DANCER, bride, runaway wife, radical filmmaker and pioneer — Shirley Clarke is one of the great undertold stories of American independent cinema. A woman working in a predominantly male world, a white director who turned her camera on black subjects, she was a Park Avenue rich girl who willed herself to become a dancer and a filmmaker, ran away to bohemia, hung out with the Beats and held to her own vision in triumph and defeat. She helped inspire a new film movement and made urgently vibrant work that blurs fiction and nonfiction, only to be marginalized, written out of histories and dismissed as a dilettante. She died in 1997 at 77 and is long overdue for a reappraisal.
On Friday a new print of her first feature, “The Connection,” gorgeously preserved by the U.C.L.A. Film & Television Archive, opens at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village. The film is the first release in a multiyear endeavor by Milestone Films called the Shirley Clarke Project or, as the archivist and distributor Dennis Doros likes to put it, Project Shirley. Over the next few years Mr. Doros and Amy Heller, his wife and partner at Milestone, will distribute new and restored copies, followed by DVDs, of Clarke’s three documentary features: “Robert Frost: A Quarrel with the World” (1963), “Portrait of Jason”(1967) and “Ornette: Made in America” (1985), about the jazz great Ornette Coleman. A selection of her shorts will be included on the DVDs, giving viewers a chance to dig into Clarke’s legacy.
Her story is complex and contradictory and her life shot through with strange fissures, one of the biggest being “The Connection.” The original play, written by Jack Gelber and first performed at the Living Theater in 1959, partly turns on a writer and producer who are mounting a theatrical experiment in which the actors are ostensibly played by real addicts, some true philosophers of the needle. The addicts, including a jazz quartet, are waiting for their heroin “connection,” the silky smooth-talker Cowboy. “If everything goes right,” says the producer, who also brings in two cameramen, “you will be able to see the film version of this play.” Clarke must have loved that line.
The play was savaged by most of the mainstream critics when it opened but soon became a downtown hit and crossover sensation. Leonard Bernstein, Anita Loos, Salvador Dalí and Lillian Hellman, who likened it to “a fine time at the circus,” were among those who trooped to 14th Street to watch a pustule-ridden addict called Leach slide the needle in. There were those who were doubtless attracted by the noise and notoriety, the twitching addicts, scatting expletives, gutter realism and cool jazz. Some spectators wondered if the dope was real. The painter Larry Rivers related that it was. Perhaps the drama’s most important admirer was the theater critic Kenneth Tynan, then at The New Yorker, who found it “the most exciting new American play that Off Broadway has produced since the war.”
At the time Tynan was married to Clarke’s middle sister, the writer Elaine Dundy. In her blunt 2001 memoir, “Life Itself!,” Dundy, who died in 2008, recalls that Clarke was fascinated by “The Connection” but couldn’t see how to make it work on screen. Her idea was to turn it into a film within a film featuring a white director, Jim Dunn (William Bedfield) who, with a black cameraman, the ponderously named J. J. Burden (Roscoe Brown), is making a documentary about addicts. Much would remain the same — most of the cast, the patois (“you dig”) and an addict shooting up — but now would be immortalized in shimmery celluloid.
The eldest of three daughters, Clarke (née Brimberg) grew up in New York with chauffeurs and governesses, and “The Connection” looked as if it were as far from her world as the moon. Her maternal grandfather, Heyman Rosenberg, invented the self-tapping screw, and her father, Samuel Nathaniel Brimberg, became rich first in clothing and later in metal and steel. Dundy wrote that their life was privileged but scarcely contented because of their father’s temper and physical abuse. “Coming home every afternoon was like returning to a prison where my father was the warden, we sisters the inmates and my mother the snitch.” Clarke stood up to their father, but his disapproval led her, Dundy maintained, “to seek more and more dangerous ways of rebelling against him.”
Art was a way out. Clarke became a dancer in her teens, switching from ballet to modern. She gave college a try, more than once; studied with Martha Graham; performed here and there; and, at 21, became the president of the National Dance Association. She married a lithographer-publisher, Bert Clarke, and in 1944 had a daughter, Wendy. By the early 1950s her interest had gravitated to cinema, and she made her first short, “Dance in the Sun” (1953), with inherited money and a 16-millimeter camera that had been a wedding present. She must have cut quite the figure, to judge from a profile of the “petite and dynamic young Manhattan matron” that ran in The New York Times in 1955.
“Why, mused Mrs. Clarke, shouldn’t a trained dancer, with an itching curiosity about movies, energy galore and no experience, try her luck?” Why not, indeed! Sitting in the garden of her apartment, she explained to the reporter from The Times, Howard Thompson, her newfound artistic bent. “I wanted to learn film technique, so Bert, my husband, and I and some friends decided to organize our own class and hire one master.” She sounds a little silly, this “lady with a lens,” but she was a talented learner, and ambitious. She took film classes at City College and directed more shorts, including “Bullfight” (1955), with the dancer Anna Sokolow. Another short film, “Skyscraper” (1959), which she made with two documentarians, earned her an Oscar nomination.
That same year Jonas Mekas, writing in his increasingly influential journal Film Culture, inaugurated an anti-Oscar called the Independent Film Award, which he created to signal “the entrance of a new generation of filmmakers into American cinema.” There had always been independent cinema in America, an off-Hollywood; now there was also a movement. Equipped with more portable film tools and faster stock, and influenced by foreign cinema and the world beyond, filmmakers like John Cassavetes (Clarke lent him equipment for his first feature, “Shadows”) were changing the way movies were made in America. In September 1960, 23 movers and shakers — Clarke was the lone woman — founded the New American Cinema, an American New Wave. By November she was shooting “The Connection.”
Ingeniously Clarke and her co-producer, Lewis Allen, a theater insider and another New American Cinema dissident, bankrolled the film by selling limited partnerships to around 200 small investors, a practice common in theater though not in film. “We feel,” Allen and Clarke explained in a prospectus, citing the French New Wave as an example, “that there is a relatively large market in this country (there certainly is in Europe) for unique and different motion pictures, with an individual point of view, made on a very low budget.” Among the investors were Norman Mailer ($250), the architect Philip Johnson ($5,000) and, curiously, Rick Santorum’s parents, Dr. Aldo Santorum and Catherine D. Santorum ($500). (Both worked at veterans’ hospitals and might have treated addicts.)
Clarke shot “The Connection” in 20 days, coming in under the $177,000 budget, a relatively modest amount in the predigital era. She edited it herself, punctuating the talk and nodding, shuffling action with swish pans that blur the visuals and look like what you might see as a dancer when you execute a turn. The swish pans call attention to the filmmaking, underscoring its artifice, as do the way the addicts talk directly into the camera, like belligerent drunks. As one drones on in what feels like a parody of documentary tedium, the camera shifts to a roach crawling up a wall, a harshly comic encapsulation of an addict scuttling after the next fix.
The early reviews were promising, and “The Connection” was shown out of competition at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival to acclaim and some notoriety because, Clarke said, “the ‘Beat’ Americans in Europe came to Cannes to support us.” Allen Ginsberg’s biographer Bill Morgan writes that one of Les Beatniks, Gregory Corso, arrived with his pockets full of heroin. (They were soon empty.) Whether Clarke was doing drugs is unclear, but after Cannes she ran off with Carl Lee, an African-American, who plays Cowboy and was, Dundy wrote, a drug user. According to Dundy, Clarke said she took drugs to be on the “same glorious wavelength” as Lee.
Clarke began working on “The Cool World,” about teenage toughs in Harlem, in the fall of 1961, right around when “The Connection” was busted by the smut police. At that time New York State required movies to be licensed by a board of censors before they could be publically exhibited. The board refused to issue a license to “The Connection,” deeming it obscene because of a peek at a girlie magazine and a vulgarity that’s a synonym for heroin. A year later it was shown without a license and promptly shut down. Perhaps bored with the fuss or just contrary, the critics sank their teeth into the film. The Court of Appeals reversed the decision, but the damage was done.
“My backers had to be satisfied with sponsoring artistic successes,” Clarke said years later, “because they never saw their money again.” Then as now distribution was one of the most intractable obstacles for independents, the difference being that Clarke was working at a time when there was nothing like the indie film infrastructure that exists today. She and Mr. Mekas tried to address this lack when they helped form the film rental library, the Film-Makers Cooperative, and the more commercial, shorter-lived Film-Makers’ Distribution Center. In truth, as the dud box office for “The Cool World” suggests, she didn’t make movies that could hit the white art-house sweet spot. (The rights to the movie are owned by the documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, who, alas, hasn’t put it out on DVD.)
That didn’t stop Clarke. After a detour with Robert Frost, she made “Portrait of Jason,” a stunning nonfiction film about a black gay hustler that’s nearly all monologue and is alternately a confessional, a burlesque and a tragedy, and followed that up with “Ornette: Made in America.” She tried to make more movies, fell hard for video, lived in the penthouse at the Chelsea Hotel, visited Los Angeles (and stayed), taught film and got herself clean. She was rediscovered and celebrated anew and later developed Alzheimer’s disease and died after suffering a stroke. She was forgotten by too many, and not a single book has been written about her. “The Connection” signaled the beginning of a new period in her life, and just maybe it will again bring her the acclaim she has always deserved.