Spotlight on Shirley Clarke’s Short Films

Discussions with Juliet Jacques: Queer Cinema, Trans Politics and the Films of Jack Smith and Rosa Von Praunheim
April 7, 2013
Zero Dark Thirty
June 29, 2013
By Diarmuid Hester
“A nervous breakdown can be a pleasure”
– Shirley Clarke in Rome is Burning (Portrait of Shirley Clarke) (1970)
Shirley Clarke, the quintessential independent American filmmaker, was born into a wealthy New York family in 1925 and raised on Manhattan’s Park Avenue – a long way, spatially, economically, and socially from the Downtown tenements where she would spend most of her formative years as an artist. Having trained as a dancer and performed with a number of high-profile New York companies at a young age, her initial turn to filmmaking attempted integrate her studies in movement with innovative filmic technique. Her experimental combination of gesture and sound in her first dance films, for example, clearly presages works like Hilary Harris’ Nine Variations on a Dance Theme (profiled on One+One a couple of weeks ago).
In Bullfight (1955), which juxtaposes the “dance” of a toreador before the assembled masses with that of a lone female dancer (played by Anna Sokolow), music and movement interpenetrate and overlap – and reach a visceral nadir in the ultimate slaughter of the bull – arousing a semblance of affective engagement in the film’s viewer. The asymmetry of its composition, which finds very similar movements played out in very different situations (the male bullfighter’s exposed and very public performance vs. the female dancer’s private, yet similarly circumscribed, recital), invokes what would become a common theme in Clarke’s later work: the muting of feminine discourse by a dominant, patriarchal mode. Her splicing of documentary with non-documentary footage, meanwhile, anticipates her later interest in the capacity of film to represent truth.
A Moment in Love (1957), a short, professionally realised film that follows the encounters and separations of two lovers across emotional and physical landscapes, exemplifies Clarke’s early experimental vision in its use of a variety of innovative visual styles and techniques. Plainly influenced by contemporary Abstract Expressionism, in its opening sequences A Moment in Love observes its protagonists in dark pools: its ripples shatter images of the lovers’ individual bodies and recombine them into abstract ellipses reminiscent of de Kooning’s 1950s compositions. Later, following a bizarre (and somewhat tonally inconsistent) scene in nondescript ruins where the female dancer disappears as her partner approaches, the dancers engage in an intimate, ecstatic embrace. In this sequence, accompanied by a soaring crescendo, Clarke’s double and triple exposure allows different versions of the dancing couple to populate the same frame, releasing a sensual, darkly erotic multiplication of selves.

My favourite of Clarke’s early experimental work, Bridges-go-round (1958), subtracts human protagonists from its frame, and offers instead iconic shots of New York’s many bridges, exposed and double exposed, layered one on top of another in sublime combinations of colour and silhouette. Comprising just less than four minutes of film accompanied by a jazz soundtrack, the movie then flips and repeats the same shots but with a different, experimental electro score: in the first instance, we are encouraged to view the bridges and the city beyond as part of an exciting, enticing twentieth-century metropolis; in the second, shots convey a coolness and emotional distance as the landscape is imbued with mysterious inorganic pops and bleeps. In its reflection upon the capacity of music to alter a film’s reception, Bridges-go-round may be productively read with Harris’ Highway (profiled here a couple of weeks ago) that was released in the same year; both films also portray the iconography and infrastructure of the road, viewed from a variety of angles, in transit on the 1950s American highway.
The shadows, shapes and grids which make Bridges-go-round so visually compelling are occasionally repeated in Clarke’s next film, Skyscraper (1959), co-directed with Willard Van Dyke. Nominated for an Academy Award in 1959, it’s ostensibly a commercial film produced with the technical facilities of Tishman Realty and Construction Co., which offers an informative account of the building of a skyscraper at 666 Fifth Avenue. However, though it is more conventional in its approach than Clarke’s other films, it has a number of features to recommend it. Its portrayal of the enormous, communal effort involved in erecting these symbols of the twentieth century American city, for example, is fascinating and vaguely reminiscent of Melville’s vision of American society aboard the Pequod in Moby Dick: every man has his role, none above another, all pulling together for the good of the whole. It also contains some of Clarke’s visual flair (e.g. fast-cut montage of the gridded Manhattan skyline viewed from a moving vehicle), and indicates a later obsession with destruction and creation. So, for instance, her focus on the continual circulation of demolition and reconstruction which characterises the landscape of New York City and filmmaking’s role in conveying this, anticipates Clarke’s subsequent interest in the deconstruction and reconstruction of selfhood on camera, visible in her famous feature films The Connection (1961), The Cool World (1963), and Portrait of Jason (1967).
Useful Links:
Shirley Clarke Wikipedia
RECOMMENDED: Rome is Burning (Portrait of Shirley Clarke)
“I’m an anarchist, I’ve finally decided.” Interview with Shirley Clarke
My friend Angelos Koutsourakis’ excellent article on Shirley Clarke at Senses of Cinema