Shirley Clarke is a dancer’s dancer and a filmmaker’s filmmaker, the rare bird that can not only successfully transition from one challenging art to another, but see the line between the two as indistinct, allowing one to freely inform the other. After studying modern dance in the method of Martha Graham and Hanya Holm, Clarke made the leap to filmmaking, and because she never sails at half mast, became a member of the Independent Filmmakers of America in New York City. Although she never gained quite as much fame as some of the other members, which included the likes of Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, and Jonas Mekas, there has been renewed interest in Clarke’s vital, brave, astonishing work.
Her first films dealt very directly with dance; her 1953 short Dance in the Sun adapted the choreography of Daniel Nagrin (and won an award from the The New York Dance Film Society!), and A Moment in Love was her attempt to depict “pure dance,” by filming abstracted shapes and colors. As her career continued, however, and many of her films moved away from taking dance as their express subject, its influence grew more subtle. The connection between Clarke’s filmmaking and her dance background might not be immediately apparent in films like, well, The Connection, especially given the importance of language in her best known films. The secret, however, is that the nonverbal is as telling as the verbal in these films; the motion of the camera, the rhythm of the edit, these choices continue to reveal Clarke’s background, and set her apart from other avant-garde and independent directors of her time.
An episode of the French television show Cinema of our Time entitled Rome Is Burning, screening as part of the Dance on Camera lineup this coming weekend, speaks with Clarke at a small get together honoring her film Portrait of Jason (1967). In one scene Clarke discusses the main element in her still evolving style of filming, the fluid movement of the camera. “I wanted a camera that went with the actors…if an actor moved I sort of moved with them, and we sort of played this ballet together.” While Portait of Jason was a documentary, many of Clarke’s other films toed the line between narrative and documentary, drawing on the tension between objective reality and artistic license. “Every shot was made with a preconceived style,” she says, and explained that the actors “improvise within a very set form.” What Clarke is describing is not unlike the style of modern dance she studied; the attempt to capture something organic, spontaneous, with the strictures of choreography and physical form. Even her discussion of the editing process belies a mind that processes the world through form and structure. “Editing became the most fantastic fun I’ve had in years,” she said, assigning parts of the film ‘A’ ‘B’ and ‘AA’ and ‘BB’ as if describing the structure of a song, and delighting in the shifting relationships between these parts.
Part of what makes Rome is Burning so special is not only its rarity, or the way in which it perfectly captured its time, but the fact that the setup of the interview, and the method of filming, emulates Clarke’s work. Clarke is not isolated in a chair in front of a white screen, but surrounded by friends (friends like Jacques Rivette and Yoko Ono!) lounging, fiddling with film cameras and occasionally chiming in. The camera moves fairly freely around the room, taking some unusual positions that Clarke might in her films – slightly behind her, for example – and at one point even uses her distinct technique of moving to a more abstract form and going out of focus. This is used to transition to a scene from Portrait of Jason that begins purposefully out of focus as well. Another truly remarkable moment is when Clarke wonders aloud if in the future, art will not only be practiced by artists, but by many, many more people, “not just as consumers but as participants.” How visionary to have a sense of this coming change, even before the invention of digital filmmaking technology! If only Clarke knew that, just a few decades later, we live in such a time.
By Farihah Zaman