Shirley Clarke, one of the crucial modern American filmmakers, would have celebrated her centenary on Wednesday. (She died in 1997.) She made three feature films in the nineteen-sixties—“The Connection” (1961), “The Cool World” (1964), and “Portrait of Jason” (1967)—each of which effaces the boundaries between documentary and fiction, art and life. She’s one of the prime inventors of creative cinematic nonfiction. Her centenary will be celebrated both on and offline: Film Forum is offering a monthlong series of Clarke’s films and the Criterion Channel presents a nearly complete program of her work, along with a noteworthy documentary, “Rome Is Burning,” from 1970, in which Clarke gives voice to her artistic philosophy.
There’s no biography of Clarke (although Laurence Kardish, a former curator of film at MOMA, is working on one) but she figures prominently in a remarkable memoir, “Life Itself!,” from 2001, written by her sister, the novelist Elaine Dundy. Clarke, who grew up in New York, became a filmmaker somewhat by accident: she was originally a dancer, also somewhat by accident (though an artist to her very essence), and, while filming the dances of her colleagues, in the nineteen-fifties, she discovered the transformative power of the cinema—the inseparability of documentation from imagination.
In “Rome Is Burning,” which was made for French television, Clarke is filmed sitting on the floor amid a semicircle of friends, including Yoko Ono and Jacques Rivette. One of the principal subjects that she addresses is her relationship with her audience. She repudiates the word “underground” to characterize her work; she calls herself an “independent filmmaker” and says, “I plan my films and mean them to play in theatres.” She later adds, “I think I’m well aware who my audience is,” even if she thinks that she doesn’t reach as many of its members as she’d hoped. (Clarke even tried to make a film in Hollywood, an unhappy venture that’s woven into Agnès Varda’s film “Lions Love ( . . . and Lies),” from 1968, in which Clarke plays herself.) What’s more, in the course of one of her discussions with Rivette (they speak French together), she develops an idea of her relationship with her audience that emerges as a crucial element of her cinematic vision: “I think that I’ve gotten to the point that I believe so much that the filmmaker, the audience, and the film must all be part of something together, and that I don’t want them separated behind the screen anymore.”
The filmmaker Shirley Clarke, who would have celebrated her centenary on Wednesday.
Photograph by Robert R. McElroy / Getty
There’s an essentially political side to Clarke’s intended connection with her audience: she very much wants to foster social change by way of her movies. The three features that Clarke, a white woman, made in the sixties—the core of her work, plus a fourth feature that she began in the sixties and completed in 1986, “Ornette: Made in America”—are centered on the lives, the art, and the heritage of African-Americans. She states her intentions plainly in “Rome Is Burning”: “I feel myself that it is the great problem of our time, the race—or racism—everywhere, not only in the United States.” Though she wants to “convert” people with her films, she acknowledges the paradoxes of making independent films on subjects of the greatest importance: “But, if I believe this to be true, how come I’ve done a film that has limited who it’s going to be seen by?”
In “The Connection,” four black jazz musicians (including the innovative saxophonist Jackie McLean) are waiting in a loft, with some friends, for a drug dealer who’ll be bringing their fixes of heroin. While they wait, they play music (the compositions were written by the quartet’s pianist, Freddie Redd), and they’re also being filmed by a documentary filmmaker—a white man—who experiences a crisis of conscience. “Portrait of Jason” is Clarke’s feature-length interview—filmed in the course of a single night, in her apartment in the Chelsea Hotel—of Jason Holliday, a black, gay, self-described hustler and an aspiring cabaret artist, who was a friend of hers—and whose tales of racist aggression and condescension, and his ways of coping with it, form the core of the film. “The Cool World”—produced by Frederick Wiseman, who was then a law professor and hadn’t yet directed a movie—is the drama of a teen-ager in Harlem, Richard (Duke) Custis (played by Rony Clanton), picked on by bigger kids and possessed of bigger dreams, who plans to become a local eminence in a hurry by acquiring a gun.
Clarke further considers the link between her relatively noncommercial work and its effect, nonetheless, on the wider public: “ ‘The Cool World,’ even though it was only seen by the already converted, in some subterraneous manner, seeped beyond it . . . because I wasn’t the only person doing that sort of thing at the time. Baldwin was writing, so-and-so was talking, Malcolm X was talking, a lot of things were happening that allowed that seepage.” (There are no black participants onscreen in “Rome Is Burning” who might bring useful perspectives on the relations and the differences between Clarke’s, James Baldwin’s, and Malcolm’s work.)
Clarke was well aware of the inseparability of the life experience and the behind-the-camera activity of filmmakers from the results on camera—and from movies’ relationship to their audience. She made her films in close collaboration with black artists—in particular, the actor Carl Lee, who played the drug dealer in “The Connection” and who became both her partner in life and her artistic collaborator on “The Cool World” and “Portrait of Jason.” (She also worked with two other crucial black filmmakers on “The Cool World”—Madeline Anderson, who directed the great documentaries “Integration Report 1” and “I Am Somebody,” and Edward O. Bland, the director of “The Cry of Jazz.”)
In “Rome Is Burning,” Clarke speaks of the fusion of what’s off camera and behind the scenes with the movie itself. In this regard, she saw herself as part of a wider cultural moment: the repudiation of the filmmaker as “voyeur” and the acknowledgment of his or her presence as participant. “The very thing that was trying to be hidden is now the very thing trying to be exposed,” and she says that this holds true not only for what goes on behind the camera but also for what goes on when the movie is shown: “Now the audience is being asked to participate, and the filmmaker, the watcher, is the audience. . . . The whole problem of trying to break through the screen . . . We’ve pretty well succeeded in breaking it.”
The movement of so-called cinéma vérité (under the artistic impetus of Jean Rouch and Robert Drew) is, above all, the creation of a cinematic unified field—the unification of documentary filmmakers with their onscreen subjects. Clarke approached this idea in an even more comprehensive, utopian, and politically confrontational way: she sought to include the audience in that field. Coming from the performing arts, she imagined, when making films, the spectators as being in the room with the camera, or on the streets with the camera, and, conversely, the filmmakers and their subjects sitting in the theatre. She discusses, in “Rome Is Burning,” a project that she made for Expo 67, in Montreal, that featured eleven screens in a circle, with different images that she edited contrapuntally—and the audience would sit in the middle of the circle, on a slowly rotating platform, to watch the screens and their succession of images.
Her vision of social change was inseparable from her vision of artistic change—and of the changing relationship of audiences to art, and, in particular, to movies. That change is one that she accomplished in part through the radical form of her movies: the metafictions of “The Connection”; the voice-overs and the impulsive camerawork, the documentary ardor and the interjective editing of “The Cool World”; the psychodramatic intimacy of “Portrait of Jason.” Yet her transformational ideal is as much a matter of shifts in artistic and social psychology as of cinematic form. She declared that, in the near future, art won’t be made only by artists but will also be “in the hands of many, many more people.” In particular, she detected “a dissatisfaction with merely going to movies . . . and watching something; you want to be part of it. My generation of filmmakers was all something else first,” such as Clarke herself, a former dancer. “Nowadays, young kids want to be filmmakers, and they never were anything else up front, and that’s quite a different attitude to film. . . . First of all, they’re coming to it much earlier, and directly, and I think it’s going to make a very different kind of film.” She believed that ready access to consumer-grade and home-movie equipment would be, in part, responsible for these changes—as, in fact, has happened. Moreover, starting in the late nineteen-sixties, Clarke began to work with video and with the telecommunication of images; she envisioned new technologies as crucial tools for the transformation of art and of society. Her grand conception of total cinema—personal and political, reportorial and imaginative, visually inventive and experientially confrontational—is a work of art in itself, one that has marked the times in a way that leaps beyond the bounds of any one of her great films.