Saturday Night Spotlight #6: Shirley Clarke

American director Shirley Clarke (1919-1997) worked at the same time as another groundbreaking independent filmmaker, John Cassavetes, and tackled similar issues: racial prejudice, drug addiction, the influence of jazz and generally living in New York City. Born in that metropolis to a Jewish family that included younger sister Elaine Dundy (novelist and wife of theater critic Kenneth Tynan), Clarke was a multitasker on her cinematic projects, editing all four of the films highlighted below and producing the first three. She also received some accolades from the Academy, being nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Subject, Live Action Subjects for Skyscraper (1960) and winning an Oscar for Best Documentary, Features for Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World (1963). Clarke was close to many of the leading figures in New York’s independent film/avant-garde art scenes, like Hans Richter (her mentor at City College), Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, Lionel Rogosin and Stan Brakhage. Later on, Clarke was a film and video professor at UCLA from 1975 to 1985 and she received the Maya Deren Independent Film and Video Artists Award from the American Film Institute in 1989.

The Connection (1961) – I have a particular interest in this drama about heroin-addicted jazz musicians waiting for their dealer in a seedy Greenwich Village apartment since the second man from the right, with the mustache and balding head, was my great-uncle, Jerome Raphel. (He is featured prominently in the film’s trailer – seen here – and a couple of years later had a supporting role in Clarke’s 1963 film The Cool World.) The drama also features other notable actors from theater, film and TV, including Roscoe Lee Browne, Warren Finnerty,¬†William Redfield and Carl Lee as well as jazz musicians Freddie Redd and Jackie McLean. After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, the film’s subject matter and “vulgar” language led to a ban from New York screens until 1962. Arguing this issue of censorship, Shirley Clarke and co-producer Lewis M. Allen brought a lawsuit before the New York State Court of Appeals to fight the charge of the film being considered “obscene” (it was finally determined that it was not) so that the film could receive its license for a theatrical release.

The Cool World (1963) – Nominated for the Venice Film Festival’s prestigious Golden Lion award in 1963 and added to the U.S. Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1994, Clarke’s drama of the black community living in Harlem, trying to survive in an atmosphere surrounded by violence, drugs and racism. Again utilizing jazz for the soundtrack, Dizzy Gillespie and his quintet are featured throughout, even showing up onscreen. Besides Carl Lee (who co-wrote the screenplay with Clarke) and Jerome Raphel, who appeared in The Connection, The Cool World also stars Gloria Foster, who later acted in Nothing But a Man (1964) and as the Oracle in the first two Matrix films.

Portrait of Jason (1967) – Certainly unusual among documentaries of the 1960s, charismatic and flamboyant interview subject Jason Holliday speaks candidly of being a gay man, how that intersects with being black, and also discusses his history of work in cabarets and in prostitution. The film is finally coming to DVD and Blu-ray this November, courtesy of Milestone Films.

Ornette: Made in America (1985) – Pioneering jazz musician Ornette Coleman is given the documentary film treatment here, studying his innovations in the field of “free jazz,” which encourages more improvisation than what is often already applied to the playing of jazz music. Some of the film’s talking heads include writer William S. Burroughs, jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, jazz saxophonist Dewey Redman, jazz bassist Charlie Haden and jazz guitarist Bern Nix. The film incorporates an element of dramatization as well, portraying earlier incarnations of Coleman with young actors.

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