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March 13 – 29, 2015

To the Beat of Shirley Clarke

Born into both privilege and neglect in New York City, Shirley Brimberg Clarke (1919 – 1997) never seemed comfortable with society’s expectations and attempted to break free from convention at an early age. Ambitious and intelligent, yet unable to conform to standard education, she initially found her voice through dance. Studying under Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey and Anna Sokolow, Clarke would take all of the dance classes a college had to offer and then move on. At the end of her options, she finally escaped from the burdensome demands of her parents by marrying supportive friend and lithographer/publisher Bert Clarke. The marriage provided Clarke with the independence and freedom to do what she wanted and eventually decided her fate; she received a 16mm Bolex camera as a wedding present.

Responding to the choreography, movement and rhythm inherent in the medium, Clarke’s relationship to film began as an extension of her dance. Making her first film, A Dance in the Sun, unaware of Maya Deren’s film work with dance and spatio-temporal cutting, she transported a dancer on stage back and forth through time and space, landing him back to unceremonious reality as the credits roll. The essential elements of this first effort would reverberate throughout her work and approach to life. As she reflected in a later interview, “Everything I’ve done is based on the duality of fantasy and reality.” Taken in by the expressive beauty of motion and the transcendent powers of art, she also accepted and investigated film’s manipulative and exploitive aspects. Clarke harnessed the power of cinema to create a parallel dimension, while grounding the journey by hiding her cinematic tactics in plain sight.

Clarke also positioned herself as a formative organizing force in the fertile, intimate, interdisciplinary revolution that was the New American Cinema scene in Fifties and Sixties New York. She studied film at City College of New York programs helmed by Hans Richter, joined the Independent Filmmakers Association, attended Cinema 16 screenings and eventually founded the New American Cinema Group with fellow enthusiastic film zealot Jonas Mekas—eventually playing a vital role in setting up Film-Makers Coop with Mekas.

Meanwhile, her initial dance films led to a series of kinetic, poetic loops for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Using a visual sort of jazz as her structure, she weaves a mix of dazzling optical effects with clever contextualizing—never merely presenting her subject, but interjecting a point of view and complicating a straight-forward reading. Her inventive excursions would continue in longer, commissioned works like the sweet and haunted UNICEF promotional A Scary Time and the “musical comedy” Skyscraper with Willard Van Dyke.

Screening and lecturing regularly, Clarke also co-founded the production and distribution collective Filmmakers Inc. with many of her fellow World’s Fair documentarians and their colleagues—Van Dyke, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker—who were all interested in the socially relevant aspect of new cinema. Filmmakers Inc. became a hub that drew like-minded pioneers like John Cassavetes who borrowed Clarke’s equipment to make his groundbreaking first film Shadows (1958).

As was her inclination, Clarke confronted the problematics of the very cinema verité ethos she embraced. In her first feature-length film The Connection she challenged the objectivity and authority of the—usually male—director’s gaze and the concealed construction of a narrative—patriarchal elements which remained even within the more spontaneous, naturalistic documentary approach. The Connection’s underground characters voice the unspoken concerns of those at the end of the documentarian’s gaze—humiliation, judgment, exploitation—while the director stands in for all pretentious filmmakers as well as partly for Clarke who was continually questioning her role in the larger production of life which spilled beyond the cinema.

Clarke’s marginalized position as a female filmmaker afforded her an authentic, deeply felt outsider/insider view; thus, her subject matter of her films also spotlit the alienated, the oppressed, the othered. Unable to even conform to a “standard” format, Clarke instead inhabited the spaces in between art forms, in between dance and film, documentary and fiction, performance and experience.and later film and video. Complicating with multiple perspectives, rather than a unified voice, Clarke made visible and then attempted to dissolve the complex of barriers in art and society, most acutely in The Cool World and Portrait of Jason.

Clarke and Mekas also created the New York’s Film-Makers Distribution Center together with Louis Brigante, similar to Film-Makers’ Coop, yet focused on bringing the avant garde to commercial theaters. As with her films, it was as if Clarke wanted to directly challenge  “square” Hollywood with its orphaned, marginalized child, rather than quietly send it away to the cloistered halls of the art house and academia. Their effort was relatively short-lived, yet set the stage for independent distribution which would eventually emerge as a formidable force within Hollywood’s studio monopoly.

While teaching and experimenting with the emerging video technologies of the Seventies, Clarke’s energy and innovation carried on. Forming a community of artists, the Tee Pee Videospace troupe, from her bustling Chelsea Hotel penthouse, she organized open-ended games with cameras and monitors, and on tour created interactive antics like the Video Ferris Wheel and the fortune-telling VID-E-ORACL. After these radically playful, evanescent collaborations, she made a series of single-channel video pieces and released her cosmic tribute to Ornette Coleman.

Not without many followers and accolades during her lifetime—including the Critics Award at Cannes for The Connection and an Oscar for her Robert Frost documentary—Clarke still had to fight the discrimination she experienced as a female filmmaker; likewise, she has been noticeably neglected from underground cinematic history.

The Harvard Film Archive will present the wild and wonderful world of Shirley Clarke via a retrospective of all of her features in addition to a selection of shorts, interviews and home movies. Milestone Films’ Dennis Doros—who has overseen the restoration of many of her films—will be in attendance to present the short film program. – Brittany Gravely

Visit Milestone Films' Project Shirley website for more information on Shirley Clarke and the restoration of her films.


Saturday March 14 at 7pm
Saturday March 21 at 9pm

Portrait of Jason

Directed by Shirley Clarke
US 1967, 35mm, b/w, 105 min

Playing the role of Jason Holliday on film and in life, Aaron Payne presents himself to Shirley Clarke and her crew doing what he wants to be doing: performing. In the spirit of Andy Warhol’s screen tests and his Poor Little Rich Girl (1965), Clarke filmed the theatrical hustler in her apartment with one camera over a twelve-hour period. Even with all obvious cinematic artifice stripped away—as Clarke demonstrated earlier in The Connection—naturalism and confession prove to be alternative protective masks. As a black, gay hustler with deferred dreams, Jason represents multiple strata of marginalization, and Clarke offers this outsider persona feature-length center stage. Jason’s entertaining, anecdotal, emotional roller coaster ride reveals as much about the shadow side of American society as it is its flamboyant spokesperson. Off-screen, Clarke and her partner Carl Lee approach the roles of the prodding director and his cameraman from The Connection, as they attempt to wrangle emotional truth from their subject whose tears and laughter remain painfully layered and enigmatic. Pointing to film’s strange powers of psychological mediation, Clarke later revealed that viewing and editing the film changed her position toward her subject from amused and annoyed to fascinated and empathetic. Print courtesy of Milestone Films

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Saturday March 14 at 9:15pm

The Connection

Directed by Shirley Clarke. With Warren Finnerty, Garry Goodrow, Jerome Raphel
US 1962, 35mm, b/w, 103 min

Jack Gelber’s off-Broadway play performed by New York’s infamously bohemian company, the Living Theatre, was a beat sensation with its jagged and broken fourth wall. The unconventional play-within-a-play claimed to feature actual drug addicts and jazz musicians playing themselves as they wait for their dealer to arrive while the production’s director and screenwriter comment and bicker off-stage. Using practically the same mixed-race cast, Clarke recreated the seedy unpredictability of the experience within the very new device of cinema verité: a white, bourgeois hipster director attempts to make a document of reality by prodding the antsy junkies into outrageous behavior and pithy insights. The jazz quartet scores the film spasmodically while they, too, wait; thus, the camera and the sound are active, unsettled characters affecting the action. Clarke naturalistically depicts their squalid, absurd reality while unveiling the obvious manipulation of that reality. Mired in censorship issues upon its release, Clarke’s funny take on Otherness, exploitation, conformity, truth and judgment was somewhat subsumed by the sensationalism—obscuring the more subtle edges she describes of the contradictory integration and tension within many aspects of urban American life in the Fifties.

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Monday March 16 at 7pm

The Cool World

Directed by Shirley Clarke. With Hampton Clanton, Yolanda Rodriguez, Carl Lee
US 1964, 16mm, b/w, 105 min

With all of the ingredients of a noir thriller, Clarke’s realist diary of Harlem instead careens through the city streets with an unsensationalized coolness and a heartbreaking, intoxicating rhythm. One of the first movies filmed on location in Harlem and the first feature shot with a handheld 35mm camera, The Cool World reassembles Warren Miller’s novel into an improvised diagram of the internal and external violence riddling Harlem’s complex stratification of race, class and gender. Young Duke concentrates all of his efforts on acquiring a gun—the ultimate symbol of power and control in his chaotic, closed world—and all around him the crime, oppression, prejudice and indoctrination pull him in different directions. Meanwhile, the beauty, camaraderie and hybrid culture of this marginalized melting pot spills over in Clarke’s verité street photography, Mal Waldron and Dizzy Gillespie’s spare, sensitive soundtrack and the remarkable cast of unprofessional actors, many of whom led long careers in film and television after their incendiary debuts. Print courtesy of Zipporah Films

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Friday March 20 at 7pm
Sunday March 29 at 5pm

Ornette: Made In America

Directed by Shirley Clarke
US 1984, 35mm, color & b/w, 77 min

Clarke’s free-associating, layered approach to her portrait of the legendary free jazz icon mischievously reflects the multidimensional fabric of Ornette Coleman’s inventive, radical approach to jazz. Initially dropping the project of filming Coleman in the Sixties, Clarke resumed production in the Eighties at the urging of producer Kathelin Hoffman, in part to document the inaugural concert of a new performing arts center opening in Coleman’s hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. Clarke magically and unpredictably blends dramatization, video collage and rhythmic editing techniques with interviews and concert footage, to craft an energetic and otherworldly journey through the cosmos of Ornette Coleman. Featuring appearances by fellow creative eccentrics like William Burroughs and Brion Gysin while conjuring the philosophies of Buckminster Fuller, Clarke’s biography dreamily sketches out the transcendental orbit Coleman has always followed while tenderly tethered to his humble beginnings in a Fort Worth ghetto.

Preceded by

Bridges-Go-Round

Directed by Shirley Clarke
US 1958, digital video, color, 4 min. Score by Louis and Bebe Barron

One of her most acclaimed shorts in the loops series she made for the US pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, Bridges-Go-Round imbues inanimate steel structures with motion and emotion. Due to a copyright issue, the original electronic score by Louis and Bebe Barron which had to be replaced with a jazz score by Teo Macero. After the rights cleared, Clarke released both versions of the film, showing how profoundly the different scores alter the visual experience. The second version will screen in the shorts program on March 23.

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Friday March 20 at 9pm

Lions Love (... and Lies)

Directed by Agnès Varda. With Viva, James Rado, Jerry Ragni
France 1968, DCP, color, 110 min

In addition to Jerome Ragni and James Rado—the creators of Hair—as well as Warhol superstar Viva, Shirley Clarke plays herself in Varda’s vision of Hollywood and the sexual revolution. Structured as a playful film-within-a-film, Varda repeatedly punctures the cinematic illusion by discussing scenes with the actors from behind the camera and at one point appearing briefly, to show Clarke how to act out a suicide attempt. Combined with footage of Robert Kennedy’s assassination and the shooting of Andy Warhol, Lions Love is a time capsule of free love and its consequences dotted with cameo appearances by Peter Bogdanovich and Jim Morrison, among others.

Lions Love Home Movies

Directed by Shirley Clarke
France 1968, DCP, color, silent, 13 min

 

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Sunday March 21 at 7pm

Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World

Directed by Shirley Clarke
US 1963, DCP, b/w, 52 min

By the time Clarke made a biopic on Robert Frost for public television, he was a long-celebrated American institution. Though featuring him accepting the Congressional Gold Medal from President Kennedy at the White House, Clarke lingers on the 88-year-old poet busily ambling about his house and property in Vermont and intersperses this with relaxed talks to students at Sarah Lawrence and Amherst Colleges. Jokingly acknowledging his film crew at times, Frost appears comfortable and amused with his place in the sun. Relatively conventional with a verité cognizance, Clarke’s stroll “above ground” earned her the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary in 1963.

Preceded by

Skyscraper

Directed by Shirley Clarke, Willard Van Dyke, Irving Jacoby
US 1959, DCP, color, 21 min

 

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Introduction by Dennis Doros
Sunday March 21 at 7pm

In Paris Parks

Directed by Shirley Clarke
US 1954, DCP, color, 13 min

 

Brussels Film Loops/Gestures

Directed by Shirley Clarke
US 1957, DCP, silent, color, 12 min

 

Bullfight

Directed by Shirley Clarke
US 1955, DCP, color, 10 min

 

A Scary Time

Directed by Shirley Clarke and Robert Hughes
US 1960, DCP, b/w, 16 min

 

Television Interview: Shirley Clarke in Minneapolis

US 1956, DCP, b/w, 3 min

 

Bridges-Go-Round

Directed by Shirley Clarke
US 1958, DCP, 4 min. Score by Teo Macero

 

24 Frames per Second

Directed by Shirley Clarke
US 1977, DCP, color, 3 min

 

Butterfly

Directed by Shirley Clarke
US 1967, DCP, color, 4 min

 

Four Journeys Into Mystic Time: ONE-TWO-THREE

Directed by Shirley Clarke
1978, DCP, color, 9 min

 

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