As the Film-Makers’ Cooperative faces eviction, Anthology’s tribute to Shirley Clarke—one of the founders of the vital archive and one of New York’s greatest filmmakers—couldn’t be better timed. This near-complete retro, featuring Clarke’s rarely screened shorts from the 1950s, as well as her video work from the ’70s and ’80s, is must-see viewing.
Best known for her three feature-length works from the ’60s—The Connection (1962), The Cool World (1964), and Portrait of Jason (1967)—Clarke took on provocative subjects (heroin, street gangs, homos) and constantly blurred the lines between fact and fiction. Based on Jack Gelber’s play, The Connection centers around a doofus documentarian filming a bunch of junkies who wait for their fix in a decrepit Manhattan loft. Yet what’s most radical about the film isn’t the depiction of the needle, but Clarke’s critique of the burgeoning American cinema vérité movement and its claims of capturing “the truth.” The Cool World, the first fiction feature to be shot entirely on location in Harlem, uses mostly nonprofessional African-American teens as rumbling gang members, frequently cutting to real-life scenes (fat men smoking, twisting teenagers) around 120th Street and Fifth Avenue. This kinetic vision of New York is also on vivid display in two of Clarke’s shorts: the kaleidoscopic Bridges-Go-Round (1958) and Skyscraper (1959), a jazzy ode to the Tishman Building.
Clarke, who died in 1997, was a gifted documenter of performance, as seen in her last film, Ornette: Made in America (1985), a funky tribute to the great saxophonist Coleman, and her videos Savage/Love (1981) and Tongues (1982), featuring Joseph Chaikin’s tightly controlled recitations of Sam Shepard’s stream-of-consciousness monologues. But there’s never been a motor-mouthed monologuist quite like Jason Holliday, the drinking, drugging, jiving black gay hustler whom Clarke filmed in her Chelsea Hotel apartment for the doc Portrait of Jason—which says more about race, class, and sexuality than just about any movie before or since.