Close Up

3 March 2017: Shirley Clarke's Early Shorts


Drawing on her background as a dancer, Shirley Clarke created short films that celebrated the "dance of life." From the beautifully choreographed portrait of New York City's bridges in Bridges-Go-Round to collaborations with legendary choreographer Anna Sokolow in Bullfight and A Moment in Love, this program of newly restored films commemorates the short works of an iconic American filmmaker.

Shirley Clarke was a vital part of the burgeoning post-war American film movement and one of the leading figures in what came to be seen as independent American film. She was one of the first signers – and the only woman – of the New American Cinema manifesto in 1961. "Despite having been acknowledged by filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman and John Cassavetes, her work has not drawn attention on a par with its merit. Clarke was a passionate advocate of independent filmmaking, a woman working in a male industry par excellence and a European cinema enthusiast. All these qualities are irreconcilable with the profit-making motives of cinema as an institution and this might provide an explanation for her interest in outcasts and outsiders. In her words: "I always felt alone and on the outside of the culture I was in. I grew up in a time when women weren’t running things. They still aren't". Despite the difficulties she faced throughout her career, her films are still alive and full of a performative energy, which proves that innovative filmmaking does not rely on technological tricks and cosmetics, but on an understanding of the medium's performative potential and on a good eye for social observation." - Angelos Koutsourakis

Television Interview: Shirley Clarke in Minneapolis
1956 | 3 min | B/W | Digital

A Moment in Love
Shirley Clarke
1957 | 9’49 min | Colour | Digital

Clarke moves away from the strictly depictive perspective maintained in Dance in The sun and towards an expressive and interpretive use of the camera in A Moment in Love. As the dancers move, the camera not only follows them but exceeds and breaks their trajectories. It manipulates their perceptible movements to such an extent that the dancers appear to be gliding among the clouds, suspended in endless and even supernatural bliss. As Clarke explains: “I started choreographing the camera as well as the dancers in the frame”. With bright, lustrous tone, Clarke goes beyond subjective camera work to the point that her camera becomes subject itself.

A Scary Time
Shirley Clarke & Robert Hughes
1960 | 16 min | B/W | Digital

Clarke started her narrative career with this little-seen short produced by UNICEF to promote their Halloween charity drive. Clarke deviates from the expected by comparing the closeups of the "scary" children in Halloween costumes to troubling images of sick and emaciated children in third-world countries. It was so effective, that the film was banned for many years.

Bridges-Go-Round (Jazz Score by Teo Macero)
Shirley Clarke
1958 | 3’50 min | Colour | Digital

Perhaps Clarke's most famous film is this abstract, brilliantly colored kaleidoscope of New York City's bridges appearing to dance. This avant-garde mix of visual and sound has become legendary not only as a masterpiece of the postwar Indie scene, but as a film to be screened two times whenever it was shown — the two scores creating seemingly different films.

Dance in the Sun
Shirley Clarke
1953 | 7’03 min | B/W | Digital

Drawing from her training as a dancer, Dance In the Sun, Shirley Clarke’s first film, is perhaps closest in form to her previous medium of expression. It already displays themes which were to be elaborated on in her later works, and as Clarke explained in an interview with Lauren Rabinovitz, "All these kind of things I discovered about the choreography of editing and the choreography of space/time came from making that very first film". In dance in the sun, produced with dancer/choreographer Daniel Nagrin, Clarke cuts between scenes of the same dance, shot in the studio and on the beach, creating a rhythmic pattern that accelerates at film’s climax. Through Clarke’s careful attention to choreographic detail and continuity editing, the dancer Daniel Nagrin, moves between an exterior setting, the beach, and an interior studio. The space interchange with increasing intensity, connected by Nagrin’s body alone.

In Paris Parks
Shirley Clarke
1954 | 13'05 min | Colour | Digital

Discovering her original subject had left Paris, and with nothing to do, Clarke found herself taking her daughter Wendy to the park. She realized that the playing of the children was in itself a dance. So she made "a dance of life" that reveals an intimate, charming and loving vision of a now-lost Paris.

"In In Paris Parks, what is choreographed is the mundane and everyday activity in a park in Paris. While the film starts with the populated park focusing on ordinary events, it finishes with the park emptying during the evening. Clarke’s filming is, as DeeDee Halleck says, "a lyrical look at gesture and movement in a public landscape’ concerned with finding emptiness in movement and movement in emptiness."" - Angelos Koutsourakis

Shirley Clarke
1955 | 9 min | Colour  | Digital

The only filmed performance of the legendary dancer/choreographer Anna Sokolow, Clarke cuts between a bullfight and Sokolow's incredible, intensely passionate interpretation of bullfighter, audience and the bull.

Bridges-Go-Round (Electronic score by Louis and Bebe Barron)
Shirley Clarke
1958 |  3’50 min | Colour | Digital

Part of our retrospective on Shirley Clarke, generously supported by Milestone Films: