Shirley Clarke grew up wealthy, the daughter of a manufacturing magnate and a family fortune. She had an extensive education between four universities, and married to escape her father’s tyrannical control of her adult life. At first Clarke pursued modern dance in New York City but, failing to secure a future for herself in one art form, she began making experimental, avant-garde and documentary films in her mid-thirties.
Over the next several decades, Clarke produced fiction films that looked like documentaries, documentaries that flirted with the boundaries of fiction, some of the first video art projects, and movies that possess an incredible energy to them that few filmmakers have mastered, then or now. She studied under Hans Richter, inspired other New York filmmakers like John Cassavetes, helped co-found the Filmmakers’ Co-Op with Jonas Mekas, yet the important role that she played in the New American Cinema scene has risked becoming stuck between the pages of cinema history.
Thankfully, Milestone Films has restored some of her groundbreaking works, including The Connection, Portrait of Jason, and Ornette: Made in America, all due for a home video release sometime this year.
So here’s some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from an artist who never stopped challenging herself.
Don’t Let Your Style Fit Into a Box
“There’s that Neorealist side of me but there’s another part of me that loves all the playing with film and video technology. My greatest goal is to combine those two parts of me.” [1985 interview]
Clarke’s work flirts with boundaries. 1962’s The Connection is based on a stage play about junkies and beatniks in an apartment, and the film uses the proscenium context of the original to play with direct address, making the audience a participant in the many events unfolding in a single dilapidated room. 1967’s Portrait of Jason uses a former gigolo’s extended monologue as a platform for exploring the supposed boundaries between our “real” self and the selves we perform for others.
Clarke never used style as a prescription of particular rules, or as guidelines for making a film one way or another, but rather combined styles that are otherwise thought to be mutually exclusive, thus creating something challenging and new in the process.
Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Outsiderdom
“For years I’d felt like an outsider, so I identified with the problems of minority groups. I thought it was more important to be some kind of goddamned junkie who felt alienated rather than to say I am an alienated woman who doesn’t feel part of the world and who wants in.” [1976 Los Angeles Times interview]
Intersectionality is a good way to understand the relationship of Clarke’s own subject position to the politics of her work. On the one hand, she grew up significantly more privileged than her subjects, and has therefore been suspected of fetishizing outsiderdom as a status she can adopt and use. But on the other hand, as a woman Clarke knows powerlessness, subjection, and outsiderdom – whether under the gaze of her domineering father or within a career practiced overwhelmingly by men (even in non-commercial filmmaking, men dominated).
Clarke often referenced Maya Deren in interviews because, for Clarke, Deren was the only example she could go to for another female filmmaker who radically challenged the form of filmmaking. Thus, Clarke wasn’t only challenging filmmaking convention, but stratified gender roles as well.
Revolting Against Hollywood Can Mean Revolting Against Society at Large
“I have chosen a field where I have to be out there, to constantly connect, to be in charge of vast amounts of money, equipment and people. And that is not particularly a woman’s role in our society.” [1985 interview]
Find Your Connection
“Everybody thought the film [of The Connection]—like the play–was mainly about drug addiction. But I do not think that is what the play is about, nor do I think the film is about that. I think it’s about alienation, and that was something with which I did identify. Those were the days when I had a deep understanding of the word, and as yet had nothing to do with it. I think The Connection, The Cool World, and Portrait of Jason are all about alienation. As a woman in this world and a woman filmmaker, I know a lot about alienation.” [1983 interview: direct link]
Alongside the other two quotes about how Clarke’s subject position as a woman filmmaker relates to the topics of her films, Clarke here illustrates how she is able to key into her subjects despite not sharing a biographical profile with them. She takes the oft-repeated philosophy to “write what you know” as thematic advice. There are many ways to profoundly relate with one’s characters and find shared experience among differences.
Startle the Spectator
“When [Portrait of Jason] really worked for me was where part of the crew is openly confronting this guy who has been laying himself bare except you don’t know if it’s real of if he’s been performing. But ultimately, you see the crew verbally torturing him, and then he stops short and says, ‘Is this good? Is this what you want?’ It’s startling.” [1983 interview: direct link]
Clarke’s films are not made for anyone looking for a familiar filmmaking experience, and she acknowledges that deviance from expectation can create something of a shock effect for the spectator – one that she speaks of experiencing on set. The key is to embrace this shock, and use it as a means of opening up new possibilities for the spectator. The spectator may hate you for the disruption, but at least they are no longer passively sitting still with your film.
Final Thoughts: Embrace a Technique, Then Reject It
“At the time I made [The Cool World (1963)], I was very convinced about a particular use of the camera. And you know, filmmakers go through all sorts of stages of what they like. At that point, wanted a camera that went with the actors. . . In other words, if an actor moved, I kind of moved with them and we sort of played this ballet together. And know when I see The Cool World, one of the things I don’t like about it is that. It’s overly camera-choreographed.”
Rather than pursue some ideal of technical perfection, Clarke uses each film as an opportunity for experimenting in technique, for pushing it to and beyond its perceived boundaries. She then scraps that style, and attempts something different the second time around, but while learning from her past experiences and the knowledge she’s accumulated about art (considering her biography, it’s worth noting her use of dance terms here).
Watching multiple films by Clarke, it’s very difficult to pin down anything shared in terms of stylistic attributes – her work rejects such text-based auteur readings. While her subject matter – the African-American experience, jazz music, beat culture, New York City, stigma in its various forms – is revisited and elaborated across her films, she never approaches it in the same formal fashion twice.
This is a type of freedom that may seem only possible in underground, non-commercial filmmaking, but it’s an important lesson for filmmakers working in various modes, for an admission that one is constantly learning in the process of doing opens one up to the exhilarating and intimidating freedom of embracing and pursuing certain choices over others. Filmmaking is indeed a series of choices that, no matter how prepared and premeditated, are ultimately of the moment.
A lifetime student of experimental art, Clarke’s work shows what it means to truly make films in the moment.