Clarke, Shirley (1925–1997)

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Clarke, Shirley (1925–1997)

American filmmaker and pioneer of the independent film movement. Born Shirley Brumberg, on October 2, 1925, in New York, New York; died after a long illness in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 23, 1997; attended Stephens College, Bennington College, Johns Hopkins University, and University of North Carolina; married Bert Clarke (divorced 1963); children: Wendy Clarke (b. 1951).


Dance in the Sun (1953); Bullfight (1955); In Paris Parks (1955); A Moment in Love (1957); Loops (1958); Skyscraper (1959); Bridges-Go-Round (1959); A Scary Time (1960); The Connection (1960); The Cool World (1964); Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World (1964); Man in the Polar Regions (1967); Vosnesensky (not completed, 1967); Portrait of Jason (1967); 24 Frames Per Second (1977); Initiation (1978); Four Journeys Into Mystic Time (1980); (in collaboration with Sam Shepard) Savage/Love (1981); Tongues (1983); and a portrait of jazz musician Ornette Coleman, Ornette: Made In America (1986).

In the mid-1960s, Shirley Clarke, and the avant-gardists who had formed the New American Cinema Group, spoke before would-be filmmakers at the New York Film Festival. A photograph of Clarke, shot at the event, presents a petite woman, her dark hair bobbed in a Beatle cut and a look in her eye so intense and passionate it belies her fragile appearance. Taking people by surprise on all fronts was Clarke's trademark. Her appearance and her upper-class background contradicted her career choices and certainly the subject matter she chose to explore. The advice she gave to students that day revealed a commitment to individual expression that was without artistic naivete. "I'll tell you something I learned the hard way," she told them. "Independent films need special treatment. [They] need to be treated not as one of a bucket of films but for what each individual film is saying."

Born to a wealthy Jewish family, Shirley Brumberg may have grown up on Park Avenue but she never felt as though she belonged. The eldest of three daughters in an intensely competitive family, Clarke rebelled against the expectations set by the Brumbergs and by the elite circles in which they lived. Her resistance to family pressures was probably due in part to a learning disability; she was unable to read until the fifth grade, unable to write until the seventh. As she told journalist Marjorie Rosen in an interview for Ms. magazine: "Until I discovered dance at 14, I was the outsider. But the child that observes has many advantages, she identifies with 'out' people." Though formal education was difficult (she attended four colleges), Clarke found her niche in the company of professional dancers like Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey and modern-dance's great master, Martha Graham . By age 17, Clarke's original choreography was presented at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York, a facility renowned for its commitment to new works by dancers, writers, and performance artists.

Still living at home with her parents, Clarke longed for independence, and Bert Clarke seemed to offer a way out. He was older, sophisticated, and supportive, and Shirley thought she was in love. But the marriage was a disappointment. Though they would divorce in 1963, they remained friends, and Bert financed many of Shirley's early dance films.

In 1951, during a long recovery that followed the birth of their daughter Wendy, Clarke began to rethink her creative direction. In an interview for Dance Perspectives, she told Gretchen Berg , "I got tired of rehearsing for six months for one performance at the 'Y' and wanted to preserve forever what everyone had worked so hard to achieve." Thinking it would be a simple matter to put dance on film, Clarke learned quickly how difficult it is to capture a live performance. Her first attempts, she admits, were horrendous, so she took a look at Choreography for a Camera, directed by Maya Deren , a woman often called the mother of the avantgarde. Clarke articulated what Deren already knew, "that one had to destroy one art to be true to the other; dance as it existed had to be transformed into good film. Dance was not only a human being whirling in space, but also someone walking down the street, or your hair waving in the breeze."

There are no unrealized dreams, just the courage to do what I know I have to do.

—Shirley Clarke

Clarke began to develop what John Martin, The New York Times' dance critic, dubbed "Cine-Dance." Rather than documenting a dance as it exists on stage, Cine-dance can only exist on film. Clarke's early films are innovative examples of this unique genre. Documenting the development of Dances in the Sun, one of her first films, she told Berg: "I had seen the dance in the theatre and I had gotten the feeling of a place [the beach]. So I shot the identical dance on stage and [then] on the beach and I intercut the two…. The movements seemed enormous in time and space." Clarke knew she was onto something and wanted to continue to experiment with screen images set to music. While in Paris, she made In Paris Parks, a film about children playing in the park. Though the children never dance per se, the images seem to have a kinetic quality because they're supported by a musical score.

Bullfight, Clarke's third film, was even more ambitious. It cross cut three elements: a dancer, a bullfighter, and the audience watching both. Though Clarke admits the idea was not entirely successful, she discovered that she could no longer rely on dances that had been specifically choreographed for the stage. For a dance to work on film, it had to be choreographed for film. With that idea in mind, Clarke made A Moment in Love. Eight minutes long, its simple premise involves a romantic encounter by a young couple in a wooded glen. The dance takes off with a leap into space. Through the use of technology, the young dancer-lovers are transformed into blossoming flowers.

Clarke's theories were taking wing. In her next movie, Bridges-Go-Round, she began to reinvent the entire definition of dance. In this film, the dancers are the bridges of Manhattan. Henry Breitrose in Film Quarterly called Clarke an "instinctive filmmaker"; the bridges "are manipulated in a complex but extremely arresting way."

In 1959, Willard Van Dyke, a filmmaker who had hired Clarke to make 15 two-and-a-half-minute films for the Brussell's World's Fair, commissioned her to make a short about the construction of a skyscraper. After a year of work, Skyscraper, which Clarke refers to as a musical comedy documenting the construction of a building, won a prize at the prestigious film festival in Venice, Italy, and was nominated for an American Academy Award for Best Short Subject. That same year, Clarke and fellow filmmakers Donn Alan Pennebaker, Willard Van Dyke, and Ricky Leacock started a filmmakers co-op in order to share space and equipment. Clarke was also invited to teach a filmmaking course at Northwestern. Though she had been uninterested in academia as a student, she found the atmosphere conducive for an experimental filmmaker and a good place to expose her work. At term's end, she returned to New York and taught film courses at Columbia.

In 1960, Clarke was asked to make a film for UNICEF, the United Nations' organization for children. Since her previous films had been creative, if somewhat whimsical, the United Nations' film unit most likely felt comfortable having Clarke at the helm. What they couldn't have known was Clarke's penchant for realism. Instead of showing the successes of UNICEF, Clarke's film, A Scary Time, was a searing look at the true-life horrors suffered by the world's impoverished children. The result was so overwhelming, the UN refused to release the film. According to Clarke, if internationally renowned filmmaker Roberto Rossellini had not come to her aid, the film would have been destroyed.

On September 28, Clarke and 23 independent filmmakers met at 165 West 46th Street and announced they would form The New American Cinema Group. Whereas Clarke's earlier co-op shared space and equipment, this group went much further. Their aim was to overturn the negative aspects of working independently, much of which had to do with the difficulty of distributing low-budget films and the struggle independents were having with the craft unions. Each member of the group pledged to put aside a certain amount of film profits in order to help other members finish films, aid in distribution, or stand as a bond for film labs. The coalition was an important step in the development of an independent film community that continues to grow.

Clarke then set out to make a feature film. Having seen Jack Gelber's play The Connection at the Living Theatre, she was so moved by its honesty she optioned it. Raising money, however, to fund a film that deals with hard-core heroin junkies proved daunting. Nevertheless, she and her co-producer Lewis Allen managed to raise the necessary capital, as they had always done, by forming a limited partnership. The film was shot on location in a gritty Harlem tenement. Dorothy Oshlag in Sight and Sound noted that the film works on several levels. On its surface, we watch as a group of heroin junkies wait for their "connection." A documentary filmmaker comes on the scene; he wants to photograph their lives. But on another level, Clarke uses the camera to pry into the junkies' private emotions to the point where the camera functions as another character.

Reactions to The Connection were explosive. Completed in early 1961, it won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. "The Connection appears to be one of those legendary 'firsts' like Citizen Kane or Breathless, which not only succeed filmically, but also set the standards for other film work," wrote critic Jay Jacobs in The Reporter. No doubt Jacobs was correct. Films of the 1990s, such as the highly controversial Kids, directed by Larry Clark, and to some extent Leaving Las Vegas, directed by Mike Figgis, owe a debt of gratitude to Clarke's uncompromising look into the underbelly of life, specifically the drug culture. But its release in the United States was held up for 18 months while Clarke did battle with the Supreme Court. The problem: she refused to edit out the word "shit" used by the junkies themselves as the term for heroin. Clarke eventually won the battle, and the film was distributed.

The merit of The Connection was debated for over a year. Front-line New York critics largely dismissed the film (Brendan Gill of The New Yorker called it a "stunt"). In his October 11, 1962, column, Jonas Mekas of the Village Voice took the critics to task for "butchering what may be the best film made in this country this year. I don't even want to read what you have to say: to describe your criteria I could use the same word The Connection uses for heroin."

But Clarke's reputation was growing, and she was asked by President John F. Kennedy to make a documentary on poet laureate, Robert Frost. Her first reaction was that it wasn't her kind of film, but, after she met "Frostie," he interested her so much she could not resist. Frost died before the film was completed. Colin Young wrote in Film Quarterly that Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World is "a confrontation of two views of Frost—his public performance and his private thoughts." Though it won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, Clarke felt that the film was Frost's rather than hers, and she was more than ready to make another full-length feature.

She optioned a novel by Warren Miller called A Cool World, returning to Harlem to shoot the story of a "rumble" between two rival African-American gangs, the Royal Pythons and the Wolves. Clarke hired locals to play the roles, many of whom had police records. When asked how she became interested in what was called at the time the "Negro problem" she replied, "this is America's key problem. Without a solution to it, we will never have a free country." James Farmer, National Director of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), recommended that all Americans see the film because "it is the truth." Released in 1963, the film was less controversial than its predecessors, though some cities (Boston in particular) refused to distribute it. That the subject matter was explored at all certainly blazed the trail for future filmmakers. Both Clockers, directed by Spike Lee, and Boyz N the Hood, directed by John Singleton, are direct descendants of A Cool World.

Personally, Clarke's life was chaotic. Her marriage with Bert Clarke was over. For a time, she lived with Carl Lee, one of the black actors who appeared in The Connection, and she was having a bitter public dispute with Fred Wiseman, the producer of Cool World. In an interview for Take One, Clarke told Susan Rice that Wiseman cheated her on royalties. Apparently she made no money from the film nor would Wiseman allow her to have a print. Thankfully, none of these situations seemed to impact on the spirit of her daughter Wendy. Always close, Wendy studied at her mother's knee, eventually becoming a filmmaker in her own right.

While waiting for her next feature project, Clarke accepted a challenging assignment from the organizers of Montreal's World Expo. The theme for the 1967 fair was "Man and His World." Clarke's section, "Man and the Polar Regions," was to be viewed on a carousel of 11 moving screens. Mid-project, she told Berg, "This is even wilder than a dance film and it will take me several years to digest the possibilities. It should provide an enormous kinetic kick for the audience…. 1, 2 or 3 screens keep appearing and disappearing … this should be violently kinetic!"

Clarke's next film was the controversial Portrait of Jason. Jason Holliday was a 33-year-old black male prostitute whose dream was to become a nightclub entertainer. Clarke turned the camera on Holliday for 12 hours and let him reminisce about his life as a prostitute, his incarceration, his time spent in a mental hospital, and the emotional torture he endured as a child while living with his family. She then sifted it down to two hours. Mekas of the Voice cited the result as "one of the important, very important contemporary films." Clarke told Berg: "It reveals the humor and pathos, the joys and pains of Jason, a unique and extraordinary human being. Somehow all of Jason's problems and ambiguities seem to explain our own." Though hailed by Charles Hartman in Film Society Review as "a giant figure of American independent film," Clarke was vilified in several corners. Critic John Simon said Jason's "100-minute outpouring of a drug-and-drink-sodden, goaded, taunted Negro male whore strikes me not as cinema verité but as egregious lack of cinema-charité." Variety called the film "more sociology than art and pretty superficial at that." It wasn't until the 1990s, with the release of a film called Paris Burning, that the rest of the world was ready to explore that subject matter. Paris Burning takes up where Jason leaves off by looking deeply into the lives of a "family" of transvestite nightclub performers who are also caught up in the drug-prostitution subculture.

In 1969, after nearly 20 years toiling as an independent, Clarke was asked to work on a movie in Hollywood. Academy Award-winning actress Shelley Winters , who had written the script, wanted Clarke to direct. Unfortunately, negotiations broke down when the producers, who had claimed to love the "real" look of Clarke's movies, insisted upon using fake locations to film the movie. Clarke passed.

Before abandoning Hollywood completely, she accepted a role in director Agnes Varda 's film Lion's Love. Clarke played a filmmaker who attempts suicide when her pet project is refused funding by the Hollywood power establishment. Though Varda and Clarke were good friends, Clarke was incapable of playing the role as Varda wished. Depressed, Clarke returned to New York, and, as she described to Rosen, "By 1970 I was lying on my back staring out the window, saying things like, 'If it weren't for my daughter, I wouldn't bother staying alive.'" At that point, she also recognized her career, if she was going to have one, would have to take another turn. Ultimately, she stopped making independent films because she couldn't find a suitable producer, and Hollywood wouldn't take a chance on her projects because they were not "commercial."

By fluke, Clarke was given a grant to make a piece on videotape. It was a happy turn of events. Videotape offered what film never could, especially for the experimental artist, portability, spontaneity, and multiplication of images via several monitors. Immediately, videotape became the overriding passion in her life. She took her equipment everywhere. In Syracuse, New York, in 1972, Clarke held a "video ball" during an art show put on by John Lennon and Yoko Ono , offering participants the chance to view themselves on tape. In the mid-1970s, Clarke became the artistic director of the TP Videospace Troupe, which toured the United States, teaching workshops and performing.

In the late 1970s, she accepted a teaching position at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Once again, academic life allowed her a base from which to work. During that period, she made several films, including Savage/Love, a coproduction with playwright-actor Sam Shepard released in 1981. When asked what the future held for her, she told Rosen, "Fortunately, despite constant complaint and anger and bitterness, at heart I'm an eternal optimist."

That Clarke's work was virtually ignored by the commercially driven Hollywood market is not a surprise. She was not a "success" by Hollywood standards, though with two Oscar nominations and one statuette she could hardly be called a failure. Her greatest contribution to the filmmaking community was her innovative spirit, her drive to expose the truth, no matter how unsavory, and her willingness to not only identify with society's outcasts but to uncover the dark side. In doing so, in taking her audience to a place in themselves that they feared the most, Clarke challenged everyone.


Berg, Gretchen. "Interview with Shirley Clarke," in Film Culture. Vol. 44, 1967, pp. 52–55 (originally published in Dance Perspectives).

Breitrose, Henry. "Films of Shirley Clarke," in Film Quarterly. Volume 13, no. 4. Summer 1960.

"Filmmakers Cooperative," in Film Culture: New York Film Festival. Vol. 42, 1966.

Heck-Rabi, Louise. "Shirley Clarke: Reality Rendered," in Women Filmmakers: A Critical Approach. London: Scarecrow Press, 1984.

Jacobs, Jay. "Song Without Words," in The Reporter. November 8, 1962, p. 50.

Mekas, Jonas. "Movie Journal," in The Village Voice. October 11, 1962, p. 13.

Oshlag, Dorothy. "Filming The Connection," in Sight and Sound. Spring 1961.

Rosen, Marjorie, "Shirley Clarke: Videospace Explorer," in Ms. April 1975, pp. 107–110.

Young, Colin. "Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World," in Film Quarterly. Vol. 17. Spring 1964.

Deborah Jones , freelance writer, Studio City, California

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Clarke, Shirley (1925–1997)

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