Clarke, Shirley

views updated

CLARKE, Shirley

Nationality: American. Born: Shirley Brimberg in New York City, 1925. Education: Stephens College, John Hopkins University, Bennington College, and University of North Carolina. Family: Married lithographer Burt Clarke, one daughter. Career: Dancer with Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, also chairwoman, National Dance Foundation, 1946–53; made first film, A Dance in the Sun, 1954; co-founder, with Jonas Mekas, Filmmakers Cooperative, 1962; worked with Public Broadcast Lab, late 1960s (fired 1969); Professor of Film and Video at U.C.L.A, 1975–85. Died: 23 September 1997, in Boston, Massachusetts, following a stroke.

Films as Director:


A Dance in the Sun (+ pr, ph, ed, co-choreo); In Paris Parks (+ pr, ph, ed, co-choreo)


Bullfight (+ pr, co-ph, ed, co-choreo)


A Moment in Love (+ pr, co-ph, ed, co-choreo)


The Skyscraper (pr, co-d only); Brussels "Loops" (12 film loops made for Brussels Exposition, destroyed) (+ pr, co-ph, ed)


Bridges-Go-Round (+ pr, co-ph, ed)


A Scary Time (+ co-sc, ph)


The Connection (+ co-pr, ed)


The Cool World (+ co-sc, ed); Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World (co-d)


Portrait of Jason (+ pr, ed, voice); Man in Polar Regions (11-screen film for Expo '67)


Trans; One Two Three; Mysterium; Initiation (all video)


Savage/Love (video)


Tongues (video/theatre collaboration with Sam Shepard)


Ornette, Made in America

Other Films:


Opening in Moscow (Pennebaker) (co-ed)


Lion's Love (Varda) (role as herself)


By CLARKE: articles—

"The Expensive Art," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1960.

"The Cool World," in Films and Filming (London), December 1963.

Interview with Harriet Polt, in Film Comment (New York), no. 2, 1964.

Interview with Axel Madsen, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1964.

Interview with James Blue, in Objectif (Paris), February/March 1965.

Interview with Gretchen Berg, in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1967.

"A Statement on Dance and Film," in Dance Perspectives (New York), Summer 1967.

"A Conversation—Shirley Clarke and Storm DeHirsch," in FilmCulture (New York), Autumn 1967 and October 1968.

"Entretiens—Le Depart pour Mars," an interview with Michel Delahaye, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), October 1968.

"Shirley Clarke: Image and Ideas," an interview with S. Rice, in Take One (Montreal), February 1972.

"What Directors Are Saying," in Action (Los Angeles), March/April 1975.

On CLARKE: books—

Hanhardt, John, and others, editors, A History of the American Avant-Garde Cinema, New York, 1976.

Kowalski, Rosemary A.R., A Vision of One's Own: Four WomenFilm Directors, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1980.

Heck-Rabi, Louise, Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1984.

Acker, Ally, Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to thePresent, New York, 1991.

Rabinovitz, Lauren, Points of Resistance: Women, Power and Politics in the New York Avant-Garde Cinema, 1943–1971, Urbana, Illinois, 1991.

On CLARKE: articles—

Breitrose, Henry, "Films of Shirley Clarke," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1960.

Archer, Eugene, "Woman Director Makes the Scene," in New YorkTimes Magazine, 26 August 1962.

Pyros, J., "Notes on Woman Directors," in Take One (Montreal), November/December 1970.

Mekas, Jonas, in Village Voice (New York), 20 May 1971.

Cooper, K., "Shirley Clarke," in Filmmakers Newsletter (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), June 1972.

Bebb, Bruce, "The Many Media of Shirley Clarke," in Journal ofUniversity Film Association (Carbondale, Illinois), Spring 1982.

American Film (Washington, D.C.), June 1982.

Grant, Barry Keith, "When Worlds Collide: The Cool World," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), vol. 28, no. 3, July 1990.

Morice, Jacques and Nevers, Camille, "Disco, bachot et autres épisodes de jeunesse," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 478, April 1994.

De Bruyn, Olivier, "Belfort 1993. Hommage à Shirley Clarke," in Positif (Paris), no. 406, December 1994.

Obituary, in Variety (New York), 10 November 1997.

Obituary, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 518, November 1997.

Obituary, in EPD Film (Frankfurt), vol. 14, no. 12, December 1997.

Obituary, in Positif (Paris), no. 444, February 1998.

Obituary, in Sight and Sound (London), March 1998.

* * *

Shirley Clarke was a leader and major filmmaker in the New York film community in the 1950s and 1960s. Her films, which exemplify the artistic directions of the independent movement, are classic examples of the best work of American independent filmmaking. Clarke began her professional career as a dancer. She participated in the late 1940s in the avant-garde dance community centered around New York City's Young Men's-Young Women's Hebrew Association's (YM-YWHA) performance stage and Hanya Holm's classes for young choreographers. In 1953, Clarke adapted dancer-choreographer Daniel Nagrin's Dance in the Sun to film. In her first dance film, Clarke relied on editing concepts to choreograph a new cinematic space and rhythm. She then applied her cinematic choreography to a non-dance subject in In Paris Parks, and further explored the cinematic possibilities for formal choreography in her dance films, Bullfight and A Moment in Love. During this time period, Clarke studied filmmaking with Hans Richter at City College of New York and participated in informal filmmaking classes with director and cinematographer Peter Glushanok. In 1955, she became an active member of Independent Filmmakers of America (IFA), a short-lived New York organization that tried to improve promotion and distribution for independent films. Through the IFA, Clarke became part of the Greenwich Village artistic circle that included avant-garde filmmakers Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, and Jonas Mekas. It also introduced her to the importance of an economic structure for the growth of avant-garde film, a cause she championed throughout the 1960s. Clarke worked with filmmakers Willard Van Dyke, Donn Alan Pennebaker, Ricky Leacock, and Wheaton Galentine on a series of film loops on American life for the United States Pavilion at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels. With the leftover footage of New York City bridges, she then made her experimental film masterpiece, Bridges-Go-Round, utilizing editing strategies, camera choreography, and color tints to turn naturalistic objects into a poem of dancing abstract elements. It is one of the best and most widely seen examples of a cinematic Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s.

Clarke made the documentary film Skyscraper in 1958 with Van Dyke, Pennebaker, Leacock, and Galentine, followed by A Scary Time (1960), a film commissioned by the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Clarke also began work on a public television film on Robert Frost, A Lover's Quarrel with the World, but due to artistic disagreements and other commitments she left the project before the film's completion while retaining a credit as co-director.

Influenced by the developing cinema-verité style in documentary films of Leacock and Pennebaker, Clarke adapted cinema verité to two feature-length dramatic films, The Connection and The CoolWorld. The Connection was a landmark for the emergence of a New York independent feature film movement. It heralded a new style that employed a greater cinematic realism and addressed relevant social issues in black-and-white low budget films. It was also important because Clarke made the film the first test case in the courts in a successful fight to abolish New York State's censorship rules. Her next feature film, The Cool World, was the first movie to dramatize a story on black street gangs without relying upon Hollywood-style moralizing, and it was the first commercial film to be shot on location in Harlem. In 1967, Clarke directed a 90-minute cinema verité interview with a black homosexual. Portrait of Jason is an insightful exploration of one person's character while it simultaneously addresses the range and limitations of cinema verité style. Although Clarke's features had only moderate commercial runs and nominal success in the United States, they have won film festival awards and critical praise in Europe, making Clarke one of the most highly regarded American independent filmmakers among European film audiences. In the 1960s, Clarke also worked for the advancement of the New York independent film movement. She was one of the 24 filmmakers and producers who wrote and signed the 1961 manifesto, "Statement for a New American Cinema," which called for an economic, artistic, and political alternative to Hollywood moviemaking. With Jonas Mekas in 1962, she co-founded Film-Makers Cooperative, a non-profit distribution company for independent films.

Later, Clarke, Mekas and filmmaker Louis Brigante co-founded Film-Makers Distribution Center, a company for distributing independent features to commercial movie theatres. Throughout the 1960s, Clarke lectured on independent film in universities and museums in the United States and Europe, and in 1969 she turned to video as her major medium in which to work.

—Lauren Rabinovitz

About this article

Clarke, Shirley

Updated About content Print Article