City College Remembers Shirley Clarke

Filmmaker who dealt with jazz and social issues saluted in mini-film festival

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Joseph Powell

At a recent film tribute, veteran film critic J. Hoberman described the late filmmaker Shirley Clarke as "someone who had a strong interest in jazz, race issues, and art."

It's apparent that Shirley Clarke's interests carried over into her influence and style as a filmmaker. So it's no wonder that a total of six educational departments at New York's City College recently held a tribute to her. The departments which included Black Studies, Cinema Studies and Women's Studies sponsored the event, "A Tribute to Shirley Clarke." It was a mini-film festival which was held at the college on Friday February 22nd.

The films screened were Clarke's "The Connection,", "Bridges Go Round," and "Ornette: Made in America." All three films deal with different subjects, but each one are connected around jazz music. Shirley Clarke along with fellow filmmaker John Cassavetes started the American independent film movement in New York in the late fifties. In her career, she would make five features and various short film subjects.

The first film screened was "The Connection," a 1962 black and white film which centers around a group of friends-many who are jazz musicians, who are awaiting for their drug connection. The film which was based on a popular off-Broadway play of the same can be described as a pseudo-documentary. The film within the film centers around the plot of a filmmaker who buys a group of heroin addicts their drugs for the day. In return, the group allows the filmmaker played by William Redfield to film them waiting their connection and taking their fix. The film which takes place in a New York City apartment also includes among others actors Carl Lee and Roscoe Lee Browne. The two biggest names in the film are real life jazz musicians saxophonist Jackie Mclean and pianist Freddie Redd. They are in a jazz quartet who play music throughout the film while awaiting for the connection. Mclean played in the original stage production and in real life did suffer from addiction problems in the fifties. Mclean eventually conquer his addiction and was able to bring his own real life experiences to the role.

There is a lot of great acting and Clarke's direction is very solid. There are many camera swirls which go back and forth in the room focusing on the men. Clarke allows for the camera to become a character itself. It acts as a silent friend who allows each person to open up in each of their own ways.

Upon it's release in 1962, the film was deemed very controversial due to the subject matter. "The Connection" wasn't some morality play or extreme classroom educational film where a person takes drugs in a seedy alley and goes crazy. The film took place in a large spacious furnished apartment with a group of diverse men, who lead stable lives, but were hooked on heroin.

"The Connection" is a type of film that should be shown to addicts who are in rehab centers. The viewing wouldn't be just for a cautionary tale, but to give them a reflective view. After fifty years, Clarke's film still holds up well and is not dated at all. Fedora hats, plaid striped pants, belt buckle shoes and morning television news shows with street level viewing studios which were staples back in 1962 are popular again. But more importantly and sadly, drug addiction never left the room. While we live in the most advance technology time ever, a drug addict with a cell phone still has to wait for their connection to supply his need. Clarke shows the audience the hardship of waiting when the camera focuses on the men displaying signs of nervousness, sweating, scratching and moments of uncertainly.

Another big plus is the music of the hard bop jazz style. The quartet led by Mclean and Redd really soars and blends into the pulse of the story. One sad scene has a young character played by Jim Anderson confessing to the camera the hardship of meeting ends meet to pay his bills as well as feeding his habit. The quartet plays in a bluesy tone which can make the audience feel sorry for the character. In the apartment, Clarke also focuses on a photo of jazz legend Charlie Parker. The audience can hear the hard bop style displaying the roots of bebop which Parker helped create. The photo also indicates the sadness in which the jazz legend had a addiction which played a major part in his death. Any jazz lover should run out and buy the movie's soundtrack.

After a short break, the next film shown was a 1958 eight minute film entitled, "Bridges Go Round." It was a beautiful montage of New York City's bridges. There was no narration, but Clarke's film was aided by a lovely jazz score by legendary Columbia Records producer Teo Marceo. The film focus solely on the bridges in the city's harbor.

The final film shown was the 1985 documentary, "Ornette: Made in America." Along with being one of Clarke's more popular films, sadly it was her last feature made. The film took a look at legendary free jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. It was film in and around Ornette's hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. It opens with him receiving the key to the city and performing with the Fort Worth Symphony with his jazz funk group
Prime Time.

It's a beautiful shot film, but don't expect a straight narrative style that most documentarys have. Clarke's film is as unconventional as Coleman's music and his persona. In the opening, Clarke shows a bright neon letter sign advertising the name of the film and her name listed as the director. The sign is located on a building in downtown Fort Worth. The shot of the sign is shown various times in total silence, which gives off a subtle moment. The calmness display here is indicating that some type of chaos is coming and that chaos is the loud sounds of Ornette Coleman's music. It's film aesthetic moments like this that makes one wish that Shirley Clarke made more films.

The movie jumps back and forth in various periods of his career. We see clips of Coleman playing in the eighties and then it goes back to the sixties. One clip shows Coleman letting his eight year old Denardo taking over the drummer's duties in his band. Clarke then shows Denardo in the eighties as older and wiser who became a stronger drummer and who is now the manager of his father. But was Ornette trying to answer the critics or people who always stated "my toddler can bang spoons and still sound like free jazz." We never know why he made that move regarding his son. It would of been interesting to get Coleman views on the matter.

We see Coleman walking around his hometown of Fort Worth visting his childhood home. We see him talking to musicians outside of jazz who are in the classical and world music field. Coleman is seen traveling around the world seeking out new musical sounds to incorporate into his playing.

One special moment captured is a mid-eighties performance of Coleman and his Prime Time band performing at the World Trade Center's outdoor plaza. Many New York music fans will remember when there summer concerts in the plaza which took place back in the eighties all the way up to early part of this century. What made this concert unique was that Coleman had the performance filmed live and transmitted via close circuit to a large outside screen up at Harlem's State Office Building outdoor plaza. Coleman was playing for two audiences separated by miles to experience his music.

Photos of Coleman as a young man starting out and there is a scene of him at a table talking to a group of musicans or his family about his time working with legendary saxophonist King Curtis. Again, it's moments like this that one wishes Clarke took the regular route in the narrative. It would of been interesting to hear first, and second parties accounts,along with photos, all leading up to the present day. Maybe it was impossible to go this route with Coleman. He is truly deserving of a PBS American Masters salute. Clarke's documentary is the closest we will ever get of the man. Coleman was criticized for his free jazz style playing and wasn't accepted by the mainstream. The documentary shows that by the eighties Coleman was finally accepted and being hailed as a musical genius. But Clarke shows the listener that no matter how free Coleman's music may have sounded, one can still hear that he followed the rules set down by Charlie Parker and others who came before him.

City College presented a small but rewarding tribute to Shirley Clarke. It's was kind of a homecoming due to Clarke studied dance and film at City College. Clarke passed away in 1997 and there has been a rediscovery of her. Some of her films were shown last summer at Greenwich Village IFC theater. This past January at New York's Film Forum, her films were shown during a long film series devoted to the New York independent film movement which ranged from the late fifties to seventies.

The biggest news is that Milestone Films has remastered all of her films and released them on DVDs. Anyone interested in films, jazz or Shirley Clarke in general, should checked them out.

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Joseph Powell