World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

Shirley Clarke

Clarke in 1970

Shirley Clarke (October 2, 1919 – September 23, 1997) was an American experimental and independent filmmaker.


  • Early life 1
  • Short films 2
  • Features 3
  • Reception 4
  • Video 5
  • Feminist perspective 6
  • Release of restored versions of films 7
  • Filmography 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11

Early life

Born Shirley Brimberg in New York City, she 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.[1]

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 technique, the Humphrey-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.

Short films

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.

A Scary Time (1960), showing poverty and disease among children in Third World nations, was produced by UNICEF in consultation with Thorold Dickinson. It features music by Peggy Glanville-Hicks.[2]

In 1961, Clarke signed the manifesto "Statement for a New American Cinema", and in 1962, she co-founded The Film-Makers' Cooperative in New York.


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 feature-length interview with a gay black hustler, 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.

Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel With the World (1963), directed by Clarke and starring the poet Robert Frost, won the Academy Award for Documentary Feature in 1963.


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” ".[3]

Clarke was determined to film the play, and once completed, it received favourable reviews. It was screened out of competition at the

External links

  1. ^ Philip Purser Obituary of Clarke's sister, Elaine Dundy, The Guardian, 8 May 2008.
  2. ^ Ubuweb
  3. ^ a b c Dargis, Mahnola (April 27, 2012). "Woman With a Lens, Restored The Shirley Clarke Project by Milestone Films". New York Times. Retrieved May 1, 2012. 
  4. ^ a b c Halleck, DeeDee (Chelsea Hotel, NYC, 1985). "Shirley Clarke Interview". Davidson Gigliotti, 2000CE. Retrieved May 1, 2012. 
  5. ^ Hal Erickson, Rovi. "Shirley Clarke -- Biography -- Movies & TV". New York Times. Retrieved May 1, 2012. 
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ (April 7, 2012)Movie City NewsRay Pride,


See also

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.


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.[7] In late 2012, Milestone released Ornette: Made in America. In mid-2013, a restored print of Portrait of Jason was given a limited release.

Release of restored versions of films

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.[4]

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:

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.[4]

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:

Feminist perspective

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.

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.

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.


Clarke's reputation languished for many years, during a period when she was "marginalized, written out of histories and dismissed as a dilettante".[3] 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".[6]

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".[5]

Clarke won an Academy Award in 1963 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.[4]


This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.