Celebrating Shirley Clarke

On Film / The Daily — Oct 2, 2019
Shirley Clarke

Dancer-turned-filmmaker Shirley Clarke, a crucial figure in the New American Cinema movement of the early 1960s, was born one hundred years ago today. Two retrospectives are marking the occasion, one at New York’s Film Forum and the other on the Criterion Channel. Both programs are anchored by the features that established Clarke’s reputation as a pioneer of the sort of films that, as director and programmer Robert Greene put it in an essay for Sight & Sound a few years ago, “cross-pollinate fictional and nonfictional modes.” Film Forum and the Channel are also showcasing Clarke’s forty-one-minute Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World (1963) and nearly twenty of the short films Clarke made between the early ’50s and mid-’80s.

During her lifetime and in the years immediately following her death in 1997, Clarke’s work was often underappreciated but never entirely forgotten. In 2009, Melissa Anderson wrote up a retrospective at Anthology Film Archives in the Village Voice, calling Clarke “one of New York’s greatest filmmakers.” A few years later, Milestone Films cofounders Dennis Doros and Amy Heller launched Project Shirley, an endeavor that put new restorations of three features and the Frost documentary in theaters before releasing them on DVD. By the end of 2012, their work was being recognized by the New York Film Critics Circle, which presented a special award to Doros and Heller “for their meticulous, affectionate, and ultimately revelatory revisiting of the films of Shirley Clarke.”

That same year, Manohla Dargis wrote an appreciation of Clarke in the New York Times—and if you have time for only one article mentioned here, this is the one—in which she noted that Clarke, the eldest of three daughters in a wealthy, Park Avenue family, grew up “with chauffeurs and governesses.” She studied dance with Martha Graham, married, had a daughter, and in 1953, made her first short film, Dance in the Sun, with, as Dargis points out, “inherited money and a 16 mm camera that had been a wedding present.”

Several shorts followed in rapid succession, and one in particular, A Scary Time (1960), has made such an impression on Reverse Shot coeditor Jeff Reichert that he wrote about it for the publication’s Halloween special last year. The sixteen-minute film commissioned by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund sets scenes of well-fed and well-bred suburban children trick-or-treating and dancing in their Halloween costumes against images of the hungry and suffering children that UNICEF was aiming to save. “It’s a Shirley Clarke film through and through,” writes Reichert, adding that “anyone familiar with her body of work will recognize an unforced intimacy with her subjects, the musicality of her editing choices and camera movements, the overall improvisational feel masking design and intent.”

By this point, Clarke had joined Jonas Mekas, Robert Frank, Emile de Antonio, Peter Bogdanovich, and others—she was the only woman—in founding the New American Cinema Group. She’d lent equipment to John Cassavetes so that he could shoot his first feature, Shadows (1959). At the end of 1960, the year her documentary short Skyscraper was nominated for an Oscar, she began shooting her own debut feature, The Connection (1961). Jack Gelber’s play about a group of heroin-addicted jazz musicians waiting for their man had become a cultural sensation when it was first staged at the Living Theater in 1959. The actors, many of them real-life addicts, interacted with the audience, a number of whose members fainted each night when one of the performers actually shot up right before their eyes. Clarke’s film, for which Gelber wrote the screenplay, features much of the original cast. “Yet what’s most radical about the film isn’t the depiction of the needle,” wrote Melissa Anderson, “but Clarke’s critique of the burgeoning American cinema vérité movement and its claims of capturing ‘the truth.’”


William Redfield plays Jim Dunn, described by Leonard Quart in Cineaste as “the kind of insecure, pompous filmmaker who attempts to give himself authority by alluding to Flaherty and Eisenstein.” Dunn has hired these junkies to perform his vision of the true underbelly of the big, bad city. “Clarke skillfully directs the film as if she is Dunn making a vérité documentary with a hand-held camera, employing jittery swish pans, tracks, and cuts, and allowing the screen to inadvertently go dark at moments,” writes Quart. She also “anticipates David Holzman’s Diary by a few years, constructing a self-aware mockumentary that continually acknowledges its own production,” notes Jaime N. Christley at Slant. The Connection screened out of competition in Cannes, but censors in New York kept it from being shown back home. Talking to NPR in 2012, Dennis Doros remarked that “one of the things that upset people is that these junkies are unrepentant, that there’s no tragedy that happens to them. They’re not people who have fallen on bad times and regret their lives. There is no regret in these films.”

Introducing a screening of The Cool World (1964) at Light Industry in 2012, Amy Taubin noted that it was the first fiction feature to be shot entirely on location in Harlem. Hampton Clanton plays “an African-American teenager who, heartbreakingly, gets caught up in a culture of gangs and guns,” wrote Taubin. “The film is as much as document of uptown street life just before the period of Black Power as it is an early landmark in the history of American neo-realism.”

In 2017, Mark Harris, writing for Film Comment, revisited Portrait of Jason (1967), Clarke’s “transfixing, troubling, immensely powerful documentary.” Shot over the course of a single night, the camera focuses solely on Jason Holliday, who was “unlike any gay man who had ever been seen in a movie before. He’s amusing, profane, explicit, and—most startlingly for the time—seemingly without shame, reservation, or embarrassment.” Heard but not seen, Clarke seems to be attempting to push Holliday into some sort of alcohol-fueled breakdown. “Holliday himself claimed at least once that his emotional collapse in the film was a performance piece of which he was in control,” notes Harris. “That feels unlikely, but the impulse behind his assertion—a desire to claim agency, independence, and authorship—is what makes Portrait of Jason such an enduringly fascinating film.”


After Jason, Clarke didn’t make another film for ten years, but in the late 1970s, she became fascinated with the mobility and instantaneity of video. Her engagement with the new medium led to a string of shorts before she returned to film to make her final feature, Ornette: Made in America (1985). “The Ornette Coleman mythos is founded on the abuse heaped upon the saxophonist in his early days for his wildly unorthodox style,” wrote Jake Cole for Slant in 2014, “but the film opens with him returning to Fort Worth in 1983 to have a day named for him, a jubilant occasion that sees the jazz legend finally given his public due.” Writing for the Voice the following year, Stephanie Zacharek noted that the film’s “looping structure and three-legged-dog rhythms make it more like an Ornette composition than a conventional movie—it’s the place to go to unlock some of the most precious secrets of Ornette.”

Presented on the Channel along with Clarke’s features and shorts is Noël Burch and André S. Labarthe’s Rome is Burning (1970), a profile of Clarke made for French television that features appearances by Yoko Ono and Jacques Rivette. “While speaking to Burch and to a group of young French cinephiles,” wrote Angelos Koutsourakis for Senses of Cinema in 2012, “she constantly assumes a range of roles, the role of the cinéaste, of the ambitious woman, of the American who seems to feel more at home in Europe and of the performer who wants to break the safe wall between film and audience. Towards the end, tired of being filmed she asks the group persistently to give her a camera and she ends up playing her most successful life role, that of the filmmaker.”

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