Shirley Clarke

Shirley Clarke (October 2, 1919 – September 23, 1997) was an American experimental and independent filmmaker. She was also a director and editor of many famous works.

Shirley Clarke
Clarke in 1970
Shirley Brimberg

(1919-10-02)October 2, 1919
DiedSeptember 23, 1997(1997-09-23) (aged 77)
EducationStephens College, Johns Hopkins University, Bennington College, and University of North Carolina
Known forfilmmaker

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.

In 1972, Clarke signed her name to the Ms. campaign: “We Have Had Abortions” which called for an end to "archaic laws" limiting reproductive freedom, they encouraged women to share their stories and take action.[2]

Short films

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.[3]

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 (1959). 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.[4]

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's first film, "Dance in the Sun" (1953), is representative of her dance background. She made use of rhythmic shots, shooting a dance on stage and then cutting from the stage to the beach and back and forth throughout the film. This film is when she crossed over from being a dancer, to being a filmmaker and expressing her art through a new medium.[5]


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 deliberately made the film as a 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 is meant to appear to document the spontaneous interactions of a contemporary, specific lifestyle (Bohemian New York of the early 1960s), but is in reality 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' ".[6]

Clarke was determined to film the play, and once completed, it received favourable reviews. It was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1961, where again it received favourable reviews. American Beat movement celebrities who were in Europe at the time travelled to Cannes to show support for Clarke's film. The Connection was subsequently shut down and banned in New York State following complaints of indecency, based on a shot that included a pornographic magazine and a word deemed obscene. At the time, New York State only permitted films to be publicly screened if they received a license from the State's board of censors. Another attempt was made to publicly screen the film a year later, only for it to be shut down again by the police, as the filmmakers still did not have a licence from the State's board of censors. Following these incidents, critical reviews of The Connection became predominantly negative. The negative reviews and scandal made it difficult for Clarke to organize funding and distribution for her next film projects.[6]

Clarke won an Academy Award in 1963 for Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel With the World, and was co-nominee for Skyscraper (1959) with two other documentary filmmakers. [7]

In 1964, The Cool World became the first independently-made film to be screened at the Venice International Film Festival.[8]

Portrait of Jason (1967) had a mixed reception, doing better with critics in Europe, where cinéma vérité 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".[9]

Clarke's reputation languished for many years, during a period when she was "marginalized, written out of histories and dismissed as a dilettante".[6] 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".[10]


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.

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.

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.

Other ventures

During the period between 1971 and 1974 Clarke led number of Teepee touring workshops in a variety of venues and institutions including the Kitchen, the Museum of Modern art ('Open Circuits'), Antioch College, Baltimore, Wesleyan College, Bucknell University, Film Study Center, Hampshire College and the University of Buffalo.

Feminist perspective

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:

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.[8]

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:

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.[8]

Release of restored films

Milestone Films undertook "Project Shirley", an in-depth, eight-year project to release restored versions of many of Clarke's films on DVD and Blu-ray, preceded by limited theatrical runs.[11][12][13] This encompassed Ornette: Made in America (Volume 1, November 11, 2014),[14] Portrait of Jason (Volume 2, November 11, 2014),[15] The Connection (Volume 3, February 24, 2015)[16][17] and The Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke. 1927-1986 (Volume 4, November 15, 2016).[18][19]


The Academy Film Archive preserved Portrait of Jason and Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel With the World.[20]

Shirley Clarke Avant-Garde Filmmaker Award

Barbara Hammer received the first Shirley Clarke Avant-Garde Filmmaker Award in October 2006.[21]


Appearances on other films

In addition to directing her own films, Clarke played an independent filmmaker in the cinéma vérité-style comedy Lions Love (1969) by Agnès Varda. Clarke also appears briefly in the documentary He Stands in a Desert Counting the Seconds of His Life (1986) by Jonas Mekas. Clarke's legs appeared in John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 1971 film Up Your Legs Forever.[22]

See also


  1. Philip Purser Obituary of Clarke's sister, Elaine Dundy, The Guardian, 8 May 2008.
  2. "We Have Had Abortions" (PDF).
  3. "Who is Shirley Clarke? - Dance Films Association". Retrieved July 19, 2018.
  4. "Shirley Clarke Showcase: Short Films | Govett-Brewster Art Gallery | Len Lye Centre". Retrieved July 19, 2018.
  6. Dargis, Manohla (April 27, 2012). "Woman With a Lens, Restored The Shirley Clarke Project by Milestone Films". New York Times. Retrieved May 1, 2012.
  7. Short Subject Winners Jacques-Yves Cousteau and John Hubley: 1960 Oscars
  8. Halleck, DeeDee (1985). "Shirley Clarke Interview". Chelsea Hotel, NYC: Davidson Gigliotti, 2000CE. Retrieved May 1, 2012.
  9. Hal Erickson, Rovi. "Shirley Clarke -- Biography -- Movies & TV". New York Times. Retrieved May 1, 2012.
  10. Cohen, Thomas F. (2012). "After the New American Cinema: Shirley Clarke's video work as performance and document". Journal of Film and Video. University of Illinois. 64.1-2: 57. doi:10.5406/jfilmvideo.64.1-2.0057.
  11. "Woman With a Lens, Restored: The Shirley Clarke Project by Milestone Films". New York Times.
  12. "Restoring a Portrait, with some help from our friends..." Milestone Films.
  13. "The Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke V. 4".
  14. "Ornette: Made in America". Milestone Films.
  15. "Portrait of Jason". Milestone Films.
  16. "Milestone Films Poster: Shirley Clarke's The Connection". Movie City News. April 7, 2012. Retrieved July 19, 2018.
  17. "The Connection". Milestone Films.
  18. "The Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke. 1927-1986". Milestone Films.
  19. "Focus on DVD Awards 2017: Dennis Doros". Il Cinema Ritrovato.
  20. "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.
  21. Barbara Hammer Faculty page at European Graduate School (Accessed June 2, 2010) Archived April 21, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  22. Jonathan Cott (16 July 2013). Days That I'll Remember: Spending Time With John Lennon & Yoko Ono. Omnibus Press. p. 74. ISBN 978-1-78323-048-8.
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