105-minute documentary profile of gay black hustler Jason Holliday, the film puts a single character under the microscope for its entire running time.

"Portrait of Jason […] was made to show Ricky [Leacock] and Penny [D.A. Pennebaker] the flaws in thinking about cinéma vérité,” Clarke said in a Take One interview in 1970. “If you take 12 days of shooting and edit only the climax points, you get crap. My theory was you don't take out the 'boring parts'—the way someone reaches those climaxes or an idea or whatever. Jason is 2 hours of real time, not film time. The film took 4 hours to make because we had to stop every ten minutes to reload the camera." In fact, sometimes the film will run out and Holliday's voice will drone on over a black screen. Clarke was particularly keen to expose the artifice, zooming out rather than in at emotional points as Holliday recounts his experiences, to distance the audience from the subject. But Clarke actually intervened in the storytelling more than she suggests, devising a system of shoulder taps to signal the camera operator to go out of focus, allowing dissolves from "scene" to "scene." To Clarke's joy, Holliday's round spectacles would, when blurred into abstraction, give his face the appearance of a skull.

Holliday, an acquaintance of Carl Lee, was selected because he was both a talent without an audience (he talks at length—he always talks at length—about his desire to stage some kind of show) and a great bore. By targeting him relentlessly with her camera, Clarke transforms what should be brain-achingly dull into something fascinating, through sheer attention. It illustrates Clarke’s belief that modern cinema should require the audience to participate. Deprived of any distractions, we have to think about Holliday and decide for ourselves why his story matters.

The film connects to Clarke's other works through its exposure of the voyeurism of cinema, and its play with reality and fiction. "There is no difference between a traditional fiction film and a documentary,” she said in the Take One interview. “I've never made a documentary. There is no such trip."

Holliday is himself a fiction of sorts—he has changed his birth name and created a persona for himself. Clarke considered him "a made-up homosexual," warped out of shape by white society and hiding behind a mask. As the film closes, Holliday, having consumed considerable quantities of liquor and reefer, seems to break down in hysterics under insistent goading from an offscreen Carl Lee. Clarke announces, "The End. The End. The End," and he is suddenly perfectly composed. Will the real Jason please stand up? If he still can.

Throughout the ’70s, Clarke was omnipresent on the New York arts scene, residing in the teepee-shaped attic of the Hotel Chelsea, and continued to work on short subjects, but the mainstream had shut her out. Partway through making Four Journeys Into Mystic Time (1978-79), a series of experimental dance films, Clarke discovered video. This allowed her to continue to work after major financing had dried up.

"TAKING VIDEO GIVES ME SOMETHING TO DO AT PARTIES" announces a title in Teepee Video Space Troupe: The First Years (1970-71). As Francis Coppola and Jack Nicholson mill around, Andy Warhol's tape deck goes missing ("Oh wow, that's too much," laments Andy) and for a moment it seems like this is to be a star-studded whodunnit. But suddenly night falls and Arthur C. Clarke is burning Shirley's tube with his laser, creating pretty afterimage patterns. "Me and the moon and the laser," declaims Arthur, pleased with himself.

“There's that neorealist side of me but there's another part of me that loves all the playing with film and video technology that creates a film like Bridges-Go-Round and a tape like Savage Love that are not realistic at all, but very stylized,” Clarke told DeeDee Halleck. “I love both types....My greatest goal is to combine those two parts of me.” In 1985, at the end of her productivity as an artist, and just before the onset of Alzheimer’s curtailed her career, Clarke achieved this fusion with Ornette: Made in America. A profile of eccentric musical genius Ornette Coleman, the film aspires to the state of visual jazz, with Clarke's handheld camera swooping and swaying in sympathy with the sounds bursting from Coleman's sax. Interview footage does not make the film more conventional, as Coleman attests to his desire to be castrated so he can concentrate on his music (his doctor advised him to start with circumcision). And Clarke throws animation into the mix—see Ornette fly to the moon in his jazz spaceship! Combining film and video, documentary and fantasy, music and cinema, Clarke's swansong gloriously brings together every strand of her filmmaking, while confirming her perverse and restless nature, her need to blow down walls and free filmmaking from all artificial restrictions. To make buildings dance.

Thanks to Niall Greig Fulton, Diane Henderson, Edinburgh International Film Festival, B. Kite 


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Courtesy Edinburgh Film Festival
Shirley Clarke's The Cool World


June 18-29, 2008 In Profile: Shirley Clarke


David Cairns is a writer, director, and blogger. His short film Cry For Bobo (2001) has won 24 awards around the world. He has written for several UK TV series including Intergalactic Kitchen and Twisted Tales. His articles have appeared in The Village Voice, The Believer, and Senses of Cinema.

More articles by David Cairns
Author's Website: Shadowplay