A profile of Shirley Clarke

A love of avant-garde dance and jazz inform Shirley Clarke’s complex, kinetic portraits of lives lived at the margins of American society.

Sophia Satchell Baeza

Shirley Clarke

Shirley Clarke

A major figure of the American avant garde, Shirley Brimberg Clarke (1919-1997) was born into privilege as the daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants who made their fortune in manufacturing. Rebelling against a repressive bourgeois upbringing, Clarke turned first to dance, and later film and video, to express her distinctive vision of the world.

Moving freely across genres and media throughout her career (and often within a single work), Clarke’s cinema explores the porous boundaries between narrative and documentary filmmaking, and film and other media, such as painting, dance, performance and video. Her 1960s features The Connection (1961), The Cool World (1963) and Portrait of Jason (1967), for which she is arguably best remembered, address issues of urban alienation, poverty, addiction and racism, focusing on lives lived at the margins of American society. Fearless in both her personal and creative life, Clarke produced a body of work that is as formally innovative as it is rooted in social protest.

Clarke initially trained as a dancer, immersing herself in New York’s vibrant post-war avant-garde dance scene. Although her dance career never quite earned her the critical acclaim she’d hoped for, it had a lasting impact on her subsequent filmmaking and video work, informing an interest in how movement is recorded formally, while introducing her to key avant-garde dancers and choreographers.

Dance in the Sun (1953), Clarke’s first short film, captures the sinuous choreography of professional dancer Daniel Nagrin. Bounding off the stage and out of the cinematic frame, it quickly cuts to him dancing on the sand. By fluidly switching between the two locations, Clarke extends Nagrin’s choreography into a new – potentially fantasy – space. Much like her then more established contemporary, dancer and filmmaker Maya Deren, Clarke uses editing to conjure up an individual’s interior life: a memory, perhaps, of a long-ago dance under the sun.

Bridges Go Round trailer

Bullfight (1955) similarly cuts between different environments, editing on shared gestures to create a sense of continual motion and high drama. Flitting back and forth between Anna Sokolow’s bullfight-inspired choreography and actual footage of a fight in an arena, Clarke’s montage mirrors the elegant and precise movements of the dancer with those of the matador, creating a dramatic stand-off.

Other short films evoke a dance without dancers, using the rhythms of the edit and movement within the frame to capture the dynamism of urban life. Bridges-Go-Round (1958), a colourful experimental short on New York’s suspension bridges, uses overlapping footage (often moving in opposing directions) and pulsing zooms to animate otherwise static structures, creating moments of cinematic abstraction and a visual affinity with jazz.

Ornette: Made in America trailer

Jazz is the pulsing vein snaking through much of Clarke’s work, right up to her final feature Ornette: Made in America (1985), a portrait of free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. Her first feature, The Connection, includes a group of real jazz musicians among the cast, adding a sense of spontaneous authenticity to the subterranean underworld being depicted.

Jazz in this context connotes a mood and a milieu, a hip stance by then inscribed into the Beat Generation mythos that Clarke’s film was consciously tapping into. Beyond using jazz for either soundtrack or subject matter, Clarke’s overall approach to making films shares certain qualities with the musical genre, emphasising improvised performance, changes in dramatic intensity, syncopated editing and – often in appearance only – an absence of script.

Skyscraper trailer

By the late 1950s, Clarke became increasingly occupied with documentary filmmaking. She worked with Willard Van Dyke, Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker, among others, on a series of three-and-a-half-minute film loops for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. With Van Dyke, she also co-directed Skyscraper (1959), a documentary on the construction of the Tishman building on Fifth Avenue, and a young Frederick Wiseman produced The Cool World.

Critical of the premise that cinema could objectively document events, Clarke didn’t always see eye to eye with these filmmakers. As the film scholar Lauren Rabinovitz argues: “Clarke denied the possibility of any such intuitive objectivity by emphasising the inherent subjectivity in the cinematic process itself.”

The Connection trailer

The Connection employs cinéma vérité techniques within a narrative framework to expose their limitations as a means of accessing ‘truth’. Based on Jack Gelber’s contentious off-Broadway play, it follows a director making a film about a group of junkies waiting for their ‘connection’ to deliver a heroin fix. Intertitles claim the film has been constructed from found footage shot in an addict’s apartment by documentary filmmaker Jim Dunn, and handed over to cameraman J.J. Burden, who pieced together the film as “honestly” as possible.

Even during its moments of seeming spontaneity, it’s clear we’re watching a drama; Clarke would later complain that the cinematography was “too slick”. Nevertheless, The Connection’s over-stylised performances and theatrical approach to blocking actors contribute to undoing the illusion of realism. The desperate attempts of a white bourgeois filmmaker to capture ‘authentic’ Beat life while manipulating the action are also sent up. “I’m just trying to make an honest human document,” Dunn whines as he intently refocuses his camera. Clarke’s digs at the earnestness and duplicity of the male documentary filmmaker are delicious.

The Cool World of Shirley Clarke trailer

For her next feature, The Cool World, a docudrama about black street gangs, the cinematography was to be far less slick. The film follows teenage boy Duke as he struggles to escape his difficult situation by climbing the ranks of the Royal Pythons, a Harlem gang. The Cool World cleverly merges techniques drawn from narrative, documentary and experimental filmmaking: on-location shooting, mobile camerawork and non-professional actors emphasise cinematic realism, while the film’s kinetic montages of Harlem street life recall her formalist early films. Fêted for producing the first commercial film shot on location in Harlem, the crew largely avoided tripods, choosing to keep the cameras close to their characters as they chase the limited opportunities available to them.

Clarke adapted Warren Miller’s 1959 novel with her creative and romantic partner Carl Lee, who played Cowboy in The Connection. A Harlem native, Lee recruited young performers from the neighbourhood, and made sure the film’s portrayal of life on the streets was accurate. With its largely empathetic depiction of the contexts leading to urban crime, The Cool World has become a landmark of African-American cinema.

The dramatic tension in Portrait of Jason, Clarke’s study of black gay hustler Jason Holliday, rests on the shifting and imbalanced power relations between filmmaker and subject. Much like Andy Warhol with his film portraiture, particularly Chelsea Girls (1966), Clarke turns the camera on to the performance of personality. Shot in her Chelsea Hotel apartment in one boozy 12-hour session, the film records Jason’s extended monologue of outré anecdotes and musical skits.

Cracks soon start to emerge in the well-honed routine: he cries, falls exhausted on a bed and interacts wildly with an increasingly confrontational film crew. By the end of the film, the veracity of his story is put into question: “Be honest, motherfucker, stop that acting will you?” barks Lee off screen. Unable to pierce the mask of his personality, or to access the ‘truth’ of what happened between him and the crew, Portrait of Jason leaves several questions unanswered.

Jason’s moments of vulnerability also implicate us as viewers, unsure if we are complicit in the spectacle of his torment. Jason tells the camera that “people love to see you suffer”, and he might just be talking about us.

As a female director in a largely male-dominated industry, Clarke frequently spoke of how her identification with outcasts was informed by a feeling of not belonging in a man’s world. In Noël Burch and André S. Labarthe’s documentary portrait of the filmmaker for French television, Rome Is Burning (1970), Clarke observes: “The woman and the black American male have in common a psyche, and a problem, and a reality, and are the closest at being able to understand each other.” By this logic, then, the black woman experiences a double oppression, but the point is never raised, and the conversation moves on.

If Clarke’s identification with the black ‘Other’ feels like a difficult pill to swallow, we can see at least how the space she opens up for Jason to speak is a markedly political gesture. Jason’s chameleonic performance – at turns amusing and tragic, often in the same breath – unveils how mainstream American society has repeatedly marginalised him: for his blackness, for his queerness, for a lifestyle incompatible with its so-called values. Clarke saw Jason’s life as symbolic of the horrors white society had inflicted on African Americans, noting: “You can’t leave that film and not be aware of what has been done to him.”

Clarke’s characters may be the products of an unjust society that conspires to subject them, but they are rarely portrayed as pathetic victims or morally punished for their transgressions. Her concerted exploration of oppression – as it emerges from the intersections of class, race, sexuality and gender – feels more relevant than ever.

  • The 50 Greatest Films of All Time

    The 50 Greatest Films of All Time

    In our biggest ever film critics’ poll, the list of best movies ever made has a new top film, ending the 50-year reign of Citizen Kane.
    Wednesday 1 August 2012

See our Greatest Films of All Time poll

Find out more

Access the digital edition

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.