Film

Grace and Love: ‘A One Man Show’ Brings Back ’82, and Wendy Clarke Asks the Big Questions

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“I considered myself an energy that had not been classified.” Grace Jones’s I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, published last fall, abounds with spot-on self-assessments like that one. Here the disco deity/singer/actress/supernova is appraising her performance in A One Man Show (1982), the phenomenal 45-minute hybrid of concert footage and music video she made with the illustrator and photographer Jean-Paul Goude, her lover at the time. “I was simply being me, not thinking about the color of my skin, or my sex — I was outside race and gender,” Jones continues, remarking on her fierce bearing in the video, which will be shown at the Kitchen in Chelsea on Monday. Her determination to obliterate either/or distinctions makes A One Man Show a perfect selection for Dirty Looks, a vital bicoastal screening series that showcases queer experimental moving-image work.

Consisting of ten songs, most from the Chris Blackwell–produced trilogy of Warm Leatherette (1980), Nightclubbing (1981), and Living My Life (1982), the video opens with a montage of photos of the singer taken by Goude — including the infamous shot of a nearly naked Jones, her skin shining like metal, balanced on one foot and holding a microphone a good two feet from her face. In her book, with her usual perspicuity, the performer celebrates the photo as “a visual description of an impossible original beast, only possibly from this planet, a voracious she-centaur emerging from an unknown abyss and confronting people’s fears.” Jones’s penchant for the outrageous continues after these still images become moving ones: When we first see her onstage in A One Man Show, Jones is emerging from a gorilla costume to the opening drumbeats of “Nightclubbing.” After a cut, Jones the new-wave avatar materializes: flattop, Armani suit (with no shirt under the blazer), sunglasses, impassive face. Standing erect and with a wide stance, her black-gloved hands wielding mallets that come crashing down on cymbals, she bids us to “join the car-crash set” in “Warm Leatherette,” delivered in a contralto that could freeze time.

Maximally spellbinding, A One Man Show gains in power through Jones’s minimalism. “I had learned that stillness was a better way for me to appear,” she writes; while watching her perform “La Vie en Rose,” I wondered whether she ever blinked. The set is equally spare; the most prominent features are a staircase and a spotlight. No other musicians appear in A One Man Show, the title also used for the world tour (her first) from which the live footage is taken. In the video, as with those early-Eighties concerts, she dispensed with a band, using playback instead (those heard but not seen include the rhythm-section divinities Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare). In place of other humans, manifold Graces command the stage: She is multiplied by three, then five, then seven during “Feel Up,” and in “Demolition Man,” we behold a goose-stepping army of her.

In the most arresting instance of this cloning, she is doubled (or split?) as male and female for “My Jamaican Guy.” The two Graces — one in heavy, kabuki-esque maquillage, the other sporting a plaster above the eye on an otherwise naked face — stare at each other in profile before the more butch version leans in for a lusty smooch. A paragon of androgynous beauty, Jones, born in 1951 (or so she says) on the island nation of the song’s title, becomes the tune’s “laid-back, not worried back” hunk. Goude and Jones’s gender-tweaking collaboration would be nominated for a Grammy for Best Video Album in 1984, the inaugural year of that category. The award, inevitably, would go to a far inferior contender. As Jones recalls of her cab ride after the ceremony: “I sat with my Lagerfeld hat on my knee, miserable because it had all gone wrong. A One Man Show lost to Duran Duran, enough to make me scream and scream.”

Nearly contemporaneous with A One Man Show is Wendy Clarke’s trailblazing video project Love Tapes, which aired on WNET in 1980. Begun in 1977 and still, in Clarke’s words, “ongoing,” the work follows a simple premise: Participants sit in a room and address a camera, expounding on their definition of “love” for three minutes — an interval some struggle to fill, while others are dismayed at how fast the seconds fly. The variety of interlocutors is extraordinary, as are the words that pour forth. The first speaker, a 31-year-old black man positioned in front of a backdrop of the World Trade Center, zealously utters a proclamation: “I’m here to let the world know that love does exist here in New York and in me.” Later, an extremely poised little white girl, probably no older than seven, lists her affections: “I love my stuffed animals…. I love the nature…. I love myself.”

The last person to appear in Love Tapes, however, remains silent: She is Shirley Clarke, Wendy’s mom, the invaluable American independent filmmaker whose work screens at a tribute to mother and daughter hosted by the Museum of Arts and Design. (You can catch Shirley’s Ornette: Made in America, her funky, loose, exhilarating 1985 chronicle of the great avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman, this Friday at MAD; Love Tapes, which kicks off the portion of the retro devoted to Wendy, will be shown February 12.) A collection of intimate chronicles, Love Tapes suggests an easy kinship with Shirley’s masterpiece, Portrait of Jason (1967), in which a drinking, drugging, jiving black gay hustler reveals and dissembles in the filmmaker’s Chelsea Hotel apartment. In not speaking a word while in front of her daughter’s camera, Shirley may be offering her profoundest interpretation of love.

A One Man Show

Directed by Jean-Paul Goude

The Kitchen

February 8

‘Eye on a Director: Shirley and Wendy Clarke’

Museum of Arts and Design

Through February 26