THE COOL WORLD OF SHIRLEY CLARKE
Five feature films and 15 film and video shorts
At UCLA James Bridges Theater and at KAOS in Leimert Park
For UCLA, call 310-206-3456; for KAOS, call 213-296-5717
“This all hasn’t been a waste,” says Jason Holliday, commenting on his life for the camera in Shirley Clarke’s masterful cult documentary Portrait of Jason. “Because white people are fascinating. They think you’re just a dumb, stupid little colored boy. You’re trying to get a few dollars, and they’re gonna use you as a joke. It gets to be a joke sometimes, as to who’s using who.”
The issue of exploitation vs. exploration hovers lightly over the oeuvre of the late Shirley Clarke, a white Jewish woman whose film and video work dealt overwhelmingly with what it means to be black in America, specifically what it means to be a black man. One measure of her filmography’s enduring power, and a strong rebuttal to charges of exploitation, is its take on blackness. Sans white liberal guilt or arrogance, it accumulates details that would normally be overlooked by “outsider” (and maybe even a few “insider”) eyes and, in doing so, offers up eloquent political and social critiques. Another measure of Clarke’s gifts is the way her manipulation of the filmmaking procedure, the way she lays bare the very creation of her art, engages the viewer in a process of deconstruction — a process that carries over to the images and the stories unfolding onscreen.
Clarke, the eldest of three sisters, was born in 1919 into a family of privilege. Her grandfather was a prosperous inventor, her mother was highly educated, and her father managed to earn, then forfeit, a fortune. Jarring the girl’s charmed Park Avenue life was a learning disorder that prevented her from reading until the fifth grade and writing until the seventh. Before she started studying dance at the age of 14 and discovered she had a great gift, she felt herself a fringe dweller. The world of dance (she eventually studied with Martha Graham) introduced her to a community of kindred spirits. In later years, she would draw a connection between the conflicting material comfort and psychic unease of her youth, and the subject matter of her films. “I never felt that anything about my own life was going to interest anyone else,” she told Ms. magazine in the early ’70s, “so I chose surrogates — underdogs, outsiders — whom I identified with.”
But Clarke didn’t simply use black culture for her own emotional catharsis; she submerged herself in the combined roles of activist and artist, agitating and creating with larger purposes in mind. Her classic 1963 film The Cool World, dubbed by some critics a fictional documentary, used the low-budget aesthetics of the documentary (hand-held camera, available lighting, sometimes-murky sound) to bring a fictional tale to life. Set and filmed in Harlem, using a cast of both amateur and professional actors (look for Clarence Williams III as a junkie gang leader), the film is a visualized jazz riff, filled with stark black-and-white imagery that often manages to be gorgeous while staying stringently gloss-free. In fact, while the story and characters have mostly slipped into cultural clichés (the protagonist joining a gang for empowerment, the moaning and praying black grandmother), the film’s ambiance, its music and images, still carries a powerful sting.
Through navigating and collapsing the line between natural and artificial, between fiction and nonfiction narratives, Clarke not only stuck her fingers in the sockets of race, class and the clouded question of the role of art in society (check out her 1985 documentary, Ornette Coleman: Made in America, to really see all the pieces come together), but also established herself as the Godmother of American indie film and video. In 1966, having amassed critical acclaim but frustrated by her lack of professional opportunities — and by the poor distribution for the work she had done — she set up the Filmmakers Distri bution Center with Anthology Film Archives founder Jonas Mekas and Louis Brigante. After the success of 1967’s Jason, in which a flamboyant black, gay hustler beats the camera into submission as he unveils his life story, Hollywood beckoned and Clarke went. The experience, which involved a script by Shelley Winters, led her to take to her bed for a year in a suicidal depression.
A grant to work in video revived her spirits, and by the time of her death last year, she’d not only won an Academy Award for a documentary on Robert Frost (and been nominated for another, for a short called Skyscraper) and worked as a film professor at UCLA, she’d built up a genre-bursting body of work: numerous short films, documentaries and works of “fiction.” But what Clarke mostly left behind was a definition of independent filmmaking that’s all but lost today: a personal and professional narrative whose arc was scripted by her own brutally honest muse.