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October 2: Shirley Clarke’s Films

Lawrence Bush
October 1, 2016
Shirley Clarke (Brimberg), who began her creative life as a dancer-choreographer but made her mark as an audacious filmmaker, was born to wealthy immigrant parents in New York City on this date in 1919. Clarke's best-known works included Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel With the World (1963), which featured the poet and won an Academy Award for Documentary Feature; Cool World (1964), a feature about black street gangs in Harlem; Skyscraper (1959), a short documentary that won an Academy Award nomination; and The Connection (1961), about heroin-addicted jazz musicians, which she made to deliberately test and ultimately help abolish New York State's censorship rules. Clarke was also involved in video projects that revitalized her interest in dance, and she taught at UCLA's film school for a decade. "Clarke’s fourth feature," according to www.projectshirley.com, "Portrait of Jason (1967), was a completely different kind of project. A pure documentary without adornment, Portrait was created from a single, 12-hour-long interview with Jason Holliday, a gay African American hustler and aspiring nightclub performer. Holliday’s stories of racism, homophobia, parental abuse, drugs, sex and prostitution would have been shocking if not for his candor, humor and acerbic charm. The film was a revelation and remains one of the most respected LGBT films." To see her 1958 film, Bridges-Go-Round, look below. "I identified with black people because I couldn't deal with the woman question and I transposed it. I could understand very easily the black problems, and I somehow equated them to how I felt. When I did The Connection, which was about junkies, I knew nothing about junk and cared less. It was a symbol -- people who are on the outside. I always felt alone, and on the outside of the culture that I was in. I grew up in a time when women weren't running things. They still aren't." --Shirley Clarke

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.