Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 2, 2014

The Shirley Clarke Restoration Project

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:32 pm

Recently I had the good fortune to watch two DVD’s from Milestone that are part of an ongoing restoration project for the entire Shirley Clarke oeuvre, the legacy of an avant-garde film and video maker from the 1950s through the 80s. Generally I am leery of the hyperbole that abounds in the arts section of the NY Times but I think that Manohla Dargis was not exaggerating when she wrote: “Dancer, bride, runaway wife, radical filmmaker and pioneer—Shirley Clarke is one of the great undertold stories of American Independent cinema.”

The first and last time I saw a Shirley Clarke film was in 1961. As the title implied, “The Connection” was about junkies. It also happens to be the first restored film in the Milestone project. It is a truly amazing film that I can remember scenes from to this day. It has an improvised feel as the cast sits around in a tenement apartment waiting anxiously and even desperately for the heroin pusher “Cowboy” to arrive. Clarke’s boyfriend Carl Lee played Cowboy. He was the son of Canada Lee, a veteran African-American film actor who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. “The Connection” had to battle the censors to be shown in NY. They objected to the frequent use of the word “shit”, even though it was only referring to the drug.

What I remember most about this great film that was essentially a filmed version of Jack Gelber’s off-Broadway play was the band that played on the same stage as the actors, just to their left and within the audience’s view. It was led by Freddie Redd and featured Jackie McLean on alto sax. They were great.

Milestone sent me DVD’s for Clarke’s 1967 “Portrait of Jason” and “Ornette Coleman: Made in America”, her last film made in 1985. Clarke died that year from a stroke just before her 78th birthday. They are documentaries that are as much about Clarke’s particular esthetic as they are about their fascinating African-American subjects.

Jason Holliday was a 43-year-old hustler who Clarke interviewed in her penthouse apartment at the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. The Chelsea is a landmark hotel that was home to legendary bohemian and leftist figures in its heyday, including actor and filmmaker Frank Cavestani who I interview below. Jason was a friend of Carl Lee and Clarke even though he had given plenty of reasons over the years to make them wonder why. The final 15 minutes or so of the film are a kind of psychodrama as Carl Lee asks Jason repeatedly why he betrayed him.

Made 4 years before the Stonewall Uprising, “Portrait of Jason” is—as far as I know—the first film to give an openly gay man an opportunity to talk about his life and his sexuality. For nearly his entire time on camera, Jason laughs hysterically as he alternately downs cocktails and smokes joints. His performance reminded me of the cover of the old Lester Young record: “Laughing to Keep from Crying”.

In his descriptions of how he assumed various identities to make himself acceptable to whites and straights, I kept thinking of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks”. For a perceptive analysis of the film, I recommend Richard Brody’s article that appeared in the New Yorker Magazine in April 2013.

Ingmar Bergman called Portrait of Jason “the most extraordinary film I’ve seen in my life.” It is available from Milestone for $23.96.

After watching the Ornette Coleman documentary, I scratched my head trying to figure out how I had not managed to see it when it came out nearly 30 years ago since I was a huge Ornette fan. So was Shirley Clarke obviously.

The film is mostly straight-ahead documentary with interviews of Ornette Coleman and an impressive cast of people commenting on his place in American music. Among the most interesting was George Russell, the jazz pianist who died five years ago. Russell, like Coleman, was a very cerebral and innovative composer who was up to the task of explaining what made Coleman special. I was also interested in what the late Robert Palmer had to say. Palmer, a musician himself and expert on the blues, moved into the apartment I left empty in Hoboken when I moved to Manhattan to join the Trotskyist movement. Shortly after I left Hoboken, Palmer started a band called the Insect Trust that was largely made up of my neighbors in 39 Second Street, just a stone’s through from the Hudson.

He died much too young of liver disease in 1997 at the age of 52.

To put Coleman’s extraordinary ascent to the first ranks of serious music, however you want to classify it, Clarke casts a young Black boy as Coleman in his early years in Fort Worth, Texas. We see him strolling silently around his old neighborhood as Coleman’s bluesy saxophone plays in the background.

Most of the film is devoted to Coleman performing in various venues, which is probably the most compelling reason to see the film. It is also an opportunity to hear the great but enigmatic figure talk about the problems that face all artists who dare to challenge the orthodoxy. In Coleman’s case, this meant risking beatings at the down and dirty nightclubs he performed in first coming up. On more than one occasion an angry audience member broke his saxophone.

It took 20 years for the film to be completed as Don Snowden explained in the LA Times:

Clarke was a dancer who studied with Martha Graham before she moved out of performing and into the movie world in the late ’50s. She became well known in independent film circles in the early ’60s for her films “The Connection” and “The Cool World” before directing a 1964 documentary on poet Robert Frost that won an Academy Award.

She met the saxophonist through a mutual friend, Yoko Ono, during a mid-’60s Parisian sojourn. When an independent New York producer approached Clarke to do a movie about jazz, she embarked on a film centered around Coleman’s decision to use his 11-year-old son Denardo as the drummer for his group.

But the original project foundered in 1969 when the producer disliked a partially completed version of the film. Clarke engineered her firing from the project to avoid being liable for $40,000 in expenses and the footage spent the next dozen years gathering dust under people’s beds.

The experience shook Clarke so much that she abandoned films for the fledgling video field. Video techniques played a central role in assembling and completing “Ornette: Made in America.”

“Video allows for an emotional response on the part of the person editing,” Clarke said. “What’s going to change is that you’re going to have the same kind of freedom that actors have on stage, yet you can record it. It allows the film maker to stay in the creative process longer.”

The film project was resurrected in 1983 when the Caravan of Dreams Performing Arts Center in Fort Worth, Tex., opened its doors by engineering Coleman’s first hometown appearance in 25 years. Producer Kathelin Hoffman formed a production company to capture the event and Coleman suggested that Clarke be contacted.

“Ornette: Made in America” can be purchased for $23.96 from Milestone.

Frank Cavestani on Shirley Clarke, the Chelsea Hotel, and movies



  1. I miss you Louis.

    Comment by Phyllis Segura — April 12, 2015 @ 1:04 pm

  2. […] December I reported on the ongoing restoration project at Milestone to make the groundbreaking films of Shirley Clarke available again as DVDs. I mentioned that I saw […]

    Pingback by The Connection; Jason and Shirley | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 18, 2015 @ 10:59 pm

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