Previously at the Wellington Film Society: the radical cinema of Shirley Clarke.
As her characters sit around waiting for ‘the man’ in The Connection, it’s hard not to wonder why Shirley Clarke’s contemporaries who tackled similar subjects—namely, William Burroughs and the Velvet Underground—became the epitome of insouciant New York coolness, while she spent the rest of her career languishing in obscurity. Clarke’s ’60s films, arguably some of the most original and bracing to ever come out of America, have finally received the digital restorations they deserve, though her reputation is still far behind her creative output. Her films capture a monochrome New York that is about to crumble and decay, especially with the upcoming 1970s reforms; her blurring of fiction and reality is positively post-modern; while her depiction of drug addicts, sex workers, and ‘black’ and ‘white’ folk mixing together was undeniably revolutionary.
The Connection is based on a play by Jack Gelber, infamous for having junkies come up on stage and play themselves being junkies. Clarke tries to shoot it straight, pretending in the opening credits that she’s filming a documentary, and that all we’re seeing is one setting with an ensemble cast. Filmed in stark black and white, it became part of the New York ’60s film movement’s shift away from the glossy escapism of Hollywood into something more gritty. The cast are ordinary folk, people who may be junkies sitting in a run-down New York apartment, playing jazz, and talking smack. They are waiting for a connection—their dealer who will come around to give them their next heroin hit. They talk, bicker, complain, and when the dealer known as Cowboy arrives, plead—but not much happens in terms of traditional narrative.
In the end, the film is anything but straight. There is considerable artifice at play, whether it’s the events shown as if happening in real-life time (in fact, it was shot over 20 days and Clarke has a lot of fun with choosing when to end it), improvised jazz forming the live soundtrack (in fact, it was recorded in a studio), actors pretending to be junkies (in actual fact, the sweat and the needles look pretty real…). In the middle of all of this is the camera itself. Well, two of them. The camera work barely attempts to follow traditional editing patterns: there are long takes, sudden movements, switching between the two cameras; incidentally, the editing feels like it was its own jazzy score. While there are a few clunky moments and performances, it has a rare energy, and unlike most films dealing with drugs, almost entirely avoids the usual stern or moralistic clichés. The director of the ‘documentary’ (Clarke presents him as a sheltered male) gets caught up in the action, as the characters try to convince him to take a hit—to give that extra sense of authenticity that they assume will be absent from the finished film. Here, Clarke begins to blur the line between cinéma-vérité (a movement which Clarke is assumed to have been a part of) and the notion of documenting reality as invisibly as possible, and the obvious fact that any film is a constructed set of images set to the agenda of the director. It also satirises the idea of capturing ‘real-life’, and the way a lack of understanding can lead to a director dictating or moralising about a certain situation, or on the other hand, the way knowing too much can lead to a lack of wider perspective.
The Connection caused enough of a stir (mostly for its use of the word “shit”) to be banned for some time in the United States. And while Clarke’s next two features, Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World (1963) and The Cool World (1964), were minor successes (the former garnering her a Best Documentary Oscar), her 1967 film, Portrait of Jason, felt like nothing else before it. Essentially a filmed monologue of Jason, a “black homosexual sex worker” recounting tales from his life, Portrait of Jason is revolutionary thematically and formally. The film was buried, and one can only imagine how this might have been received in 1967, and has only resurfaced in the last couple of years. It’s not an easy watch in terms of its pace and energy, and Clarke is not afraid to use tedium and digressions as narrative devices. Clarke presents the film as one long, seemingly continuous shot, with her protagonist, who is a born performer, physically tiring as things wear on (and becoming increasingly bored with the intrusion of the camera and Clarke’s then lover, Carl Lee, in the background).
However, like The Connection, Portrait of Jason is also artificial. It’s filmed over a reasonable period in the iconic Chelsea Hotel, but with concealed edits and the use of dissolves, tries to appear real. In the process, Clarke satirises the nascent cinéma-vérité movement about to take hold of American documentary—the idea that real-life can be captured. If Clarke can’t even film a single guy talking in a single room over a single night in an uncut, unvarnished way, what does it say about filmmakers who spend months with various characters and locations and with hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of footage?
Even more so than The Connection, it successfully blurs the line between real and artifice. One has no idea how much of Jason’s life story is real or not, how much Jason is performing to the camera, how much he and Carl Lee were colluding in their outrage of each other, and ultimately how much involvement Clarke had in terms of framing, structuring, and discarding Jason’s story. Politically, too, it reveals the constructed nature of the labels used to describe Jason, and how much his persona, and our interpretation of his minority-ness, was affected by his performance. Through this performativity, Jason highlights their artificiality. It still feels remarkably fresh for a film that was shot nearly 50 years ago, especially when compared to other films from the period. One can only hope that the excellent UCLA restorations will finally elevate Clarke to one of the American greats—an artist who was so far ahead of her peers in terms of film syntax and political concerns that her work almost feels more real today than it probably would have in the 1960s.