Clarke, Shirley: Seminal Indie Director–Profile

Though Maya Deren’s concern with formal control over imagery set precedents for experimental filmmaking, her work ultimately proved less influential than that of Shirley Clarke (1925-1997).

Clarke applied cinema verite to her first, independently produced feature, The Connection (1961), shot in black and white on a minuscule budget. Adapted from Jack Gelber’s Living Theatre drama about heroin junkies, this controversial film was banned for a year because of its “foul” language. Though it is now hailed as a trailblazer for alternative cinema, at the time, most critics deemed The Connection crude and offensive.

The Cool World

Clarke’s follow-up, The Cool World (1963), a startling, verite-infused drama about a street gang, was shot on location in Harlem with a nonprofessional cast. This time, the critical response was more positive, although some still complained about deficiencies of structure and technique.

Portrait of Jason

Controversy again erupted over Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967), a feature-length, single-camera interview with a black male prostitute, which was labeled “repulsive” by conservative reviewers. However, the film was appreciated in Europe where it won festival prizes–Ingmar Bergman called it “one of the most fascinating films I’ve ever seen.”

Unlike Deren, Clarke saw the limitations of experimental cinema and the limited scope of exploring female subjectivity and sexual desire. Instead, she displaced her sense of marginalization onto an urban cinema of alienation, centering on outcasts and misfits, as personified by African Americans, homosexuals, and drug addicts. Out of the antagonism between documentary and fictional narratives, Clarke activated a cinema of protest that went beyond the language of the feminized.

Clarke was drawn to the rhetoric of social relevancy through the work of Robert Flaherty and Italian Neo-Realism, which synthesized poetic and documentary techniques. The French New Wave and cinema verite, each striving for relevancy and realism, highly influenced her work. The New Wave advocated low-budget, freewheeling personal films, and cinema verite, then associated with Jean Rouch and Chris Marker, propagated the use of new, portable equipment and synchronized sound, which helped capture reality much more spontaneously.

Clarke explored the political premises of cinema verite, positing self-reflexive forms as a means to radicalize audience experience of social issues. Challenging the filmmaker’s gaze as objective reality, she showed how the production of images is inevitably intertwined with the production of meaning.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film(NYU Press, hardcover 200; paperback 2001).