The Cool World (1963)

Why this might not seem so easy

Born in New York 100 years ago, Shirley Clarke was a trained dancer who became a pioneer of independent and experimental film. Yet her body of work may appear disparate at first glance. Her innovative and beautiful dance films and rhythmic shorts seem to have little in common with her more conceptual features, which often consider difference and social hierarchy behind and in front of the lens. And her radical explorations in video performance and video installation are yet another strand of her work in moving image.

Get the latest from the BFI

Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.

Shirley Clarke directing Carl Lee and Richard Ward in The Cool World (1963)

However, to watch Clarke’s work is to witness a striking honing of process and concept. She was an innovative editor from the start, and her early films quickly exploited the creative potential of filmmaking. Clarke explained how when making her dance films she soon began to work with the “choreography of the camera as well as the dancers”.

Her focus on the mechanisms and structures of filmmaking was mirrored in her dogged attempt to change the structure of the film industry itself. To do this, she and Jonas Mekas twice co-founded organisations to distribute independent film, firstly the New York Film-Makers’ Cooperative and then (also with Louis Brigante) the New York Film-Makers’ Distribution Center, which helped younger filmmakers such as John Cassavetes get started.

A peer of underground titans Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, Clarke was the only woman making successful feature films in New York at the time, and the experience of being a woman would feed into her works. Clarke said: “As a woman in this world and a woman filmmaker, I know a lot about alienation.” And although her films are not obviously feminist, they increasingly address alienation as it is lived by others.

The best place to start – Portrait of Jason

“I had a lot of ideas about what was cinéma verité, what was real, what was documentary, and what was fiction,” Clarke said of the making of her seemingly simple yet highly complex 1967 feature Portrait of Jason. “I wanted to find out if I could find a way to find the truth.”

Shot during a 12-hour all-nighter in Clarke’s apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, it focuses on the wildly charismatic Jason Holliday, a gay black man whose life is more of a performance than most. At the start of the film, he introduces himself twice as Jason, and a third time as Aaron Payne. He’s a man whose thwarted, often self-sabotaged, life dream was to have his own cabaret act. He lists the roles he’s played in life: “I’ll come on as a maid, or a butler, or a flunky.” Yet more than everyday performativity, Jason also reveals how necessary having an act is in a life where ambient racism and queer-hating forced him to turn humiliating performances in order to get by.

Portrait of Jason (1967)

With Clarke’s film, Jason at last has his chance to perform to an audience. He says: “It’s a nice feeling that someone’s taking a picture of it.” But, although he’s the only person we see, Clarke doesn’t edit out her increasingly abrupt directorial prompts (“OK Jason, go”, “What else ya got?”). It’s these directions that frame Jason’s act and that make it impossible to forget that the woman playing “white lady director” (Shirley’s words) is enabling the whole show.

What to watch next

In Clarke’s 1959 short film Skyscraper, it’s the construction of a building that becomes a dynamic performance, one in which bodies, surfaces, space and light interact. Through directing In Paris Parks (1954), Clarke had found that “you can make dance films without using dancers,” and she unexpectedly stresses the choreographic aspects even in this all-male environment.

Skyscraper is also the first film in which Clarke addressed the medium’s ability to question social hierarchy. Here, site workers become the narrators and so are framed as individuals instead of merely a workforce. Clarke said: “It was really important to me to try to solve the problem of the disembodied God-like voice that was the narration style in the 1950s.”

To understand how Clarke developed the approach she brought to Skyscraper, you need to watch Dance in the Sun (1953). In Clarke’s first official film, dancer Daniel Nagrin performs as the camera purposefully mimics his jumps and leaps. The film cuts between footage taken in two locations and – in this way – Nagrin seems to transport himself from dance studio to beach. Clarke said: “All of the things I discovered about the choreography of editing and the choreography of space/time came from making that very first film. The idea of leaping from the stage and landing on the beach was a revelation to me. I still can’t get over that you can do it. Leaping from the stage just strikes me as a wonderful leap of not only magic but of concept.”

Once you’ve seen some of Clarke’s earlier films – including her second feature, The Cool World (1963), a groundbreaking semi-documentary about Harlem youths –  it will be clear how her last film, Ornette: Made in America (1985), incorporates so many of her attitudes and processes. It’s not a typical documentary but rather a portrait as original and expressive as its subject, in this case the jazz musician Ornette Coleman.

Clarke met Coleman through mutual friend Yoko Ono in the 1960s and started filming him, but it wasn’t until the 80s that the film was produced at his request. The result is perhaps the most entertaining of all her features, Clarke’s camerawork and edits often riffing on Coleman’s creative philosophies. She even incorporates comparable avant-garde techniques in video, enabling Ornette to appear to float in space.

Where not to start

The Connection (1961) was an important work for Clarke, not least because it was her first feature film. It was also her first work to have a grand conceptual conceit. Although the whole film is staged, the idea is that we’re watching a real group of jazz musicians, junkies and their fixer as ‘discovered’ by a male documentary filmmaker.

The Connection (1961)

Clarke aimed for the film to demonstrate the chasm between filmmaker and its outsider subjects as well as the complexities of ever attempting to present ‘the truth’. However ahead of its time The Connection is, the ideas it works with are developed further and with more nuance in her later films.

Don’t write it off, though; it was a vital leap for Clarke’s developing ideas about how staging and acting are a part of the human performance. Oh, and the cast includes some of the most advanced jazz musicians of the era playing themselves and performing their music.