The Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke, 1929–1987 (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Aaron Cutler

A Blu-ray three-disc box set containing more than eight hours’ worth of films. A Milestone Films release.

One of the most remarkable home video releases of last year is devoted to what, by many accounts, would be considered marginalia. Milestone Films’s three-disc box set release of films directed by American independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke gathers together over eight hours’ worth of material comprising dance films, 16mm experiments, formally adventurous video works, a straightforward portrait of a great American poet, and several home movie extracts (among other items), which collectively present a Clarke portfolio as well as a portrait of the artist. The set contains films that have been painstakingly restored alongside archival pieces plucked from the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research (home to Clarke’s archives) for their first-ever public presentations. The result has been assembled in a light packaging case that includes a brief contextualizing booklet, marking the fourth and final release in Milestone’s eight-year-long initiative Project Shirley.

Clarke herself can be considered a marginal figure—a maker of form-bursting hybrid films whose feature-length landmarks The Connection (1961) and Portrait of Jason (1967) fell out of circulation for decades pre-Milestone, and who even today lacks a single book-length study of her work. The Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke, 1929–1987 (representing a period from ten years after her birth to a decade before her death), in presenting little-known works from a little-known artist, immediately begs the question: Are the films—and the filmmaker—worth it?

Shirley Clarke's Portrait of Jason (1967).

Shirley Clarke's The Connection (1961).

The answer, for this writer, is a “Yes” that can’t be shouted loud enough, due largely to the inspiring ways that Clarke’s films differ from those of others. The early dance works, for instance, recall Maya Deren’s films through how they show peoples’ movements transcending time and space, but with a richness of color to which Deren never had access. Clarke’s nonfiction shorts co-directed with giants of American documentary filmmaking such as D. A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, and Willard Van Dyke break from Direct Cinema through the ways in which they playfully enlist people on-screen in acts of role-playing and fabulation, as though Clarke’s newly minted stars were co-conspirators. Even a great street-level observer of humanity such as John Cassavetes—to whom Clarke lent filmmaking equipment with which he made his debut feature, Shadows (1959)—did not possess Clarke’s talent for weaving documentary records into ostensible fiction. Clarke’s films pass the sensation of being rehearsed and disciplined to the point of achieving pure spontaneity, and always ready to transform into something other than what’s expected of them.

Portrait of Shirley Clarke

She was born in New York in 1919 as Shirley Brimberg to a wealthy Jewish family, and married a friend and book publisher named Bert Clarke when she was young in order to escape an environment she found to be too restricting. She struggled with formal education due in part to dyslexia and passed through seven universities, ultimately focusing on modern dance training with famed instructors such as Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, and Anna Sokolow. Some of the home movies found in The Magic Box showcase the dance style that Clarke possessed in her teens and twenties, with the small and skinny woman concentratedly keeping her hands and feet curled back in the direction of her body during careful tiptoeing gestures that are interspersed with strong leaps and thrusts. She received a 16mm Bolex camera as a wedding present and eventually gave up dancing to pursue filmmaking, with the goal of registering dance on film as a way to preserve the work of people involved with an ephemeral art form.

She understood, though, that all forms of motion on film could be considered dance. This understanding is evident throughout The Magic Box’s first disc, “Experimental,” which—as is often the case with that term—gathers films hard to classify another way. It is present in a work like 1958’s Bridges-Go-Round (available here with two different but equally pleasing scores composed by Louis and Bebe Barron and by Teo Macero), which lyrically traverses bridges around Manhattan over five minutes in circular fashion. It also appears in 1967’s antiwar film Butterfly—one of several collaborations between Shirley and her daughter Wendy Clarke, eventually an important video artist—in which the mother appears rocking her adult daughter while sounds of machine gun fire are overtaken by those of a lullaby. It is present as well in 1977’s 24 Frames Per Second—a rapidly edited video study of ancient Persian tapestries commissioned to accompany an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—and in the accompanying video variations that show two cheerful and powerful dancers filmed in a duet in front of the original recording.

Shirley Clarke’s documentary Skyscraper (1961).

Clarke perceived human existence as an ongoing performance, with art as a means through which people presented variations on themselves. Several of her films dealt with theater as a realm for self-expression. In the explicitly stage-bound works Savage/Love (1981) and Tongues (1982)—both of them late video collaborations between Clarke, playwright Sam Shepard, and actor/director Joseph Chaikin—a theater becomes a space for a person to try out diverse selves, with a man speaking varied languages and manically describing himself in different ways for the sake of an offstage lover. A film like Skyscraper (1961)—which Clarke characterized as “a musical comedy”—also contains a great deal of performance. The effort co-directed by Clarke, Willard Van Dyke, and Irving Jacoby shows the construction of a New York City skyscraper from the perspective of the construction workers, with the men narrating in sometimes expository, sometimes wisecracking fashion over a light and pleasing jazz score. Their theater is their surrounding world.

Jazz (a kind of music often celebrated for its performative aspects) is at work throughout the Brussels Loops (1957), a nearly hour-long collection of short pieces made for the 1957 American Pavilion at the Brussels World Fair, most of which were shot by D. A. Pennebaker and edited by Clarke. Although the three-minute films are in fact silent (per their producer’s wishes), Clarke cut them as though they were jazz pieces, resulting in an indelibly rhythmic sense of movement throughout a journey across the U.S.A. Each piece in the Brussels Loops represents not only a different place in the country but also a different kind of landscape, whether it be a golden field by which a train passes, a park through which a multiracial multitude walks, or a supermarket within which women and children examine produce, meat, and cheese. The Brussels Loops end up being perhaps the richest works in The Magic Box’s first disc, together with the equally panoramic sixteen-minute A Scary Time (1960). This Halloween-set short, commissioned and ultimately rejected by the United Nations International Children’s Fund, shows suburban American children trick-or-treating; the poetic scenes of them announcing their plans in rhymed voice-over are gradually cut together with nightmarish images of famine and disease-stricken children in impoverished parts of the world, culminating in a frightened cry for help.

A young Shirley Brimberg dancing.

Shirley Clarke appears as a child in an opening photo montage on The Magic Box’s second disc, “Dance.” This disc’s contents are curated in bold fashion, with Clarke’s officially recognized and celebrated dance films placed alongside archival materials that have previously received only rare exposure. A not entirely salutary consequence of this choice is the risk it poses of implying that all the disc’s works hold the same artistic merit; a very valuable effect, however, is the impression of every piece of available footage that involves Clarke contributing to the narrative of her personal and artistic growth.

For instance, the two-part recording of Rose and the Players (1956)consisting of rehearsal footage for a never-shot dance film based on Picasso’s painting “Family of Saltimbanques” (1905)intrigues not only for its depiction of Anna Sokolow choreographing a group of dancers that includes a young Wendy Clarke, but also for its offering of several interactions between an amorous couple that are repeated in Clarke and Sokolow’s later film A Moment in Love (1957). Other incomplete pieces intrigue by virtue of the talent on display, such as Fear Flight (1953) (which offers Beatrice Seckler performing pantomime in the dark), a fifteen-minute record of the French mime Étienne Decroux, and a brief home movie register of a lecture and piano performance by Jelly Roll Morton.

Shirley Clarke's Dance in the Sun (1953).

Clarke’s first completed dance film—and first completed film, period—was the eight-minute-long Dance in the Sun (1953), starring the dancer Daniel Nagrin in a brilliant duet with Clarke’s camera. It is also Clarke’s first film to embody what she considered to be her career-long theme: the duality of fantasy and reality. A bare-chested Nagrin is seen dancing both in a studio and on a beach, with leaps taking him between the two locations; he eventually ends his routine and smokes and banters with his piano accompanist (Sylvia Marshall), as though setup and cool-down were part of the performance. A duality also pervades the admittedly more strained Bullfight (1955), in which Anna Sokolow uses dance to enact the sensations felt by a bull seen fighting with and falling to a matador.

Dualities of inner and outer lives come together during one pleasurable day outdoors in In Paris Parks (1954), a charming musical glide through the title locations led by a child (Wendy Clarke) rolling a hoop from beginning to end. This film’s scenes of people gathered around merry-go-rounds and puppet shows dovetail with Jacques Tati’s work through their incorporation of playtime into depictions of the everyday. Indeed, Clarke even said that she created In Paris Parks to show that a dance film could be made without anyone on-screen actually dancing. Dance is rather in the film’s spirit. (In an example of the Milestone release’s thorough nature, In Paris Parks is presented alongside outtakes and a second, incomplete outdoors film that Clarke made in Paris at the same time.)

Shirley Clarke's A Moment in Love (1957).

A Moment in Love features a duet (danced by Carmela Gutierrez and Paul Sanasardo) staged in a shimmering natural landscape. As the two people move slowly and elegantly through hills and fields and by a lake, smoke curls around them, foretelling with sad grace the end of a private world. The world changes form throughout the multipart dance epic concluding the “Dance” disc, collectively titled Four Journeys into Mystic Time (1979). These pieces—choreographed by Marion Scott and shot, like most of Clarke’s 1970s and 1980s work, on video—initially show people moving slowly through abstract theatrical spaces, with their gestures altered by dissolves, blurs, and other video effects. The human figures become more vibrant, strange, and even comical in their motions over the course of the series, which returns to transcendence in a final segment with two people whose bodies interlock as they spin together into darkness.

The Magic Box’s title comes from a story, reprinted in Milestone’s booklet, about a poor farmer whose farm improved greatly while he was carrying a “magic box” with him—a box, he eventually learned, that was empty. The story was told by Clarke’s grandfather (a self-made businessman) and eventually came to apply to her own work. The “magic box” in her films represents not just a camera, but also a mindset, in which the quotidian is transformed into fruit for one’s work through the power of belief.

A scene from Shirley Clarke’s biographical portrait, Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World (1963).

Few better examples of this practice can be found in recent American art than in the poetry of Robert Frost, a grand commemorator of everyday magic and the subject of Clarke’s fifty-minute-long Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World (1963). This gentle film is the centerpiece of The Magic Box’s third disc, “Robert Frost & The Home Movies.” It consists largely of intercut scenes of an able and active octogenarian Frost in a variety of what have come to be unexceptional locations for him, such as his farm, a library filled with male Amherst College students, and a lecture hall at Sarah Lawrence College where his offers to “say a poem” are met with young girls’ laughter. Even in meetings with President Kennedy, the lifelong Democrat makes continual efforts to present himself as little more than someone fortunate to have received attention for his work. Frost makes himself out to be a person imbued with clear-eyed humility gained from a knowledge of mortality, a sensibility that can indeed be found in “The Road Not Taken,” “Birches,” and “The Lesson for Today” (whose final line, he tells the camera, sums up his life: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world”).

Frost comes across on-screen not only as wise, but also sweet, charming, and generous, in a way that feels oddly hagiographic for Clarke’s work. The Oscar-winning film (for 1963’s Best Documentary Feature award) was indeed edited by the film’s producer, Robert Hughes, without Clarke’s consent. There is firsthand observation in the finished film’s method of recording Frost, but little overt complicity between subject and filmmaker—unlike, for instance, in the later Portrait of Jason, where the extent to which the queer black hustler Jason performs for his friend Clarke’s camera is the central question of the film. Frost, shortly before his death, registers on-screen as being wonderfully, simply, clearly—and only—himself.

Shirley Clarke on the set of Robert Frost.

Clarke’s richest, most authorial film work lay not in such uncomplicated depictions of people, but rather in exploring the complicated contradictions of the self, even her own self. Soon after completing Portrait of Jason, she appeared onscreen in Agnès Varda’s fictional Hollywood-set film Lions Love (…and Lies) (1969) as a neurosis-plagued rendition of herself—a struggling independent film director, frustrated from lack of opportunities, who will nevertheless only agree to work in the industry if it allows her to proceed on her own terms. The self that Clarke projects in Varda’s film resonates with the one encountered in a 1956 TV interview on the third Milestone disc, shortly after she began making dance films. As Clarke speaks about how, as a woman, she feels that collaborators have been nice to her without taking her entirely seriously, we watch her shifting between modes of confidence and nervousness, and shifting between the interviewer and the camera, as though deciding from instant to instant not only what to say, but to whom, and how.

The home movies included on this disc (together with Lions Love outtakes) show Clarke’s performative instincts present from early on in her life. As a young girl, she models herself for the camera; as she grows older, we watch her trying out dance and camera movements that appear with variations throughout her later films—shorts, features, documentaries, fictions, celluloid-shot and video pieces (some of which still have rarely been screened). It becomes clear over the course of Milestone’s set—and of Project Shirley in general—that Clarke could make so many different kinds of moving images partly because of how she understood the self as a fluid entity. For her, art threw life into relief as a game to be played, with its many different pieces given spark by a simple box.  

Shirley Clarke with a camera in 1944.

Aaron Cutler keeps a website, The Moviegoer.

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