Shirley Clarke (1919-1997)
Shirely Clarke Shorts (1953-1982)
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 South 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 building 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.
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.
Several of Clarke's films are considered to be artistic breakthroughs. She 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". It 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.
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 Chelsea Hotel 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.
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 Agn¸s 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.