Shirley Clarke Essay - Critical Essays

Clarke, Shirley


Shirley Clarke 1925–

American filmmaker, dancer, actress, and videotape artist.

Realism, stark and electrifying, marks Clarke's cinematic style. Her early work centers on her preoccupation with dance. But it was cinéma vérité films such as Portrait of Jason which gained her recognition as a talented documentary filmmaker.

Her techniques are extremely pure. In Jason, she filmed a running monologue delivered by a black homosexual. It is a revealing film due partly to Jason's candor, partly to Clarke's direction. Her use of real time lapses and the revealing particulars of Jason's unconventional life style, combined with an immobile camera, give the film its unrelenting realism. When commissioned to make a film on poverty for UNICEF, she created A Scary Time. It was so frightening that it was never used by the organization. Even when Clarke turned to fictional sources, she has maintained her loyalty to realism. For The Cool World, her cast was comprised of children from the streets who created their own dialogue. The filming was done inside a tenement building which had been condemned. With the same commitment to reality, when Clarke's film The Connection was censored, she fought for the inclusion of words she thought were crucial to the depiction of drug addicts. She won a Supreme Court case and opened the way for freer use of language in films.

Since then, Clarke has moved on to videotape because she enjoys the immediacy of that medium and the relative convenience that allows taping under almost any circumstances. She does such an inordinate amount of taping, that she has said of her work: "My life is one long electrical cord."

Henry Breitrose

Shirley Clarke was originally a dancer. Before making films she took the precaution of learning a great deal about film technique; but she remains an instinctual film-maker, whose feeling for movement generally seems to have carried over into her feeling for the camera.

The theme of Bridges-Go-Round—as far as words can describe it—is the bridges that link Manhattan to Brooklyn, queens, the Bronx, and the New Jersey shore. In actuality, the bridges become plastic materials for a highly abstract subjective study in structures and movements. The images were printed "bi-packed"—running sandwiched together through the printer—in order to give them equal intensity. They are manipulated in a complex but extremely arresting way: the great steel girders, the taut cables, the towers and railings and roadways and abutments seem almost to dance. An exciting sense of color works with Mrs. Clarke's lively rhythmic sense….

On its simplest level Skyscraper is the chronicle of a building, 666 Fifth Avenue, from the time its site is cleared … to its ultimate employment as a forty-odd-floor stack of offices. But the film is also a comment on the contrast between the nobility and quietly unconscious heroism of the actual construction workers and the shallow, highly polished routinism for which their labor provides a home. (p. 57)

As in Bridges, there is an astonishing lyric quality, even when dealing with mechanical processes. Not only are the shots edited dynamically … but the changes in tempo, the pauses, accelerations, retards, and even visual glissandos—such as a shot looking up an elevator shaft as the elevator ascends—work with a remarkably complex correctness and grace. (p. 58)

Henry Breitrose, "Films of Shirley Clarke," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1960 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XIII, No. 4, Summer, 1960, pp. 57-8.

Gideon Bachmann

The Connection appears to be one of those legendary "firsts" like Citizen Kane or Breathless, which not only excel filmically, but also set standards for other film work. In short, The Connection is important. There is no doubt that in many ways this will be a pace-setting film, from the points of view of form, impact, and method of production. (pp. 13-14)

The Connection [breaks] long-established movie axioms. For one thing, the camera plays a part in the film itself, and thus a new kind of audience identification is created, which borders on audience participation; the camera represents the viewer. This, in fact, is part of the intention of its appearance: the actors … are confronted by its peering presence, and begin to act for it, so that their reality is geared to the intrusion of the spectator. This is as close as film has ever come to providing the creative "feedback" which live performances often cause as a result of the interaction between actor and audience….

The importance of The Connection is not so much in the manner in which it was made or in its final quality. It is important primarily because it was made, and because it was made with a clear consciousness of audience participation. This is really a most important point, and one which ties in with the work of film-makers in Italy (Antonioni), Japan (Kurasawa), France (Godard), and Poland (Wajda), who are all working toward the establishment of a new, expressive cinematic syntax, the basic element of which is greater allowance for public intelligence and discrimination. All the films made by these people, and The Connection perhaps most of all, are antifilmic in the sense that they do not explain but present, and that only to the extent that nature presents itself to the artist to be moulded in his vision. (p. 14)

Gideon Bachmann, "Shirley Clarke," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1961 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XIV, No. 3, Spring, 1961, pp. 13-14.

Penelope Gilliatt

[The Connection] is one of the rare stage pieces that is improved in its screen version.

This often means, as the junkies beadily note, nothing more than that the director has been visually flashy, eliminated the lines that can be better expressed in the cinema by the way someone shrugs or behaves when he is alone, and perhaps realised the potentialities of film to the extent of adding a car crash to the action. Shirley Clarke, the young American who made The Connection, has done something more crucial: though she adheres closely to the original text and never stirs outside the junkies' pad, she has altered the relation of the audience to what is going on, which in The Connection is peculiarly important.

In the stage version, the play hangs on the Pirandellian device of an "author" who is planted in the audience, complaining intermittently that his work is being ruined by junkie actors…. In Gelber's screenplay the character of the author is eliminated: part of his function is appropriated by the "director", Jim Dunn, but because he is on the screen with the others he is absorbed into the fiction. The opposition is no longer between actors and author, pretending to be sparring at a rehearsal, but between actors and spectators, which is what Gelber always intended…. [In] the cinema the correct, discomfiting question becomes one about our own motives in wanting to spy on drug addicts. In the theatre the audience often felt embarrassed; in the cinema it feels accused.

This is partly due to the rewriting, but mostly to Shirley Clarke's brilliant insistence that the camera is the instrument...

(The entire section is 686 words.)

Raymond Durgnat

At first I thought [The Connection] was pretending to watch its own gestation so that we should feel like we're in the actual pad, man. But this pseudo-Pirandellism is self-defeating. The screen is a place of the mind and the spectator is present "in" any film from the moment he starts caring what will happen next. All aesthetic hoopdedoo meant to convince us we are not in a cinema only reminds us we are; and the equivalent of a play which admits it is a play in a theatre, is a film which admits it is a film in a cinema, that is, either a filmed interview, or (in this case) a film about an intelligent director making the honest film which we see. A film about another film creates no more illusion of reality than a film about a stageshow, and only cramps and flattens the inner subject. This film's unusually pedantic pretence of "actuality" only focuses our attention on the quality of pretence—the long takes, the beautiful compositions-in-depth, the clever stage management (all unhip virtues) and too many clangers, e.g. the jazzmen go straight from absolute silence to really groovy stuff without so much as tuning-up, while the cameraman for some mysterious and therefore obtrusive motive never cuts however often the director yells "Cut".

So possibly The Connection is also about the disconnection between "them" and "us"—you're either an addict or an outsider and never the twain shall meet; all you can get is...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

Arlene Croce

The extent to which we can believe in the actuality of events, and not merely in their verisimilitude, is certainly the test of The Connection. If it doesn't impress us as an honestly played-out psycho-drama in which crucial revelations are at stake, it becomes an ingenious hoax to which our sympathies attach only at a level of execution and performance…. Because the cinema is now passing through its Pirandello phase, The Connection is being cited as an example of what movies can do to baffle our perceptions creatively. It is not a good one.

The Connection, unfortunately, doesn't fool you as a living record. In fact, for the first few minutes you think it isn't going to work at...

(The entire section is 594 words.)

Gordon Hichens

[The Cool World's] merits and demerits belong, ultimately, to Clarke. Hers is the coldness, the story-line of half-events half-happenings, and the stroboscopic blur and shaky pans masquerading as technical virtuosity. She really must make a bold plunge into expressionism and outrageous satire, for a cold director can pull these off, as she demonstrates in her powerful opening to The Cool World. Alas, the film soon breaks down exactly where she hopes to succeed, i.e., in making us care about characters as people. Clarke's self-effacement in deferring to the intuition of actors is unnatural for her, and she'd do better to engage us through the use of characters as illustrations of her own ideas and...

(The entire section is 180 words.)

Albert Johnson

For all its brusque cutting, disjointed narrative, and frustrating half-glances at its characters, [The Cool World] is the most important film document about Negro life in Harlem to have been made so far. It is a steadfast perusal of a group of adolescents, members of a gang calling them-selves the "Royal Pythons"; but Clarke is as interested in the streets, buildings, backyards, and faces of Harlem as she is in her misguided young hero, Duke Custis…. With the aid of two extremely perceptive cameramen, Baird Bryant and Leroy McLucas, the director manages to seize upon those details that make The Cool World a work of visual poetry, and in sound, a tone poem of the slums. There is little humor in the...

(The entire section is 835 words.)

Vincent Canby

Thanks to the responsiveness of the subject, and the cold simplicity with which Miss Clarke handles the camera, ["Portrait of Jason"] is a good deal more than an unusually frank interview with a homosexual who, at one point, exults: "I'm bona fide freaksville!"

The truth is, of course, that he isn't.

The portrait of Jason that takes shape from the bits and pieces of remembered orgies, profitless hustles and traumatic family confrontations is that of a black, sardonic Candide, who dreams one day of becoming a nightclub performer.

Jason camps in a rather muscular imitation of Mae West, recalls his mother in what was apparently a not particularly poverty ridden home...

(The entire section is 241 words.)

Charles Hartman

Perhaps the closest that cinema has yet approached the province of Genet, [Portrait of Jason] is an incredible peeling away of a man's soul layer by layer—his defenses, his pretensions, his lies and, ultimately, his truths. The film is an attempt not so much to find the core of the man as to see the whole structure in its internal relationships, to see the man with all that jumbled baggage that one calls personality…. It is obviously a film of sociological and psychological relevance beyond its immediate subject, but it is entertaining as well, because Clarke has found in Jason the natural actor. (p. 27)

Charles Hartman, "The New and Independent Film Maker," in...

(The entire section is 120 words.)

Ernest Callenbach

In Portrait of Jason, a man talks to the camera for almost an hour and a half; yet the film is intensely interesting. We hear some other voices besides his—an old friend named Carl, who berates him toward the end from offscreen, and a female voice (Shirley Clarke's) laconically directing the proceedings. The camera tracks Jason around from couch to chair, to hearth, from a fixed position; it zooms in and out on Jason's face; sometimes, when it goes out of focus, moments of soft, abstract image mask a hiatus in camera time (during which, we learn, the camera magazine was changed). Otherwise, it is almost as if we were looking at the Empire State Building with Andy Warhol: we are made to stare, in real camera...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

Tony Rayns

Far from being the luridly cautionary tale that [a] narrative outline perhaps suggests, The Cool World works primarily as a flow of everyday incident, in much the same way as Shirley Clarke's earlier feature, The Connection; for every calculated 'dramatic' scene there are at least three others that draw their interest from the commonplaces of life in the Harlem ghetto. The film's dramatic focus, of course, is on Duke as central character: both the turns of the plot and the generalities are filtered through his growing self-consciousness of his position, explored in a series of introspective voice-overs. But these interior monologues … are only one element in an exceptionally well-thought...

(The entire section is 428 words.)