Shirley Clarke's Films Collected and Restored

by Michael Barrett

13 December 2016

Every short film, documentary and home movie here tells you something about this indefatigable dynamo and largely overlooked artist.
Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World (1963) 
cover art

The Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke 1929-1987

Director: Shirley Clarke
Cast: various

US DVD: 15 Nov 2016

The folks at Milestone have been industriously restoring and packaging the output of Shirley Clarke. Their operating theory, aside from loving her work, is that its unavailability has been responsible for eclipsing one of America’s most important filmmakers and for many years its most visible woman director.

After releasing The Connection followed by Portrait of Jason and Ornette: Made in America, they’ve packaged a head-spinning three-disc set of shorts called The Magic Box, available on DVD or Blu-ray.

Clarke’s early dance training first spurred her into film, so let’s begin with her dance films on Disc Two. These comprise her most beautiful output. In Dance in the Sun (1953), Daniel Nagrin dances like a Swiss army knife unfolding, abetted by razor-sharp jump cuts that transport him between the dance studio and a beach. At the end of this workout, he and his female accompanist light cigarettes. Created with choreographer Anna Sokolow, the color film A Moment in Love (1957) is an outdoors pas de deux with superimposed clouds, rippling reflections in water, and a dream of multiple exposures with color effects.

Made throughout the ‘70s with choreographer Marion Scott, the four parts of Four Journeys into Mystic Time are each uniquely amazing. The first and fourth films use a minimalist approach to filming stage performances of archetypal rituals, and indeed the overall title may be a reference to Maya Deren’s brilliant Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) in conjunction with her Study in Choreography for the Camera  (1945), although Deren’s influence is more apparent on Clarke’s ‘50s films.

The second and third films use increasingly complex video effects to complement electronic music by Morton Subotnick in the first case and a wiggy vocal piece by Ernst Toch in the second. That latter item, featuring a weird trio dancing eccentrically and quasi-erotically in a formless space of changing colors, is the wittiest and most delightful item here. It’s a work of freedom and joy coming momentarily unbuttoned.

Aside from the full-color, light-hearted, people-watching documentary In Paris Parks (1954) and the red-tinted Bullfight (1955), in which documentary footage of a matador is interspersed with Sokolow in the stands and on an isolated stage where she imagines herself the matador and possibly also the bull, the rest of the disc consists of outtakes and unfinished projects with Sokolow and others.

Disc One, devoted to experimental films (as if they all aren’t), devotes a full hour to Brussels Loops, documentary footage made to be projected at the American pavilion of the Brussels Worlds Fair in 1957. Most of the footage was shot by Clarke and/or D.A. Pennebaker, who would go on to his own illustrious career. The loops are organized by themes of Americana: travel, San Francisco, hand gestures, shopping, cities (pre-Koyaanisqatsi footage of time-lapse and the blood-circulation of night traffic), food, churches, driving, neon, jobs, air traffic, and shooting a Foreign Legion movie.

The footage she took of bridges for these loops was repurposed into Bridges-Go-Round (1958), previously available on the box set Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film 1947-1986. Both versions are here, the one with electronic music by Louis & Bebe Barron (from the movie Forbidden Planet) and the other with a jazz score by Teo Macero. The project treats the bridge footage with colors and superimpositions to render it abstract and modernist, a hymn to architectural line.

Another avant-garde item is the 1967 Butterfly, which starts with images scratched into the film’s emulsion and emerges into Shirley and daughter Wendy in a rock-a-bye-baby mime whose harsh sound effects were intended to send a message against the Vietnam War. It feels more like a personal experiment in expression that could be applied to a requested purpose, for it was shown once at a demonstration and never again.

The black and white, undated Scary Time was commissioned by the United Nations Children’s Fund under Thorold Dickinson, which places it no later than 1960. The notes tell us UNICEF never released it because they were disturbed by the Eisensteinian cross-cutting between American children on Halloween and news footage of actually skeletal children on the other side of the world.

Another commissioned film is the Oscar-nominated Skyscraper (1961), made with Pennebaker, Willard Van Dyke and Irving Jacoby. To explain how a New York building was raised, it uses the conceit of supposing that the construction workers are commenting upon this footage, thus giving a workers’ point of view on their accomplishment. The last few minutes of this black and white film adds color footage that looks like it might be lifted from an industrial commercial.

Dating from 1982-83, Tongues and Savage/Love are Sam Shepard monologues performed by Joseph Chaikin, modulating his delivery into various voices and tones to musical accompaniment while Clarke manipulates the video image in a variety of eye-catching ways.

The three-minute festival of hyper-editing known as 24 Frames per Second was created for the L.A. County Museum of Art’s 1977 exhibition of Persian art. Also included are unused variants that incorporate two African-American dancers providing counterpoint against the Persian imagery.

Disc Three begins with the one-hour black and white profile Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World, the Oscar-winning documentary feature of 1964. With no further detail, the notes tantalize us by saying that producer Robert Hughes took over after Clarke was fired from WGBH Boston, but Clarke was credited as director and attended the Oscars, and that this restoration is “the long-unseen complete version”. It’s the most straightforward item here, created by intercutting footage from three events (a public reading, a seminar, and Frost at home) and bridging them with the poet’s remarks. Charlotte Zwerin was the editor before moving on to her work with the Maysles Brothers.

Presumably dating from between Brussels Loops and Skyscraper is the children’s film Christopher and Me, directed and shot in color by Richard Leacock with collaboration from Clarke and Pennebaker. It’s about twins recalling a sailing incident from their boyhood that may be imaginary.

The rest of the disc is Clarke’s home movies, not always shot by herself, from her girlhood to good-looking Kodachrome footage of the ‘40s and behind-the-scenes footage of Agnes Varda’s Lions Love. Footage of Clarke dancing on a beach in 1943 foreshadows Dance in the Sun ten years later; it seems clear that she already had the idea, which is why these odds and ends can be revealing.

Perhaps the casual viewer would be more interested in a distilled “best of” rather than this miscellany of professional films, unfinished projects and home movies, adding up to more than eight hours of moving images. However, the Milestone people reason that since they’ve gone to the trouble of restoring everything in the archives, you might as well have it all, especially if you’ve gone this far into Clarke’s output. Every little piece tells you something about this indefatigable dynamo and largely overlooked artist. It all adds up to quite a creative life.

The Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke 1929-1987

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