The Early Video Project


Interview with Shirley Clarke

by DeeDee Halleck

[Interviewer's note]
Shirley Clarke started as a dancer. Her first films were dance films such as Dance in the Sun (1953), and In Paris Parks (1954), a lyrical look at gesture and movement in a public landscape.
Her work in the early 60's - The Connection and The Cool World - are landmarks of the American New Wave movement. Utilizing a New York version of Italian neo-realism, Clarke's work remains the best expression of marginal life in that era. Her film, Portrait of Jason (1967) was one of the first to look at a gay protagonist in an open and sympathetic (and completely unromantic) manner. In the early 70's Clarke pioneered live and taped video performance, installation and documentation with a collaborative group of artists and technicians called the Video Space Troupe. Her cutting edge work in this field was an important source of inspiration and experimentation for much of the video art and experimental television work that followed in the United States.

DDH: There are a number of women filmmakers in the U.S. who started as dancers: Maya Deren, Yvonne Rainer and you.

SC: Maya Deren was a great revolutionary, a great astonishment on the scene.

DDH: Yvonne's first support came from the art and the dance community and not the film community.

SC: The intellectual feminist arty community.

DDH: Maya Deren developed in a similar milieu. She was the first filmmaker to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. For many women filmmakers, the struggle to raise funds is almost a fulltime occupation. For women it helps to be already established in some other field to get funded for filmmaking.

SC: My friends who have been in dance, teachers of mine, are very successful. And dance was not successful up until eight years ago.

DDH: But that has something to do with fact that the corporations are subsidizing dance.

SC: It's a great safe thing. Dance has to try hard to come up with real political
content that's noticeable, and when it does, that kind of dance doesn't get funding. But I never got any money from my dance or art connections. I can't get funds from the sources that fund, say, Yvonne.

DDH: Maybe it's because your films are more accessible. There have been volumes written about Yvonne's work in anthologies of feminist theory. One doesn't need volumes of interpretive literature to appreciate your films. You put a lot of art critics out of work.

SC: Mainstream critics have written about me. Sometimes they reacted strongly. For a play I did recently in Los Angeles, the avant-garde weeklies thought it was extremely innovative and crazy and insane and wonderful. The established press thought it was amateurish, stupid, incoherent. You would have thought two totally different things were being discussed. There was a little something in there to offend everyone.

DDH: Your films were never about women's issues per se.

SC I like to see feminist films, but I've never been able to make one. I never got good ideas for that kind of movie. What I like to do and what I like to see really aren't particularly connected. For example, I'm not a great aficionado of avant-garde art, but that's what I do, more or less.

DDH: Your affiliations have been close to other arts: dance, theatre, literature. Many filmmakers do not have those connections. In the U.S. our worlds are separated. Video artists are in one world. Experimental filmmakers in another. Graphic artists and dancers have their worlds. There's not much crossover.

SC: I've never been sure which world I belong in. In 1963, Otto Preminger asked to see me after I'd done The Cool World and he asked me what I wanted to do. After talking with me for a little while he said, "I don't think Hollywood is what you want. I don't really think that that's the kind of life you want to lead and the kind of work you want to do."

That was the honest to God truth. I was embarrassed for years to let anyone know I had won an Academy Award for The Connection. That wasn't really a prize I wanted to win. I was happy to say that The Connection got a prize at Cannes. I was happy to say that The Cool World was the first independent film to play in Venice.

Later, after five years of video work at the Chelsea Hotel, I was actually asked by Roger Corman to do a movie in Hollywood. Of course the whole thing blew apart when I found out that what Roger wanted was for me to be 22 years old. He wished I had never done anything in my life. Let me tell you what he said to me. We're sitting, right? He's heard from the cameraman that I didn't plan to shoot the way he'd like. And so he says, I hear you don't plan to do coverage. With a very innocent face, I said, what's coverage? He says, wide shot, medium shot, close up.

I said, why would I want to do that? I always take the correct shot and then I might take a few cutaways and things, extra close-ups so I can tighten or loosen the sequence. And he said to me, "Maybe we really shouldn't be working with each other. I'm sorry, but I hoped I could do for you what I had done for Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdonovitch." And he listed a whole bunch of filmmakers that are ten years younger than I am, all these men who did their first movies with him. And I realized that he didn't have any idea who the fuck I was. Clearly he couldn't be talking to an established filmmaker who had gotten prizes and stuff. He didn't know who I was at all. He wanted me to shoot his script, each scene in wide, medium and close up, so that later on he could edit it. For me to make a cheapy film I didn't respect with a script that I didn't like, without the right to at least do it the way I want, for God's sakes, that's insane.

DDH: Do you think Corman would have treated a man director coming to him with your credits the same way?

SC: I would think so. Would he ever talk to a man like that? He didn't trust me, that's for sure. There's deep discrimination against women artists that is still very strong. I was a representative of tokenism. I was relied on to be the woman filmmaker. No one person can carry that burden. There's no question that my career would have been different if I was a man, but if I was a man I would be a different human being.

DDH: It seems to me there are more women producers than directors in Hollywood these days.

SC: They're very good at raising money. They're good at putting things together, as you can well imagine.

DDH: There are statistics that the Directors' Guild compiled. Unbelievable! It's
Something like 6,000 TV episodes a year, 40 of those are done by women and 30 of them were done by the same woman on the same TV show. So essentially there are 11 directors and that's it. Out of 6,000.

SC: The industry's been rotten. The history of women in all the arts has been rotten. The history of women is rotten.

DDH: Do you see it getting worse or better?

SC: I think a little better. There's certainly more consciousness on the part of the
women. We're not sitting back saying it's rotten so we're not going to do anything. Lots of us continue to do things. I'm one of the few women who teach production in film anywhere in the country. How is that possible? I know less about teaching production than a lot of people.

DDH: That's ridiculous for you to say. You're the best teacher I ever had in any subject.

SC: I'm a good teacher because I'm a very enthusiastic person, but I don't know the technology as well as many women around who know as much if not more than men. It's not that the men are better: there may be one or two good men teachers, but at UCLA they've got a lot of rotten male teachers. They have almost no women teaching anything at UCLA in the film and TV department.
The statistics of the graduates of UCLA in the industry is almost nil. Male and female. That's true of NYU and USC. There are a few real hustlers that you knew from the day they walked in, they didn't need any university. They needed to have access to equipment. That's the only reason they go. And if they were black, they did get certain financial concessions and It helped them pull some films together. A black film festival's going on in Buffalo now, and half the films are by students from UCLA who got access to equipment.

DDH: What happens to all the other graduates?

SC: Some of them will become producers, some will become agents, some of them will sell films, lots of them will become writers. It's strange that I have ended up teaching all these students with Hollywood aspirations. Nothing in my head would ever be funded by Hollywood. I consider myself part of European filmmaking-- people like Rossellini and DeSica and Fellini. I was pals with Godard and that whole bunch. That's who I identified with.

DDH: Many of those people have been supported by their government, or arts councils, or European television.

SC: Agnes Varda did a couple of films in America, but she got money from France to do them, and she has to go back to France to sell them because she can't sell them here.

DDH: You received a grant to work at the Television Lab at WNET, the largest public TV station in the country.

SC: But that was where I experienced the most explicit form of discrimination. The engineer was the worst. He was so obstructive. He just hated the fact that I was a woman: hated it! That was probably the most overt discrimination I ever had.

DDH: The technicians aren't as subtle in their oppression as the big boys at the top. A number of women I know had trouble there. That place was notorious. Nancy Holt had her sound track erased. Those things didn't happen to the men artists who were granted access to work there. The irony is that the engineers were making salaries 500 times what the artists would get for working day and night on a program. The engineers' salaries, and the rental of the TV equipment came out of the artists' grants. But the artist never got paid. The so-called "artist's access" program subsidized the technical facilities for the TV operation.

SC: The experience was very demoralizing. It was at a bad time in my life and I became really depressed. I couldn't say it was because I was female. There's an intuitive part of me that knows that there is a serious problem: that my career has been limited because I am a woman. But I can never give a specific example. It's just an overall ambiance. It's a tremor in the air. It's electricity around. It's the way people look at you. And it has an effect. It changes you. I am not the person I would have been, had I been a man, and not had to fight that double standard, I would be different.

DDH: Your energy gets siphoned off to fight those kinds of struggles.

SC: Not only my energy, but my relationships with men and my relationships with other people have been disturbed because I had to be outwardly a lot stronger than I am. I always had to present a front, I always had to be in charge. I always had to take over. Maybe things are changing now. I've had five retrospectives. There's a sense of respect when I walk into a room. I was always on my way up and now I realize I'm no longer on my way up. I never expect to make the great Hollywood motion picture, but I have some ideas for movie projects. I want very much to do a film with Shelley Winters. I don't know that, as two women, we're ever going to get it together. She may end up having to have a male director. We're perceived to be two crazy ladies. I know her and I know me and we're not two crazy ladies. But any outspoken ladies who assert themselves are looked on as a bit crazy.

DDH: If you were men you would be looked on as real artists and geniuses.

SC: We'd be amazing people with these fabulous personalities and drives and so forth. But as women, we're crazy. That's what I'm talking about; my personality changed. I have performed a part of myself for so many years. If I was as quiet as a mouse, which part of me is, I would have gotten nothing. Absolutely nowhere. There are several reasons why I succeeded at all. One, I had enough money that I didn't have to become a secretary to survive. And secondly, I have developed this personality, this way of being. It would be nice if I was in arts and crafts and
could make wonderful woven baskets sitting in my house. I happen to have chosen a field where I have to be out there, to constantly connect, to be in charge of vast amounts of money, equipment and people. And that is not particularly a woman's role in our society.

DDH: There are analogies with the way persons of color are treated in our society--your films looked at racism before it was fashionable.

SC: I identified with black people because I couldn't deal with the woman question and I transposed it. I could understand very easily the black problems, and I somehow equated them to how I felt. When I did The Connection, which was about junkies, I knew nothing about junk and cared less. It was a symbol--people who are on the outside. I always felt alone, and on the outside of the culture that I was in. I grew up in a time when women weren't running things.
They still aren't.

DDH: Your film of The Connection is one of the few instances in which the documentation has had as great or greater life than the theatre piece. People call it Shirley Clarke's Connection.

SC: It is really Shirley Clarke's film of Jack Gelber's The Connection, originally
produced by the Living Theater. That's the correct title. My input into it was to transform it, to translate it. The Connection as a film was very different from the play, even though we used some of the same actors. Savage Love, the Sam Shepard video piece with Joe Chaiken, was originally written for the theater. It was then taken by me and re-filmed, taped and after that put through a video process that changed it. And both of them, upon seeing the finished
product, loved it.

DDH: I want to go back to The Cool World.

SC: The Cool World was a little different because Warren Miller wrote the novel upon which a play was made, but it wasn't successful as a play. By the time that I made the film, he would have nothing more to do with it. He was so fed up that he said, do what you want with it.

DDH: It wasn't, in that sense, a collaboration.

SC: Not with Warren Miller. I worked with Carl Lee, who basically ironed out the novel, changed dialogue, put characters together- and I took it out on the street. That's my contribution to filmmaking.

DDH: Twenty years later, people talk about discovering the "new form": docudrama--dramatic documentary. But that happened in The Cool World in 1963.

SC: That was the first of that particular kind of thing. There had been The Quiet One, which was James Agee's reenacted documentary. The kid was a real kid and he played himself. I had seen it and Helen Levitt's work, a little film on Halloween that she did, In the Street. It had a very big effect on me combined with Rossellini and his films: Neo-Realism. That's what I fell in love with.

DDH: Any film in particular?

SC: Open City. And that's what made me want to make The Cool World. That's what I was looking to do in The Connection also, but I ended up having to do it in a set. The original idea was to shoot it in the streets of New York, but at that point in time we were scared to shoot 35mm without better sound controls. When it came to The Cool World, we developed the radio mike, and took it into the streets so the kids could talk running up and down the streets.

DDH: There's a photograph I love of you in an old issue of Film Culture with a camera suspended on clotheslines from the ceiling so that you could move with the camera and have a hand-held camera look without the weight. The first homemade steadicam!

SC: A lot of those things developed out of being a woman. I couldn't hold a camera right, so I had to do things like that. I wanted the immediacy, the reality of it. There's that neo-realist side of me but there's another part of me that loves all the playing with film and video technology that creates a film like Bridges Go Round and a tape like Savage Love that are not realistic at all, but very stylized. I love both types. That's why I like, for example, the remake of Pennies From Heaven with Steve Martin. My greatest goal is to combine those two parts of me.

DDH: The documentary parts of The Cool World were edited in a very stylized way.

SC: And the theatrical parts of The Cool World were acted in a very realistic way.
Naturalistic way. I've been trying endlessly to connect these things. I'm still trying.

DDH: There's something about the way that you do anything that always has an edge.

SC: That happens because of my political mind.

DDH: For me, there isn't enough of an "edge" in a lot of so-called feminist filmmaking. Shirley, you deconstruct reality or drama, with an implicit critique of the social relations. The starkness of the form cuts across people's preconceptions about the issues. On the other hand, somebody like Agnes Varda can make a so-called feminist film and it plays like a Hollywood musical and looks like a Hallmark card. It doesn't have the same edge.

SC: Did you ever see Varda's Lion's Love? I'm in that film. And Viva.

DDH: Well, your presence adds the edge to that film.

SC: That's because Viva and I started to play with each other. That wasn't in the script.

DDH: You're one of the few women listed in histories of film. I taught a course last semester on women in cinema. If you look at any of the text books, there are two women in them: you and Maya Deren.

SC: What pisses me is that when I'm not in those anthologies, there are no women in them.

DDH: There are several new books specific to women and film.

SC: I prefer to be in the anthologies of filmmakers: between Rene Claire and Rene Clemont is Shirley Clarke. What I'm saying by that is that I want to be identified with the body of filmmakers, not just women. What will really help women is if they show up everywhere.

DDH: But it is helpful to take a deep look at the work that women have done: not ghettoizing it, but privileging it?

SC: Classifying the kinds of women's films that are being made and analysis is needed. We need to take ourselves seriously. Even things as basic as: what is women's consciousness? It has to be politicized. It has to be historical. There are certain biological facts. Women do give birth, but I think when a man puts out his sperm he's also giving birth. The main differences are cultural. In an intrinsic human way, there are very few differences between men and women. It has nothing to do with whether you can lift a brick. None of this matters anymore.

Therefore it's all a terrible hang-up on the part of men. My images are not feminine images or masculine images, they are general political concepts. But I have a theory about the coming world, the future millennium. If creatures exist, the choice will not be the man. Man does not have the endurance. He won't be necessary. He's the expendable one. Stash a whole bunch of sperm somewhere and go on for the next fifteen hundred years.

DDH: There are theories that the fear of being expendable is why they make all those missiles.

SC: I think men are scared. It's part of the destructiveness in this world. They can see the end in sight. If they're going to go down they want to take everything with them. These people want to bomb El Salvador. You don't see women going off and saying they're going to fight for Reagan economics in El Salvador. Can you imagine that Reagan is willing to hide bombs in little trains all over the country? And he wasn't ousted from his job overnight?

DDH: How would you categorize the politics of your films?

SC: I was once a member of the Communist Party when I was very young. I was always that kind of person: always involved. I did the early marches against the atom bomb. We'd take petitions to ban the bomb to the factories after the World War II. Basically, I am against the establishment, the state. I'm an anarchist, I've finally decided. But an anarchist in a somewhat gentle way. I'll go on a march, but I'm not going to bomb something. To me, a kind of society that would work has to be anarchistic. We have to survive: I help you and you help me.

DDH: Your films contain within them a social critique, but also within them is a critique of the media.

SC: It is my comment on the world, and if you critique what goes on in the world, you are also critiquing the media. They really go together.

DDH: And now media has become the foremost thrust of capitalism.

SC: The media is the world.

DDH: I value the education I received from you when I worked with your Video Space Troupe at the Chelsea Hotel. I often wish I could convey to my students some of those experiences.

SC: I have 400 tapes, half inch, black and white, that were done during years 1969 to1975. They're video experiments by so many people who worked with us. Raindance, the Videofreex, people like Frank Gillette, Vicki Polan, Andy Gurian, Shridar Bapat, David Cort, Nancy Cain. That whole batch of tape should be saved somewhere.

DDH: Someday when we have 450 channels on every television set, we can have a Shirley Clarke channel, a Lanesville TV channel [early video experimental channel created by Videofreex Collective].

SC: In L.A. there's a Jewish channel already.

DDH: My reality side is more pessimistic: it's all going to be Sears and Roebuck
catalogs: varieties of home shopping.

SC: It's the big boys moving in and holding on. All the different things, ShowTime, HBO, blah blah. Every one of them plays the same show repeats and the same fucking movies. Endlessly. I have seen Shelly Duvall in Popeye more often than I care to admit.

DDH: The hardest part of teaching for me is the naivete of my students and their lack of consciousness about political issues. It's easy to teach them video. It's harder to make them sensitive to the world.

SC: In my UCLA classes we do a series of confessions. I had a student last year who thought it was slick to bring a guy into class who told us that he was a truck driver and proceeded to confess these amazing things and he turns out later to be an actor. The student never told us. He didn't understand why I was so furious at him. He finally had to make a tape apologizing to the class for doing this. He became the confession. It was terrific. So it ended up okay, but it started with total misunderstanding. You cannot cheat. You kill yourself. It kills the artist. If you start honestly with yourself, and there's a way to get to the truth, which
isn't all that hard, it happens. It is the inevitable outcome.

Chelsea Hotel, NYC, 1985


This interview was transcribed by Kelly Anderson and edited by DeeDee Halleck. Thanks to Cecile Starr for initially suggesting the interview.

DeeDee Halleck is a media activist who founded the Paper Tiger Television Collective and co-founded the Deep Dish Satellite Network. Her films include Haiti: Bitter Cane, The Gringo in Mañanaland and Lock Down USA. Her video work grew out of her work with the Video Space Troupe under Shirley Clarke. Halleck is Professor at UCSD. This article first appeared in Afterimage.

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© Davidson Gigliotti, 2000CE