Sunday, December 11, 2016

Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke

Milestone Film, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 15, 2016
Review by Christopher S. Long

Milestone Film's sprawling, four-volume Project Shirley now runs at 1,165 minutes, give or take a few minutes for rounding errors. That's a daunting 19 hours and spare change, but I feel like the spirit of this grand enterprise is captured in just a few seconds on one of the smaller features included in Volume Four, “The Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke, 1929-1987.”

Disc Two of this three-disc package kicks off with a one-minute montage of still photos of Shirley Clarke, the filmmaker/star of this whole project, in the midst of various ballet moves, back when she was known to the world as young dancer Shirley Brimberg. On the final photo of Clarke (then Brimberg), the camera zooms in to a tight close-up on her face, as she looks intent on striking the perfect pose, and holds as the Shostakovich on the soundtrack reaches its final climax.

Shirley Brimberg
The inclusion of such a “minor” feature at all provides yet another example of the meticulousness that defines every Milestone release. The placement this little feature at the beginning of a disc with over two-and-a-half hours of footage indicates that Project Shirley does not consider anything about its title star to be “minor.” The final zoom in on Clarke's face suggests that the Milestone team possesses a strong affinity for the woman herself, not just her work, an affinity that might qualify as unabashed personal affection, though I hesitate to act as a mind reader.

Project Shirley has taken Milestone nearly a decade to complete, and what began as an effort to fully restore the reputation of a great American filmmaker who had been unfairly overlooked has finished as an unqualified success of impressive proportions. The first three volumes of Project Shirley centered around feature films, including “The Connection” (1962),Clarke's renowned adaptation of a play about strung-out jazz musicians waiting for their next fix; “Portrait of Jason” (1967), a landmark LGBT film about a self-described “stone whore” and hustler; and the free-wheeling, psychedelic jazz documentary “Ornette: Made in America” (1984).

The copious extras included in each volume chronicled the professional and personal journey of Shirley Clarke, the dancer turned filmmaker who spent as much of her career struggling to secure resources to complete projects as she did shooting the groundbreaking films at the heart of Project Shirley. Volume Four relates even more of this story, with a dizzying array of films of various lengths, though mostly of the short variety; some completed, some abandoned unfinished, some taken over by other filmmakers, some only recently discovered during the research for Project Shirley.

The nearly forty titles nestled gently inside of this “Magic Box” run over eight hours in total and range from Clarke's boldest experimental films to a PBS-style (and Oscar-winning) documentary about poet Robert Frost and even include numerous home movies from Clarke's childhood, her wedding, and family vacations. Any documented aspect of Clarke's story is fair game for Project Shirley. I can only touch on a representative sampling of the work on this volume.

Disc One is devoted to Clarke's more experimental films, kicking off with a lengthy compilation titled “Brussels Film Loops.” This 59-minute feature consists of a series of short films commissioned for the American Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair, some credited solely to Clarke, some to famed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker with Clarke editing. They offer short portraits of American life: Western landscapes, city life, the American melting pot, etc.

“Bridges-Go-Round” is pure Clarke, and a fine example of her interest in manipulating the image, from color tinting to off-kilter angles providing vertiginous rides along a city bridge; you might even call it a dance. Electronic music on the soundtrack also demonstrates Clarke's interest in exploring the creative potentials of audio design, often with an intentionally alienating effect - witness the juxtapositions of gunfire and the sound of a baby crying on the jarring anti-war short “Butterfly” (1967, 4 min.), and one of the disc's true gems, the kaleidoscopic “24 Frames Per Second” (1977, 3 min.) which pairs swirling, rapid-fire images of Persian art with a distorted, aggressive soundtrack that is simultaneously energizing and agitating.


One of the better films in the collection is Clarke's Oscar-winning short film “Skyscraper” (1960, 21 min.), made in collaboration with Willard Van Dyke, D.A. Pennebaker, Irving Jacoby, and John Sylvester White. Playful narration meets actuality footage to tell the heroic tale of the construction of a skyscraper from the ground up at 666 Fifth Avenue in New York, a building which would become the one-time headquarters of DC Comics (among other less significant American institutions.)

Disc Two houses the Dance Films of Shirley Clarke. Dance was Clarke's first passion and when the talented dancer realized she wasn't likely to work as a full-time professional ballet performer, she devoted her attention to capturing dance performances on film. I admit up front that I know as much about dance as I do about saying no to a second helping of my grandmother's pasta at New Year's Dinner, but for dance aficionados, these films offer some special treats. “Dance In the Sun” (1953, 7 min.) is described by Milestone as Clarke's first “official” film and features renowned dancer/choreographer Daniel Nagrin in a short piece that match cuts between his dance performance in studio and on a sandy beach... then ends with him leaning on a piano and smoking a post-recital cigarette, one of the playful touches that colors so much of Clarke's work.

The famous dancer and choreographer Anna Sokolow, also a co-founder of the Actors' Studio, collaborated with Clarke on multiple films on this disc, as choreographer on a brief excerpt titled “A Short Lecture and Demonstration on the Evolution of Ragtime by Jelly Roll Morton” (1952, 2 min.) and then starring in Clarke's short film “Bullfight” (9 min.), playing the roles of matador, bull, and audience in what Milestone lists as “the only record of the great dancer in performance.” Sokolow also collaborated with Clarke on the film “A Moment In Love” (9 min.), pairing Sokolow's choreography with Clarke's reliance on tinting and double exposures.

Disc Three offers more of a hodgepodge. “Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel With The World” (52 min.) won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1964. The film was taken over during post-production by producer Robert Hughes, but Clarke remains credited as director. This “long-unseen complete version” was released shortly after Frost passed away and features the octogenarian poet holding court for audiences large and small, young and old, and also puttering around alone in his home. It's standard fare formally, but gripping due to Frost's considerable presence. The disc also includes the short film “Christopher and Me” (16 min.), directed by Richard Leacock with “continuity and dialogue by Shirley Clarke.” It's a cute children's film about a boating race which ends with a song written by D.A. Pennebaker.

The rest of the disc consists primarily of home movies and photos, from Clarke as a child to footage of her home life with husband Bert and family vacatons. One of these “home movies” is actually a series of on-set Outtakes (13 min.) from Agnes Varda's film “Lion's Love” (1969) in which Clarke acted (as herself). Evidence here suggests Varda really liked to smoke. I had been told about this footage in the past by the good folks at Milestone, but didn't expect it to actually show up on disc. It's a pleasant surprise for any Varda-phile, and that's surely everyone, right? You get some footage of Warhol superstar Viva too.

This collection (and the entirety of Project Shirley) is too expansive to sum up easily, and the same is true of Shirley Clarke's no-longer-eclipsed career. What we can say is that Project Shirley has spared no effort in providing audiences with the ability to explore her work, from feature films to childhood photos, from experimental short films to documentaries. It's almost impossible to ask for anything more.

A detailed listing of the offerings on each disc follows:


“Brussels Loops” (59 min.) - described above
“Bridges-Go-Round 1” (4 min.) and “Bridges-Go-Round 2” - described above
“Scary Time” (1960, 16 min) – A film commissioned by and then banned by UNICEF as Clarke and Robert Hughes's juxtaposition of American kids playing dress-up at Halloween with images of starving and sick children in other countries proved a bit too disturbing.
“Skyscraper” (21 min.) - described above
“Butterfly” (4 min.) - A Vietnam protest film by Shirley and her daughter Wendy, which was only screened once, then rediscovered during Project Shirley. It was previously included on the “Portrait of Jason” disc.
“Savage/Love” (1981, 26 min.) and “Tongues” (20 min.) - Video recordings of one-man stage monologues written by Sam Shepard and performed by Joseph Chaikin. Just the sort of theater pieces I'm fundamentally allergic to, but considering the talent involved, surely of interest to many. Clarke really loves to manipulate the video image even with such a straightforward setup as a monologue.
“24 Frames Per Second” (3 min.) - Described above and flat-out great.
“Three Video Variations on 24 Frames Per Second” (11 min.) - Dancers imposed in front of the Persian art images from the short film, in (you guessed it) three different variations.


“Shirley Dancing – A Photo Gallery” (1 min.) - A montage of stills.
“Fear Flight” (1953, 11 min.) - Another recent discovery from the Clarke archives, an unfinished film (a silent work print) of a dancer in front of a blank wall, choreographed by Beatrice Seckler.
“Jelly Roll Morton” (2 min.) - described above.
“Home Movies #20: Dance Tests” (6 min.) - More footage of dancer Daniel Nagrin.
“Dance In the Sun” (1953, 7 min.) - described above
“In Paris Parks” (1954, 14 min.) - When Clarke traveled to Paris and got stood up by her planned film subject, she used her time to film this shot film in Paris featuring her daughter Wendy playing, maintenance workers setting up kids' rides, and a very unsafe-looking zoo.
“This Is Not In Paris Parks” (13 min.) - A a “surprise” second film Clarke was shooting in Paris (another recent discovery), this unfinished piece is somewhere between outtakes and final film. As if including this wasn't fastidious enough, Milestone went ahead and commissioned a new score by the great Donald Sosin as accompaniment because that's just the way they roll.
“Decroux” (15 min.) - Starring French mime Etienne Decroux in performance.
“Bullfight” (9 min.) and “Bullfight Outtakes” (2 min.) - described above
“Rose And the Players – Part 1 (13 min.) and Part 2(7 min.)” - Excerpts from another unfinished film, this collaboration between Clarke and Anna Sokolow shows Sokolow directing a rehearsal of some of her choreographed pieces. This project was unfinished, but let to...
“A Moment In Love” (9 min.) - described above
“Four Journeys Into Mystic Time” - Four short films from the same cycle, a Clarke collaboration with choreographer Marion Scott. Occult imagery abounds in sometimes poorly-lit images (the original negatives are missing) of some very strange dance performers beyond my ken.


“Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel” (52 min.) - described above
“Christopher and Me” (16 min.) - described above
“Lion's Love Outtakes” (13 min.) - described above
“The Brimberg and Clarke Photo Albums” (6 min.) - an extensive collection of family photos
“Television Interview w/ Shirley Clarke in Minneapolis” (1956, 3 min.) - Clarke patiently answers questions about what it's like to be a female filmmaker, and shares her love for dance.
“Home Movies” - Six different features running a total of 41 minutes, including home movies from Clarke as a child, to her wedding, to vacations with family and friends. The highlight of these feature are the only two known film recordings of Clarke dancing, ever so briefly.

With nearly forty different titles over a fifty year period, some in B&W and some in color, some only recently found in archives, the video quality obviously varies throughout the set. However, the image quality is consistently strong throughout as many titles have been restored. Any brief weak spots (some dark shots in “Bullfight” for example) are very much the exception in a consistently well-produced set.

A similar deal here. Many films, many sources, some are silent, sometimes the sound is intentionally distorted by Clarke. My copious viewing/listening notes do not include any references to troublesome sound spots, so another fine job here.

What, you wanted even more? Sorry, you'll have to settle for just 500 or so minutes of material. OK, fine, Milestone also includes a slim insert booklet with more detailed information about the Magic Box's contents.

Final Thoughts:
Other studios have released massive DVD/Blu-ray sets dedicated to a filmmaker's work. I have not yet seen one with quite the scope of Project Shirley. Milestone isn't just showing off by including so many titles, both short and long. While Clarke is remembered for features like “The Connection” and “Portrait of Jason” she spent much of her time struggling to complete projects, and her unfinished films are just as crucial to an appreciation of her career. The inclusion of several variations on her films (many previously buried in the archives) also provides evidence of an artist constantly experimenting and refining her technique. Clarke may have “only” completed a handful of features, but she was constantly working at her craft.

Milestone's Project Shirley leaves us with an indelible portrait of a great American filmmaker who was both politically engaged and formally engaged in an exploration of the mediums in which she worked, including video as well as film. Project Shirley is more than a DVD series, it's a scholarly biography and, just as important, a pleasure to watch. “The Magic Box” is no exception.

I've had the pleasure of reviewing all four volumes of Project Shirley, and I invite you to check out my reviews by clicking below on either the Project Shirley or Clarke.Shirley tabs. The entire project is, to say the very least, essential viewing for any cinephile.

1 comment:

  1. A very helpful review to a long-awaited tribute to an important filmmaker who was forgotten, for no good reason. Her films always were and are still milestones in cinema history.