Obituary: Shirley Clarke

Tom Vallance
Thursday 25 September 1997 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Shirley Brimberg, film director: born New York 1925; married Burt Clarke (one daughter); died Boston, Massachusetts 23 September 1997.

A major figure in the world of independent film-making, Shirley Clarke was a director whose films exemplify the course of American alternative cinema in the Fifties and Sixties.

With a background in dance, she brought a choreographer's fluidity and rhythm to her film editing, and for her best-known films, The Connection and The Cool World, she adopted the cinema verite technique which developed simultaneously in France and America in the late Fifties. Her films were for many years staples of art- houses, universities and film societies.

She was born Shirley Brimberg to a wealthy family who lived on Park Avenue in New York City. Her first enthusiasm was modern dance, and at 14 she performed with Martha Graham's company. She also attended Hanya Holm's classes for young choreographers and started devising ballets at the age of 17. Intrigued by the idea of applying choreographic principles of space and movement to film editing, she studied film-making with Hans Richter at the City College of New York, and made her first film, an adaptation of Daniel Nagrin's ballet Dance in the Sun, in 1953. Clarke produced, directed, photographed, edited and co-choreographed the film, hailed for its fresh editing concepts.

She followed this with a non-dance film, In Paris Parks (1954), and two more dance movies, Bullfight (1955) and A Moment in Love (1955). As a member of a Greenwich Village artistic circle that included the avant- garde film-makers Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, she started around this time a lifelong and consistently uphill struggle to obtain better distribution and promotion for independent films.

In 1959 Clarke made what has been described as her "experimental masterpiece", Bridges-Go-Round, in which New York bridges become, with camera choreography, rhythmic cutting and colour tints, dancing abstract elements. The same year a short film she co-directed, Skyscraper, was nominated for an Academy Award, and received prizes at the Venice and Edinburgh festivals. Like much of Clarke's work, these films continue to be widely shown on specialist circuits while unknown to the public at large.

A feature-length documentary on the poet Robert Frost, A Lover's Quarrel with the World, was started by Clarke in 1960 but she herself quarrelled with the producers and left the project. When it won an Oscar as best documentary in 1963 she shared the award as co-director.

In 1961 Clarke made the first of three films for which she is best remembered, The Connection, based on Jack Gelber's play, which had already gained notoriety. The London production of this brutally frank look at a group of dope addicts waiting for their "connection" to arrive with a supply of heroin had one of the stormiest first nights in theatre history, with barracking and booing from the audience and fights outside the theatre. Clarke's film, for which she adopted the style of cinema verite - an attempt to capture "truth" by shooting reality without imposing directorial manipulation or technical effects that might affect veracity - proved equally controversial, hailed by some as an exhilarating masterpiece which addressed pertinent social issues with refreshing realism, condemned by others as crude and offensive. The film, abundantly peppered with four- letter words, also became the test case which successfully fought to abolish New York State's censorship rules.

Clarke's next film, The Cool World (1962), which dealt with a gang of bored youths who see violence as a way out of the ghetto, was the first commercial feature to be shot on location in Harlem, and though critics still bemoaned the rough edges of Clarke's technique ("You got the feeling that the director thought she could use everything good that she caught," wrote Pauline Kael) many also praised its unsentimental objectivity.

Portrait of Jason (1967), an interview with a black male prostitute, filmed with one camera and unsparingly close close-ups, is considered by many to be Clarke's best work. It won several prizes at European film festivals and was regarded by Ingmar Bergman as "the most fascinating film I've ever seen". Clarke then went to Hollywood to discuss directing a commercial feature from a script by Shelley Winters, but her refusal to conform and resultant battles with executives nearly caused a nervous breakdown. In Agnes Varda's intriguingly ambivalent film portrait of America Lions Love (1968), Clarke appeared as herself and vividly recreated her frustration and anguish over her Hollywood experiences.

Throughout the Sixties, Clarke lectured on independent film at universities and museums, and vociferously championed the cause of the independent movement. She was one of 24 producers and film-makers who wrote and signed the manifesto Statement for a New American Cinema which proposed an alternative to Hollywood movie making, and with Jonas Mekas she co-founded Film-Makers Co-operative, a non-profit distribution company for independent films. In 1969 she started using video for her work, and from 1975 to 1985 taught as a Professor of Video and Film at UCLA.

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