Reviews

Shirley Clarke's Films Collected and Restored

Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World (1963)

Every short film, documentary and home movie here tells you something about this indefatigable dynamo and largely overlooked artist.


various

Director: Shirley Clarke
Cast: various
Distributor: Milestone
Year: 1929-1987
Release date: 2016-11-15

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.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Music

Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.

Music

IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.

Music

Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.

Film

NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.

Music

The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.