Born Shirley Brimberg in New York City, Shirley Clarke was the daughter of a Polish-immigrant father who made his fortune in manufacturing. Her mother was the daughter of a multimillionaire Jewish manufacturer and inventor. Her sister was the writer Elaine Dundy. Her interest in dance began at an early age but met with the disapproval of her father, a violent bully.
Clarke attended Stephens College, Johns Hopkins University, Bennington College, and University of North Carolina. As a result of dance lessons at each of these schools, she trained under the Martha Graham method, the Doris Humphrey-Charles Weidman technique, and the Hanya Holm method of modern dance. She married Bert Clarke to escape her father's control, so she could study dance under the masters in New York City. She started her artistic career as a dancer in the New York avant garde modern dance movement. She was an avid participant in dance lessons and performances at the Young Women's Hebrew Association.
Her lack of success as a choreographer led her psychiatrist to suggest a career change, so she explored her interest in film. In her first film, Dance in the Sun (1953), she adapted a choreography of Daniel Nagrin. The New York Dance Film Society selected it as the best dance film of the year.
Clarke studied filmmaking with Hans Richter at the City College of New York after making In Paris Parks (1954). In 1955, she became a member of the Independent Filmmakers of America. She became part of a circle of independent filmmakers in Greenwich Village such as Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, and Lionel Rogosin.
In A Moment in Love, Clarke used abstract line and color to capture pure dance. Clarke's film Bridges Go-Round (1959) is a major example of abstract expressionism in film, with two alternative soundtracks, one with electronic music by Louis and Bebe Barron and the other consisting of jazz created by Teo Macero. She used the camera to create a sense of motion while filming inanimate structures.
She received an Academy Award nomination for Skyscraper (1960). Mainly shot in 1958, the short film captures the construction of 666 Fifth Avenue which began in 1957. The 20-minute film also includes shots of the Roxy Theatre which was demolished the year Skyscraper was released. In 1959, it won the Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Clarke lectured frequently, speaking at theaters and museums. The Connection (1961) from the play by Jack Gelber concerning heroin-addicted jazz musicians, was a landmark for the emergence of a New York independent feature film movement. It heralded a new style that employed greater cinematic realism and addressed relevant social issues in black-and-white low-budget films. It was also important because Clarke made the films the first test case in a successful fight to abolish New York State's censorship rules. It also served as a commentary on the failures of cinema verité. It appears to be a documentary on a way of life, but it is really a carefully scripted film.
Her next feature, The Cool World (1964), was the first movie to dramatize a story on black street gangs without relying upon Hollywood-style moralizing. Shot on location in Harlem, it was based on a novel by Warren Miller. This was the first film to be produced by Frederick Wiseman.
Clarke directed a 90-minute interview with a black homosexual, Portrait of Jason (1967), that became a selection of the fifth New York Film Festival. Edited from 12 hours of interview footage. the film was described by Lauren Rabinovitz as an exploration of one "person's character while it simultaneously addresses the range and limitations of cinema-verité style". The film was distributed by the Film-Makers Distribution Center. Co-founded by Clarke in 1966, this distributor closed in 1970 due to a lack of funds.
The only full-length feature to receive wide media coverage in Clarke's lifetime was The Connection. Her other films were subject to bans by New York State censors, or distribution challenges posed by the lack of infrastructure for independent filmmakers. Nonetheless, The Connection generated controversy and discussion in the downtown New York City arts community. The original play by Jack Gelber had been condemned by various mainstream critics when it was being performed off-Broadway, but had still drawn an audience that included "Leonard Bernstein, Anita Loos, Salvador Dalí and Lillian Hellman, who likened it to “a fine time at the circus” ".
Clarke was determined to film the play, and once completed, it received favourable reviews. It was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1961, where again it received favourable reviews. American Beat movement celebrities who were in Europe at the time travelled to Cannes to show support for Clarke's film. The Connection was subsequently shut down and banned in New York State following complaints of indecency, based on a shot that included a pornographic magazine and a word deemed obscene. At the time, New York State only permitted films to be publicly screened if they received a license from the State's board of censors. Another attempt was made to publicly screen the film a year later, only for it to be shut down again by the police, as the filmmakers still did not have a licence from the State's board of censors. Following these incidents, critical reviews of The Connection became predominantly negative. The negative reviews and scandal made it difficult for Clarke to organize funding and distribution for her next film projects.
Clarke won an Academy Award in 1962 for Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel With the World, and was co-nominee for Skyscraper (1960). Clarke made Skyscraper with two other documentary filmmakers. In 1964, The Cool World became the first independently-made film to be screened at the Venice International Film Festival.
Portrait of Jason (1967) had a mixed reception, doing better with critics in Europe, where cinema verité experiments were more widely accepted. Portrait of Jason received wide press coverage in the United States, but "except for the smaller, esoteric publications", reviewers were generally negative. Criticism tended to focus on Clarke's supposed "morbid viewpoint and the lack of production polish".
Clarke's reputation languished for many years, during a period when she was "marginalized, written out of histories and dismissed as a dilettante". There has been renewed interest in her filmmaking in the past several years, however. As of 2012 her films are being screened at the IFC Center in New York City, and are being released as a series of DVDs. Her features have recently been described as "films considered essential works of New American Cinema".
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Clarke experimented with live video performance, returning to her roots as a dancer. She formed the Teepee Video Space Troupe at her Hotel Chelsea penthouse. This group included video artists Andy Gurian, Bruce Ferguson, Stephanie Palewski, DeeDee Halleck, Vickie Polan, Shrider Bapat, Clarke's daughter Wendy Clarke, and many others. The Troupe were also early experimenters with taped video performance, installation and documentation.
From time to time, members of the pioneering video collective Videofreex were part of the Troupe: David Cort, Parry Teasdale, Chuck Kennedy, Skip Blumberg, Bart Freidman, and Nancy Cain. The troupe worked in and around the Hotel Chelsea on West 23rd St in New York City, often setting up multiple cameras and monitors on the roof or in the stairwell. The Chelsea guest participants included Viva, Arthur C. Clarke, and Agnès Varda. The troupe went on tour to colleges and media centers, including Bucknell College in Pennsylvania, where they worked with drama and dance students in a massive evening performance in the student center, and SUNY Cortland, where they created a video mural with art students.
Clarke became a professor at UCLA in 1975, teaching film and video until 1985. She died of a stroke in Boston, Massachusetts after a struggle with Alzheimer's disease, shortly before her 78th birthday.
After working on video films for several years at the Hotel Chelsea, Clarke was approached by Roger Corman to work on his next film, Crazy Mama (1975). This sparked disagreements over creative approaches. Clarke realized that Corman was expecting a protègé without film experience. In a 1985 interview, Clarke stated that she did not believe the situation would have occurred had she been a male filmmaker:
Clearly he couldn't be talking to an established filmmaker who had gotten prizes and stuff. He didn't know who I was at all. [...] Would he ever talk to a man like that? He didn't trust me, that's for sure. There's deep discrimination against women artists that is still very strong. I was a representative of tokenism. I was relied on to be the woman filmmaker. No one person can carry that burden. There's no question that my career would have been different if I was a man, but if I was a man I would be a different human being.
Although Clarke did not explore feminist themes overtly in her films, feminist struggles can be interpreted through the subtext of her works. Clarke describes the impact her experience as a woman had on her filmmaking:
There are several reasons why I succeeded at all. One, I had enough money that I didn't have to become a secretary to survive. And secondly, I have developed this personality, this way of being. [...] I happen to have chosen a field where I have to be out there, to constantly connect, to be in charge of vast amounts of money, equipment and people. And that is not particularly a woman's role in our society. [...] I identified with black people because I couldn't deal with the woman question and I transposed it. I could understand very easily the black problems, and I somehow equated them to how I felt. When I did The Connection, which was about junkies, I knew nothing about junk and cared less. It was a symbol--people who are on the outside. I always felt alone, and on the outside of the culture that I was in. I grew up in a time when women weren't running things. They still aren't.
Release of restored versions of films
On May 4, 2012, Milestone Films released a version of The Connection restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. This is the first release in Project Shirley, an ongoing project of Milestone to release restored versions all of Clarke's films. In late 2012, Milestone released Ornette: Made in America. In mid-2013, a restored print of Portrait of Jason was given a limited release.
- A Dance in the Sun (1953)
- In Paris Parks (1954)
- Bullfight (1955)
- A Moment in Love (1957)
- Brussels "Loops" (1958)
- Bridges-Go-Round (1958)
- Skyscraper (1959 film) (1959) with Willard Van Dyke and Irving Jacoby
- A Scary Time (1960)
- The Connection (1961)
- Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World (1963)
- The Cool World (1963)
- Portrait of Jason (1967)
- Man in Polar Regions (1967)
- Trans (film)|Trans (1978)
- One Two Three (1978)
- Mysterium; Initiation (1978)
- Savage/Love (1981)
- Tongues (1982)
- Ornette: Made in America (1985)
In addition to directing her own films, Clarke played an independent filmmaker in the cinema verité-style comedy Lions Love (1969) by Agnes Varda. Clarke also appears briefly in the documentary He Stands in a Desert Counting the Seconds of His Life (1986) by Jonas Mekas.
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- Philip Purser Obituary of Clarke's sister, Elaine Dundy, The Guardian, 8 May 2008.
- Dargis, Mahnola (April 27, 2012). "Woman With a Lens, Restored The Shirley Clarke Project by Milestone Films". New York Times. Retrieved May 1, 2012.
- Halleck, DeeDee (Chelsea Hotel, NYC, 1985). "Shirley Clarke Interview". Davidson Gigliotti, 2000CE. Retrieved May 1, 2012.
- Hal Erickson, Rovi. "Shirley Clarke -- Biography -- Movies & TV". New York Times. Retrieved May 1, 2012.
- Cohen, Thomas F. (Spring–Summer 2012). "After the New American Cinema: Shirley Clarke's video work as performance and document". JSTOR: Journal of Film and Video (University of Illinois). 64.1-2: 57. Retrieved May 1, 2012.
- Ray Pride, Movie City News (April 7, 2012)
- Shirley Clarke at the Internet Movie Database
- Shirley Clarke at AllMovie
- Shirley Clarke Papers at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.
- Shirley Clarke datebook, 1955-1956, held by the Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
- Article by Andy Gurian
- Interview with Shirley Clarke by DeeDee Halleck
- Village Voice article
- Remembering Shirley Clarke by DeeDee Halleck
- Shirley Clarke: A Retrospective - Edinburgh Film Festival TV