b. Shirley Brimberg, October 2, 1919, New York City, USA

d. September 23, 1997, Boston, USA

In Portrait of Jason Shirley Clarke is a goddamn genius. I hope people compare me with her someday. Shirley and [Lionel] Rogosin are really interested in their subjects, in finding out about what they think and feel
–John Cassavetes

In Noël Burch’s documentary for French television titled Rome is Burning: A Portrait of Shirley Clarke (1970), we have the chance to see a rare document of the director talking about her work and her views on cinema, art and politics. We see a hyperactive, shrewd, chain-smoking woman, a person who speaks in English and at times voices her inner thoughts in French, but most importantly a person highly conscious of the presence of the camera. While speaking to Burch and to a group of young French cinephiles she constantly assumes a range of roles, the role of the cinéaste, of the ambitious woman, of the American who seems to feel more at home in Europe and of the performer who wants to break the safe wall between film and audience. Towards the end, tired of being filmed she asks the group persistently to give her a camera and she ends up playing her most successful life role, that of the filmmaker.

Clarke’s appearance in this documentary synopsises some of the primary aspects of her own filmmaking ventures. Amongst them, one can distinguish her tendency to capture the actors while being on the borderline – acting both their ‘real’ private identities as well as their performed ones. Shirley Brimberg (later Clarke) was born in 1919 in New York and was the daughter of a Polish-Jewish immigrant whose manufacturing business boomed and helped him climb the class ladder. Clarke’s family was a traditional patriarchal one, something that created tensions between her and her father, particularly when she decided to take up dance-courses rather than start a conventional academic degree. To continue her artistic experiments she had to leave her restrictive family environment. Thus, rather cynically she decided to get married, to a friend of hers, Bert Clarke. Her marriage was more like a “contract” between friends that would make her financially independent and would guarantee that she could engage with her artistic projects. As she said, ‘Bert was going to take care of me and that was just fine with me’. (1) While married, Clarke continued engaging in dance activities, but after repeated professional disappointments she decided to shift career paths, taking advantage of a camera which was a wedding gift. (2)

Early Works

Dance in the Sun

In her first film, Dance in the Sun (1953), the film’s form and rhythm are definitely influenced by Clarke’s background as a dancer. Based on Daniel Nagrin’s choreography, the film captures him while performing in a dance studio, while cutting abruptly to a beach in which Nargrin continues his performance. The camera dances along with the performer and places emphasis on movements, gestures and the plasticity of his performance. The changes in spatial relationships occur without prior notice and the film’s distinctive form thematises movement in itself. Ralph Gilbert’s background music is not lyrical, but is used as raw material that draws attention to the dancer’s movement in space. Furthermore, the music is always in between, since in the parts shot in the studio, we can see a musician playing the piano, while when the camera cuts to the beach, the music becomes extra-diegetic. The boundaries between the diegetic and extra-diegetic cosmos are also broken in the end of the film, when the dancer approaches the musician in the studio, lights a cigarette, and asks his opinion about his performance.

This short film contains some motifs that are recurring in Clarke’s oeuvre. Above all, the antithesis between structure and performative chance is a stylistic trait of her later films. Clarke explained that ‘all the kinds of things I discovered about the choreography of editing and the choreography of space/time came from making that very first film’. (3) The film’s emphasis on physical movement is to an extent narrativised given that it captures the dancer’s performance in different spaces. On the other hand, process is prioritised over the finished product and Clarke’s camera as well as the dancer’s movement makes an effort to train the audience to draw attention to details that do not have dramatic importance, but can foster performative connections.

Clarke admitted that the work of another great female filmmaker of the time, that is, Maya Deren was very influential in her creative output. Principally, Deren’s dialogue with other art forms (e.g. dance and painting) as a means of destabilising the image and challenging the classical narrative structure can be identified in Clarke’s work. Deren thought that cinema has a variety of expressive means that are rarely explored, because filmmakers tend to subordinate all the elements of the mise-en-scène in the service of verbal drama. (4)

In Paris in Parks (1954), what is choreographed is the mundane and everyday activity in a park in Paris. While the film starts with the populated park focusing on ordinary events, it finishes with the park emptying during the evening. Clarke’s filming is, as DeeDee Halleck says, ‘a lyrical look at gesture and movement in a public landscape’ (5) concerned with finding emptiness in movement and movement in emptiness.

The film’s editing increases the intensity and creates an interesting dialectic between the abstract, that is the accumulation of fragments with minimal narrative significance, and the concrete, namely the indexical images of the specific place in time. As Lauren Rabinovitz observes:

Clarke, always the New Yorker physically in tune with an urban sense of speed and urgency, may have discovered rapid pacing as the means to reflect her own staccato, energetic movements and gestures. Shortly after completing the film, Clarke asserted, ‘[Movies] are predominantly visual, rhythmic experiences.’ (6)

Shirley Clarke directing Bullfight

In her next film, Bullfight (1955), the idea of cine-dance is further explored. I have no access to this film, but according to Clarke the final outcome was not in line with her initial expectations. A solo dancer – Anna Sokolov – narrativises through her movement in space the story of a woman who is looking at her boyfriend fighting a bull. Throughout the film, images of authentic bullfighting interrupt the dancer’s movement in space. As stated by Clarke, the film uses fast editing and abstract colour, while there is an interesting switching of identities, since the solo dancer performing is playing the matador, the woman and the bull. (8)

In Moment in Love (1957) Clarke continued her experiments with cine-dance, this time choreographing both the camera and the dancers. While the film might be viewed as quite conventional in the climate of post-modern MTV imagery, it was quite innovative for its time. It is probably the only moment in her career when she experimented mainly with the art of painting rather than with the art of performance. The film is a collection of fragmented dance performances and it attempts to capture the erotic interaction between a male and a female. Repetition figures importantly, forcing the audience to analyse the material, that is, the dancers’ gestures and their interaction with each other. In the background a number of superimpositions are visible.

We see the performers dancing and in the background we can discern back-projections of clouds, and of abstract visuals, while at times back-projections of the dancers themselves are shown, which double the action that is depicted in the foreground. Even though the film seems to celebrate heterosexual love, there are moments that the dance sequences communicate a feeling of aggression. To this, it should be added that Clarke repeatedly changes the setting, as she places the dancers in different sceneries, asking them to acclimatize themselves in different environments and circumstances, which affect their performance. For instance, at one point the setting changes and the dancers are suddenly transferred to a dilapidated location full of debris and empty of any sign of life. In this particular location, they fail to join each other, since the female character keeps on disappearing as if she was just a mere phantasy


Her next film Bridges-go-round (1958) maintains the cine-dance practice but without filming any human character. The real protagonists in the film are the Manhattan bridges and the area surrounding them. Following her experiments with the art of painting, Clarke employs rhythmic editing and disorientating camera-panning and layers the images from different points of view. The film foreshadows the art of the video-clip, since music plays an important role in the reading of the successive images. Moreover, the film circulates in two different versions. In the first version, we hear the electronic score by Louis and Bebe Barron and the second version is accompanied by a jazz score by Teo Macero. Interestingly, the different soundtracks produce different responses in the image-reading process. As Clarke observes: ‘it is a wonderful way to see the film because you can see how sound changes content’. (8

Clarke’s next short film A Scary Time (1960) was funded by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund so as to promote Unicef as an organisation. The film is unjustly ignored by film scholarship, since unlike other Unicef short-films and charity-focused films, A Scary Time is a polemical object rather than a moralist one. It starts by showing some typical middle-class kids in Connecticut preparing to celebrate the Halloween. Initially, the audience’s expectations are misdirected, since the film’s beginning looks more like a conventional narrative, rather than a documentary film which aims at drawing our attention to a charity cause. We see the young kids dressing themselves in their Halloween skeleton clothing preparing to join a party. At some point, they even start dancing and the extra-diegetic music in the background appears seemingly suspenseful, as if an act of horror is going to take place.

Suddenly, a montage of images of emaciated children from Asia and Africa interjects. The images succeed one another in a frenetic way negating our formed narrative expectations. The horror that we were prepared to see visualised on screen is not a fictional one, but it is the terror of our historical present. Clarke plays exceptionally with Eisenstein’s concept of the dialectical montage aiming to politicise the material on the screen. This sequence is rendered problematic by the fact that on the one hand, we see numerous kids terrified by the Halloween masks and clothing, while suddenly Clarke cuts to ‘real’ images of children frightened, not by an imitation of horror, but by the horror of their everyday reality. This accumulation of close-ups of faces becomes rhetorical and does not simply intend to create empathy with the deprived individuals, but to emphasise that our wealth and well-being creates poverty and suffering.

It is an attack on the audience which aims at stimulating anger and not just a call for charity donation. Things become more conventional later on, when we see the kids dressed in their Halloween clothes visiting the neighbours’ houses and collecting money in support of deprived children in Africa. However, this is only a temporary relief. In the end of the film, Clarke focuses on one boy who returns home and falls asleep murmuring: ‘one penny helps one child; two pennies help two children; three pennies help; five pennies help, five, seven’… Meanwhile, a horrifying image of an African child living in a state of absolute deprivation cuts in. The camera stays focused on that child, but the sound in the background connects us with the sleeping child in the USA who yells: ‘help mummy, make it stop’! Consequently, the film’s ending does not provide a clichéd positive moralist message, but invites us to stop this nightmare. Evidently, A Scary Time is one of the most unconventional short films for charity, given that it does not intend to cajole the audience to fulfil their charity obligations, but it accuses them of being responsible for the horror of history in Africa and in Asia.

Feature Films

The Connection

The following film directed by Clarke was The Connection (1960), which established her as one of the leading figures in the New American cinema and helped enhance her reputation. The film is based upon Jack Gelber’s homonymous play which was staged by The Living Theatre in 1959. The play tells the story of a group of young addicts waiting for their “connection” in their Manhattan loft, which in the drug addicts’ vernacular stands for the drug dealer. (9) Amongst the addicts, there is a film director who wants to make a documentary about drug addiction. The play does not present itself as a staged performance, but as a ‘real’ documentary on drug addiction. Four jazz musicians are intermingled with the junkies occasionally interrupting the narrative and improvising jazz tunes.

The Living Theatre staged the play in a Pirandellian way blurring the boundaries between real life and performance. Pretending that the characters were real addicts and that this was a real documentary, they put on a show which combined aspects of Brechtian defamiliarisation with Artaudian cruelty. The audience was made to believe that the fictional character Jim was a real filmmaker making a documentary on drugs. As Pierre Biner explains:

The direction taken by the actors, which combined real and sham improvisation, disorientated the audiences; at times they were taken in completely. During the three-year run of the play, a total of about fifty spectators fainted when Leach sticks a hypodermic in his arm. Audiences invariably applauded the actor who was presented to them at the beginning of the play as Jaybird, the author of The Connection”. In the same vein, make-believe and reality were deliberately blended by Judith [Malina] during intermission, when the actors mingled with the audience asking for a fix in the characteristic tone and manner of addicts. (10)

The Living Theatre’s performance gained enormous publicity and two years later Clarke made a film adaptation which followed the off-Broadway group’s practice and explored the borderline between documentary and fiction.

Pretending to be a cinéma vérité documentary on addiction, Clarke’s adaptation starts with some intertitles that inform us that this is unedited material from a documentary on drug addiction. In a way, the film adaptation draws on The Living Theatre’s performative meta-effects and the outcome is an object which is more about film as medium, rather than a standardised social drama on drug addiction. Clarke commented on the film: ‘Right now, I’m revolting against the conventions of movies. Who says a film has to cost a million dollars and be safe and innocuous enough to satisfy every 12-year-old in America? We’re creating a movie equivalent of Off Broadway, fresh and experimental and personal. The lovely thing is that I’m alive at just the time when I can do this.’ (11) In a rather comic way, Clarke discredited the understanding of film as a reflectionist medium and opposed the 1960s American cinéma verite principles, according to which film can capture ‘raw reality and truth’. By contrast, the deconstruction of the dramatic process in The Connection intends to lay bare the fact that reality in cinema is ‘mediated’ and the relationship between the representation and its referent is far from being fixed. As Dennis Doros cogently argues:

She really wanted to break molds. She really wanted to break rules. And with The Connection, she broke just about every rule you could in film. She played with the idea of what’s reality, what’s fiction, what you think of people. One of the things that upset people is that these junkies are unrepentant, that there’s no tragedy that happens to them. They’re not people who have fallen on bad times and regret their lives. There is no regret in these films. (12)

The film’s narrative is always in between, in the sense that its major theme is the dialectic between reality and fiction. We see the junkies waiting for their middle-man to arrive with the dope, and meanwhile the director keeps on interrupting the diegetic flow so as to tell them off and ask them ‘to act naturally’. While waiting, the fictional filmmaker asks them to perform their life stories in front of the camera. When their connection, Cowboy, finally arrives, one after the other enters the apartment’s toilet ‘to get their fix’. But while the arrival of the Cowboy implies that there will be a climax in the narrative, again there is no drama, no plot development, but performative fragments that cross the frontier between illusion and reality. ‘There’s nothing happening visually’ says the fictional director at one point and asks the junkies to do something, so as to embellish the documentary with some dramatic action. Towards the end of the film, Clarke confronts the audience’s desire for action and shows the only explicit drug-taking scene. One junky complains about not having got ‘a flash’ and the camera focuses on him while hitting his veins to prepare a heroin injection. The director attacks the audience following a reasoning which could be summarised as follows: ‘Is it action you are looking for? Here you have it!’

In the end, Jim (the fictional director) stares at the camera and says ‘it’s all yours now’! The lack of dramatic action, the metafilmic effects and the direct address to the audience entail a more politicised understanding of the filmmaking process, which refuses to offer any moralised assertions regarding drug addiction. Clarke’s breaking of the fourth wall intends to activate spectatorial responses and shake the audience from their passivity. In a way, our desire for drama, plot and action is equated with the drug addicts’ craving for their fix. On this account, the film’s formal organisation as performative fragments indicates the director’s preference for the unfinished, for the process over the reified product, a choice that intends to disrupt conformist modes of film viewing.

The Connection was well received at the Cannes Film Festival and won the critics’ prize, but it was banned in the USA for its repeated use of the world ‘shit’ as well as for its brief depiction of a magazine with nude photographs. After an appeal, Clarke’s company managed to get the licence to show it in New York, but the publicity had died down. Nonetheless, the film initiated a debate about censorship and revealed that the cinematic institution, as well as institutionalised voices in the press could not understand the potentials of a new type of cinema which negated the polished Hollywood story-telling.

Revolted by a review of the film in the New York Daily, Jonas Mekas wrote an article in the Village Voice in which he stated:

You dismissed The Connection because of its content (“drab”, “offensive”, “odd”, “crude”, “sick”, “vulgar”, “shoddy”, “sordid”, “disagreeable”) but you have no idea of what its content (or what the content in art in general) is or what it means. You dismissed it because of its techniques, style – and form, but you have no idea of what style, form or technique in cinema (I don’t even want to mention modern cinema) is….why don’t you admit that you are washed out, that you can’t cope with modern cinema, why don’t you pack up and go home? (13)

In a way, this polemical letter is a sign of the New York independent filmmakers’ revolt against the institutionalised forms of narration, production and distribution. Earlier the same year, Clarke joined the Filmmaker’s Cooperative – an initiative by Jonas Mekas – and on the 30th of September 1962 they put out their first collective Manifesto in which they stated: ‘As they [New Wave filmmakers in Europe], we are for art, but not at the expense of life. We don’t want false, polished, slick films—we prefer them rough, unpolished, but alive; we don’t want rosy films—we want them the colour of blood’. (14)

The Cool World

This Manifesto synopsises an avant-gardist ambition to connect film art with the praxis of life, something that is made plain in Clarke’s next film The Cool World (1964). Shot entirely on location in the streets of Harlem, the film takes advantage of the medium’s indexical qualities to construct a narrative which is always on the borderline between documentary and fiction. It tells the story of Duke, a young black boy trying to get money to buy a gun so as to establish himself as a gang leader. But the dramaturgy is kept to a minimum and following the same modus operandi as in The Connection, Clarke treats the film as work in process instead of a finished product. As a New York Times reviewer noted: ‘The action seems to develop incidentally and spontaneously. The players, most of them people of little or no previous experience in films, move with the random impulsiveness of characters caught on the run’. (15) The film turns into an exploration of the living conditions in Harlem, but it is not a moralist one, since it does not simply show sympathy for the underdog. It shows the characters being imprisoned in an environment from which they seem to be unable to escape. This inability of escape is thematised by Clarke’s camera and the film turns into an indictment of the social conditions that confine the Harlem residents into a reality of poverty and violence, and comments on their own passivity and lack of initiative for change.

The first five minutes of the film are a paragon of cinematic realism – not in the dramatic realist sense of the term – but in line with André Bazin’s and Siegfried Kracauer’s understanding of the term, that is, as a filmic process that registers material environments and the contingent and ephemeral aspects of reality. Starting with a black religious fundamentalist who addresses a small crowd and asserts that ‘the white man is the devil, the black man is the original man’, the film introduces us from the very beginning to its real protagonist, which is none other than the city landscape and its people. Eventually the camera leaves the preacher and starts capturing multiple faces of passers-by, police officers and Harlem residents. Moving in a frenetic way, the camera interacts with the faces it registers; Clarke even allows the people to acknowledge the camera’s presence. Thus, in the beginning the material is nothing but a documentary of faces and spaces with no dramatic meaning per se. Ultimately, we move to the main character Duke, who interacts with an older man with the nickname Priest. In less than 30 seconds we end up knowing the film’s thematic thread. The young man wants to get hold of a gun and Priest has decided to ‘let him have it’.

Immediately after this introduction to the film’s characters, Duke joins the school bus which takes the kids on a tour of New York City. The camera registers a plethora of images and sounds and ends up capturing blurred images of trees, adding an avant-gardist feeling which evokes Maya Deren’s cinematic experiments. The credits start rolling followed by a return to action. We see the black kids touring parts of the city in which they are strangers. Illustrative from this point of view, is the scene that follows in Wall Street, when a white teacher attempts futilely to activate their patriotic feelings, talking about George Washington and the greatness of the country in which they live. During the teacher’s talk, the kids display their indifference and so does the camera, which captures low angle shots of the nearby skyscrapers, making as feel that the characters are incarcerated in an alienating environment.

There’s a plethora of stimuli and material in this short segment, which is precisely the outcome of Clarke’s explorative use of the camera. The camera does not simply reproduce the external environment as a dramatic backdrop, but interacts with it, so as to bring to the fore aspects of reality that do not necessarily serve dramaturgical purposes. Her practice evokes André Bazin’s writings on Italian Neorealism, according to which the value of the Neorealist films does not lie in their dramaturgy, but in their ability to turn into historical documents of their time. (16) Cath Clarke has brilliantly summarised the film’s Bazinian aesthetic:

Clarke’s camera trips around the streets, showing teenage girls practising dance steps or little children holding hands in their Sunday best. And always with the experimental filmmaker’s eye for an oddity: a shot of a child cuddling a poodle is cut to a stray dog, Clarke said that Rossellini’s neorealist masterpiece Rome, Open City (1945) was her biggest influence. (17)

In an interview, Clarke explained how she had to improvise with some of the kids playing in the film, since most of them could not even read. The kids improvised a script written by her and Carl Lee and this practice left its mark on the film’s final cut, which is busy capturing the tensions between the actors and their performances, making them feel uncomfortable with their fictional roles, and on a broader level with their ‘real’ life narratives.

Clarke’s love for hyperactive camera-movements derives from her dance background. This hyperactivity gives the impression that the camera wants to enter the lives of the characters and change their life scripts. Her emphasis on the contingent makes her record material that de-individuates the lives of the characters to such an extent that the city is the main protagonist, connecting the individuals in a dialectical relationship with their environment. Thus, violence, poverty and misery are not abstract concepts that can be attributed to some corrupt individuals. The links with Neorealism are more than apparent, but as Paula J. Massood maintains the difference rests on the fact that the Italian films used real settings of the Italian environment ruined by war and occupation, whereas Clarke’s depiction of Harlem rubble is the product of a class/racial conflict. Even the interior spaces are wretched and as Massood says: ‘the tenements are dark and foreboding and the apartments are cramped and crowded. Privacy is non-existent and occupants overhear each other’s conversations, arguments and lovemaking’. (18) Certainly, filmmakers like Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese are indebted to Clarke’s portrayal of New York City as a living agent, and not simply as a dramatic backdrop.

Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World

For her next film, Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World (1963), Clarke received an Academy Award for the best feature film documentary. Robert Frost was the one who asked Clarke to make a documentary on him and the film is an important historical document, though not as original and ground-breaking as her preceding ones. The film begins with a voice-over by President Kennedy, who also appears on the screen to award a Congressional Gold medal to the poet. Kennedy was also one of the few to have seen The Connection at the White House during the scandal that led to the film’s temporary ban. Robert Frost combines the poetic with the visual in a very dexterous way. Frost’s constant acknowledgement that he is being filmed is in line with Clarke’s filming method, but the final object is somewhat didactic and nowhere near as complicated as her previous and subsequent films.

Her following film, Portrait of Jason (1967), is symptomatic of Clarke’s ability to make virtue of necessity, that is, to use budgetary and production constraints creatively. Corresponding to her practice hitherto, the film combines narrative with moments of reflection on the very performative process. Portrait of Jason is the monologue of a black gay hustler, who narrates facts from his life and merges them with fictional stories, drama and comedy. Clarke and her partner of the time – Carl Lee – edited the film from twelve hours of footage. Throughout Jason’s monologue, they interrupt him, triggering him to ‘tell the Cop story’ and towards the end, after having consumed a bottle of vodka and gets emotionally vulnerable, Lee asks him persistently to ‘tell the truth’.

Ingmar Bergman mentioned once that Portrait of Jason is the most fascinating film he’s ever seen. The film’s originality rests on the fact that it shows 105 minutes of a monologue, which never loses its grip on the audience. Lauren Rabinovitz describes it as an ‘emotional striptease’ and indeed the object’s major suggestion is that ‘truth’ is to be identified in the exposition of the performativity of identity. Touching upon issues of sexuality, class and race, the film discloses the power relationships involved in the act of filming. As Rabinovitz says: ‘the cinematographic image organized by the filmmakers controls its object (Jason), while the object simultaneously and self-mockingly manipulates his objecthood’. (19) But it is chiefly Jason’s desire to be a performer, to amuse the others, that is thematised by Clarke and draws attention to historical issues of racial conflict in America. This desire turns into a negative performative gesture that indicates the ways the underprivileged can adopt the attitudes and roles assigned to them by their oppressors. Perhaps that is the reason why at some point Carl Lee (also an African American) retorts angrily ‘you rotten queen, you’re a goddamn liar’.

Clarke had a recurrent interest in the underprivileged and principally in issues dealing with African Americans. In her last feature film Ornette: Made in America (1985), she captures the life and work of the avant-garde jazz artist Ornette Coleman. Featuring material from three different decades, the film starts with Ornette returning home to Fort Worth in Texas, where he receives the key to the city by the mayor prior to a major concert taking place in his hometown. The film features re-enactments of his childhood, emphasising the racial divisions in the south. Clarke employs rapid editing which alternates from concert hall performances to indexical images of the contemporary South, while at times she re-enacts events from the musician’s childhood. Evidently, the divisions are still obvious even in the present and far from glorifying ‘an individual who made it regardless of the adversary circumstances’ the film points to the persistence of racial conflict and inequality.

Yet what provides relief is Coleman’s jazz music which is not ornamental, it is a liberating jazz which fits perfectly with Clarke’s interest in destabilising representation, in narrating a story and criticising the medium at the same time. At some point Coleman says, ‘what really makes me wanna play music is when I really hear an individual thought pattern placed in an environment to make something actually come about that is not an obvious thing that anyone is doing’. Coleman’s small definition of genuine artistic production corresponds to Clarke’s edgy and uncompromising way of working.

Towards the end of her career, Clarke started experimenting with video art. She had more than 400 video recordings, though the ones that have survived are her documentation of Joseph Chaikin’s – the former Living Theatre actor and founder of The Open Theatre – performances of Savage Love (1981) and Tongues (1982). In both pieces, Clarke employs techniques that do not reduce the final object to a copying of the performance, but place emphasis on the actor’s physical movement, on sounds and camera movements that constantly interrogate the limits between reality and performance. Giles Deleuze commented on Clarke and John Cassavetes’ way of working

The character is continually passing the frontier between the real and the fictional (the power of the false, the story-telling function), the filmmaker has to reach what the character was before and will be ‘after’;…what has to be filmed is the frontier, on condition that this is equally crossed by the filmmaker and by the real character in the opposite direction: time is necessary here; a certain time is necessary which constitutes an integral part of the film. (20)

What Deleuze describes here is the essence of cinephilia, the documentation of time as a living thing, the crossing of the boundary between reality and performance, the enduring presence of the actor in the image as a character, as a performer and as an individual once alive.

Burch’s documentary on Clarke referenced at the beginning of this article communicates similar feelings, since we have the rare chance to see an image of this innovative director, who has not received the place she deserves in film history. Despite having been acknowledged by filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman and John Cassavetes, her work has not drawn attention on a par with its merit. Clarke was a passionate advocate of independent filmmaking, a woman working in a male industry par excellence and a European cinema enthusiast. All these qualities are irreconcilable with the profit-making motives of cinema as an institution and this might provide an explanation for her interest in outcasts and outsiders. In her words: “I always felt alone and on the outside of the culture I was in. I grew up in a time when women weren’t running things. They still aren’t’. (21) Despite the difficulties she faced throughout her career, her films are still alive and full of a performative energy, which proves that innovative filmmaking does not rely on technological tricks and cosmetics, but on an understanding of the medium’s performative potential and on a good eye for social observation.


  1. Clarke quoted in Lauren Rabinowitz, Points of Resistance: Women Power and Politics in the New York Avant-garde Cinema 1943-71 (Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991), p.95.
  2. Ibid.,p.96.
  3. Lauren Rabinowitz, ‘Choreography of Cinema: An Interview with Shirley Clarke’, in Afterimage December 1983, pp.8-11, here p.8, available at http://www.vasulka.org/archive/4-30c/AfterImageDec83(300).pdf
  4. See Maya Deren, Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film by Maya Deren (New York: McPherson and Company, 2005), p. 113.
  5. DeeDee Halleck, ‘Interview with Shirley Clarke’, in http://davidsonsfiles.org/shirleyclarkeinterview.html.
  6. Rabinowitz, p.98.
  7. Rabinowitz (1983), p.8.
  8. Ibid., p.9.
  9. Pierre Biner, The Living Theatre (New York: Horizon Press, 1972), p.46.
  10. Ibid., p.48.
  11. http://www.projectshirley.com/connection.html
  12. http://www.npr.org/2012/06/23/155513524/shirley-clarkes-connection-will-it-click-at-last
  13. Jonas Mekas, ‘Open Letter to the New York Daily Movie Critics’, Village Voice 11, October 1962.
  14. The First Statement of the New American Cinema Group, http://film-makerscoop.com/about/history
  15. Bosley Crowther, ‘The Cool World: Shirley Clarke Scans the Cool World’ New York Times, 21 April 1964. http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9802E3DE1030E033A25752C2A9629C946591D6CF
  16. André Bazin, ‘An Aesthetic of Reality: Neorealism’, in What is Cinema? Vol. II, ed. and trans. by Hugh Gray (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1971), pp.16-40, here p.21.
  17. Cath Clarke, ‘The Real world: Shirley Clarke’, Art Review June 2008 Issue 23, p.121.
  18. Paula J. Massood, ‘The Cool World’, in Quarterly Review of Film and Video 27:5 (2010), pp.434-436, here p.435.
  19. Rabinowitz, 137.
  20. Giles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1989), p.154.
  21. DeeDee Halleck, op cit.


Dance in The Sun (1953)
In Paris Parks (1954)
Bullfight (1955)
A Moment in Love (1957)
Brussels Loops (1958)
Bridges Go Round (1959)
Skyscraper (1959)
A Scary Time (1960)
The Connection (1960)
The Cool World (1963)
Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel With the World (1964)
Portrait of Jason (1967)
Four Journeys into Mystic Time (1980)
Savage Love (1981)
Tongues (1982)
Ornette: Made in America (1985).

Web Resources

Shirley Clarke Shorts (links to short films),

Dee Dee Halleck, Interview With Shirley Clarke,

Tom Sutpen, ‘Dancing and Dirging with Jason’,

William Bill Blick, ‘The Connection (1961),

Noël Burch ‘Rome is Burning: A Portrait of Shirley Clarke’ (1970)

Tom Vallance, ‘Obituary: Shirley Clarke’,

Manohla Dargis, ‘Woman with a Lens Restored: The Shirley Clarke Project by Milestone Films’,

J.Hoberman, ‘Talking Smack About Junk: Shirley Clarke’s The Connection’, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/may/05/talking-smack-about-junk-shirley-clarke-connection/

Lauren Rabinowitz, ‘Choreography of Cinema: An Interview with Shirley Clarke’, in Afterimage December 1983, pp.8-11, available at http://www.vasulka.org/archive/4-30c/AfterImageDec83(300).pdf

Pat Dowell, ‘Shirley Clarke’s Connection: Will it click at Last?’,

Cynthia Fuchs, ‘The Connection: Shirley Clarke’s Brilliant Breakdown of Vérité’,

Renfreu Neff, ‘Shirley Clarke: The Godmother of Indie Cinema’, http://nypress.com/shirley-clarke-the-godmother-of-indie-cinema/

Bosley Crowther, ‘The Cool World: Shirley Clarke Scans the Cool World’ New York Times 21 April 1964, http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9802E3DE1030E033A25752C2A9629C946591D6CF

Select Bibliography

Clarke, Cath, ‘The Real world: Shirley Clarke’, Art Review June 2008 Issue 23, pp.121-122.

Cohen, Thoms F., ‘After the New American Cinema: Shirley Clarke’s Video Work as Performance and Document’, Journal of Film and Video 64:2 (2012), pp.57-65.

Koutsourakis, Angelos, ‘From Post-Brechtian Performance to Post-Brechtian Cinema: Shirley Clarke’s adaptation of The Living Theatre’s Production of The Connection’, International Journal of Performance and Digital Media, 7:2 (2011), pp.141-154.

Deleuze, Giles Cinema 2: The Time Image (trans. By Hugh Tomlison and Robert Galeta), (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

Gustafson, Irene, Putting Things to the Test: Reconsidering Portrait of Jason, Camera Obscura 26:2 (2011), pp.1-31.

Massood, Paula J., ‘The Cool World’, Quarterly Review of Film and Video 27:5 (2010), pp.434-436.

Rabinowitz, Lauren, Points of Resistance: Women Power and Politics in the New York Avant-garde Cinema 1943-71 (Urbana, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991).

Stevens, Brad, ‘The Clarke Connection’, Sight and Sound 18:6, June 2008, p.21.

About The Author

Angelos Koutsourakis is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Modernism Studies, University of New South Wales, Australia.

Related Posts