Shirley Clarke  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Shirley Clarke (2 October, 1919, New York City - 23 September 1997, Boston) was a major American independent filmmaker.

Clarke was born Shirley Brimberg. Her father was a Polish immigrant who made his fortune in manufacturing and her mother was the daughter of a multimillionaire manufactuer and inventor. Her father disapproved of her interest in dance from an early age.

Clarke attended Stephens College, Johns Hopkins University, Bennington College, and University of South Carolina. As a result of taking dance lessons at each of these schools, she trained under the Martha Graham method, the Doris Humphrey-Charles Weidman technique, and the Hanya Holm method of modern dance. She married Bert Clarke to escape her father's control so she could study dance under the masters themselves in New York City.

She started her artistic career as a dancer and participated in the New York Avant garde Dance scene. She was an avid participant in dance lessons and performances at the Young Women's Hebrew Association. Her lack of success as a choreographer led her psychiatrist to suggest a career change, so she explored her interest in film. In her first film, Dance in the Sun (1953) she adapted a choreography of Daniel Nagrin. The New York Dance Film Society selected her film as the best dance film of the year. Clarke studied filmmaking with Hans Richter at the City College of New York after making In Paris Parks (1954). In 1955 she became a member of the Independent Filmmakers of America. She became part of a circle of independent filmmakers in Greenwich Village such as Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, and Jonas Mekas.

In A Moment in Love, Clarke used abstract line and color to capture pure dance. Clarke's film Bridges Go-Round (1959) is a major example of abstract expressionism in film, with two alternative soundtracks, one electronic music by Louis and Bebe Barron, the other jazz by Teo Macero. She used the camera to create a sense of motion while filming inanimate structures. In 1961, she signed the manifesto 'Statement for a New American Cinema', and in 1962, she cofounded The Film Makers Cooperative in New York.

Several of Clarke's films are considered to be artistic breakthroughs. She lectured frequently, speaking at theaters, museums in New York. The Connection (1961) from the play by Jack Gelber concerning heroin-addicted jazz musicians, was a landmark for the emergence of a New York independent feature film-movement. It heralded a new style that employed greater cinematic realism and addressed relevant social issues in black-and-white low-budget films. It was also important because Clarke made the films the first test case in a successful fight to abolish New York State's censorship rules. It also served as a commentary on the failures of cinema verité. It appears to be a documentary on a way of life, but it is really a carefully scripted film.

Her next feature film The Cool World (1964) was the first movie to dramatize a story on black street gangs without relying upon Hollywood-style moralizing, and it was the first commercial film to be shoot on location in Harlem. It was based on a novel by Warren Miller.

Clarke also directed a 90-minute Cinéma vérité interview with a black homosexual titled Portrait of Jason (1967), which has been called an insightful exploration of one "persons character while it simultaneously addresses the range and limitations of cinema-verité style." -- Lauren Rabinovitz. She created the 90-minute film from twelve hours of interview footage. It was distributed by the Film-Makers Distribution Center, which was co-founded by Clarke in 1966, closing in 1970 due to a lack of funds.

In the 1970's and early 1980's Clarke experimented with live video performance, returning to her roots as a dancer. She formed the TV Video Space Troupe at her Chelsea Hotel penthouse. This group included video artists Andy Gurian, Bruce Ferguson, DeeDee Halleck, Vickie Polan, Shrider Bapat, Clarke's daughter Wendy Clarke and many others. From time to time members of the pioneering video collective, The Videofreex were part of the Troupe: David Cort, Parry Teasdale, Chuck Kennedy, Skip Blumberg, Bart Freidman and Nancy Cain. The troupe worked in and around the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd St in New York City, often setting up multiple cameras and monitors on the roof or in the stairwell. The Chelsea guest participants included Viva, Arthur C. Clarke, and Agnes Varda. The troupe went on tour to colleges and media centers, including Bucknell College in Pennsylvania where they worked with drama and dance students in a massive evening performance in the student center and SUNY Cortland where they created a video mural with art students. Clarke was an enthusiastic and supportive teacher who influenced a generation of video makers. She became a professor at UCLA in 1975, teaching film and video until 1985.

On September 23, 1997, Clarke died of a stroke after a struggle with Alzheimer's shortly before her 78th birthday.


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