Shirley Clarke Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."