Shirley Clarke astutely observed New York City cultures in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Much has been made of her start as a dancer, but equally striking was her absorption of so many modern arts. Her films combined bebop and modal jazz, the geometric forms in suspension bridges and glass skyscrapers by Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, cinema verité, downtown theater, and the vital tensions of street life.
All this was demonstrated in a recent BAMcinématek retrospective of Clarke’s films. The series began with her first feature, an adaptation of the Living Theater’s production of Jack Gelber’s play The Connection. The film purports to be a documentary about a group of junkies that was edited by the cameraman after the director disappeared. The action is largely improvised around the group as they wait in an apartment for the Cowboy (Carl Lee) to return with their next fix while the clueless director tries to elicit performances.
Clarke uses long, uninterrupted takes for “confessionals,” where characters discuss their addictions (a technique taken from the Living Theater’s experiments in audience interaction). While they grant access to interior lives, these takes also result in some hammy moments. The stark junky realism (at the time considered scandalous) is marred by some absurdist touches, like the arrival of an aid worker named Sister Salvation. The Connection is most intriguing Clarke’s use of the camera as a character. The director and cameraman repeatedly adjust the frame, the junkies repeatedly attack the director for trying to capture a reality he can’t know. As the cinema verité movement was getting started, Clarke, who had worked with two verité pioneers, Frederick Wiseman and D.A. Pennebaker, was already questioning its motives.
Wiseman produced Clarke’s second, best known feature, The Cool World, which uses many techniques from The Connection, to better effect. The screenplay, which Clarke co-wrote with Carl Lee, is about a Harlem street kid who rises to the head of his small gang. Clarke had her actors (novice and experienced) improvise around the script, and she followed them with a handheld 35mm camera. The resulting documentary “feel” is enhanced by elements that emphasize poverty’s hyperkinetic futility. Mal Waldron’s score incorporates abstract bop with ironic flourishes (standards like “My Bonnie”) and ice cream truck bells. Clarke edited the film with a sophisticated rhythm reminiscent of the score, and incorporated overlapping conversations, random dialogue, and internal monologues. This influential, pseudo-documentary approach was Clarke’s answer to verité‘s quest for “authenticity,” acknowledging its subjective possibilities.
BAM intriguingly paired The Cool World with Clarke’s first acclaimed short, Bridges-Go-Round. One of her first non-dance shorts, it’s an abstract rendering of Manhattan’s bridges, movements of superimposed images, including shots from moving vehicle and whip pans, that make the structures appear to glide and, in effect, dance with each other. This style appears also at the beginning of The Cool World, when a group of boys take a school trip to wealthy midtown Manhattan, making Fifth Avenue look cold, hard, and otherworldly.
The following day’s screening was composed entirely of shorts, which make up the majority of Clarke’s work. Skyscraper, co-directed with Pennebaker, is a promotional clip about the construction of the building at 666 Fifth Avenue. In the jolting, fast-paced introduction, a song by Ted Macero mocks the city’s predilection for tearing down its past to make way for the future. But the film is primarily a paean to industry, with inventive architectural framing and multiple point-of-views that enliven the cheesy promo narration.
There followed three early dance shorts illustrating Clarke’s increasing experimentation. A Moment in Love presents a fairly straightforward pas de deux in a natural setting, with filters and color tinting. Bullfight contains three parts: a bullfight, a spectator’s reaction in the stands, and a dance where the spectator performs her interpretation of the bullfight. The dancer in >Dance in the Sun performs on a beach and the surrounding birds and the clouds become a part of his performance.
The evening ended with two video shorts from the early ‘80s, Savage/Love and Tongues. Both feature monologues written by Joseph Chaikin and Sam Shepard and performed by Chaikin, revealing the artists’ avant-macho sensibility. Clarke’s contribution is evident in her use of almost every conceivable studio video effect of the time and experimental music as a through line.
The series closed with a larky meta-comedy directed by Agnes Varda, Lions Love, in which Clarke appears as herself. It’s a loosely composed exploration of Hollywood, celebrity, and image in which Viva and Hair creators James Rado and Gerome Ragni flit about a Hollywood Hills house. Clarke boards with them while trying to get financing for a film. “I don’t know if I’m in a movie or directing one,” she says, a topic the movie never quite tackles. While the film is slight (Varda, off-screen, calls it a “silly, little film”), it is oddly compelling to watch the charismatic Viva and the boys improvise clever chatter while making a phone call or lying in a pool.
Lions Love references Clarke’s failed attempt to make films in Hollywood in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. In 1972, she told Take One magazine, “I was never ‘underground,’ I was never ‘Hollywood.’ There was no group I was part of. I always hoped there was a niche I could fit into, but I never did.” Clarke commented on her times like few other filmmakers, though she struggled perpetually to find funding (being one of the few female directors of her time didn’t help). After her trip to Hollywood, she made one documentary feature and a handful of shorts. The BAM series, a testament to her eclectic tastes, talents, and influences, also seemed incomplete, the record of a career stifled by circumstances.