Shirley Clarke began as a dancer before becoming a headstrong filmmaker who directed The Connection and The Cool World; by the late 1960s she had largely abandoned the film world to become a video pioneer, forming the Tee Pee Video Space Troupe with her daughter Wendy Clarke.
Shirley Clarke made a variety of experimental shorts before her first feature-length film in 1961, The Connection, adapted from Jack Gelber’s play, which had been a hit for the Living Theatre in 1959. Founded by Judith Malina and Julian Beck in 1947, the Living Theatre was at the forefront of the 1950s Off-Broadway and 1960s Off-Off-Broadway movements. “New York theater at the time was just glittery entertainment—very, very glamorous and all that,” recalled Village Voice theater critic Michael Smith. “So the Living Theatre was very much an alternative to that, completely going against the mainstream culture.” In 1959, Shirley Clarke asked her sister Elaine Dundy if she could recommend a short story or play to adapt as her first feature-length film. “I didn’t even have to think,” said Dundy. “Something that would suit her right down to the depths of her avant-garde soul was the Off-Broadway play The Connection.” After Shirley optioned the film rights, she and playwright Jack Gelber collaborated on the screenplay, which incorporated the presence of cinema verité documentary filmmakers into the plot. “Shirley was like a rushing river,” Gelber recalled. “Warm, quick, garrulous, laughing at the slightest provocation, she seemed ready to jump at any new experience out there.” Clarke’s dance career also shaped The Connection; it was shot in carefully choreographed long takes and deftly edited together by Shirley and film editor Patricia Jaffe recalled how Clarke came to the editing room smoking a cigar while dressed in pants and a jockey cap. “I was eight months pregnant at the time, and we had a cutting room at 1600 Broadway,” she said. “People used to open the door just to look at the two of us. We were such an unusual pair.”
From Chapter 2 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The theater’s jack-of-all-trade’s Larry Kornfeld was given Jack Gelber’s script for The Connection and immediately fell for it, so he brought it to Malina. She directed the play, which centered on a group of men waiting for their drug connection named Cowboy (played by Carl Lee, who became Shirley Clarke’s longtime companion). “The Connection broke down the wall between the audience and the actors,” recalled Peter Crowley, who worked at the Living Theatre. “The realism of it was pretty radical at the time. They had junkies playing junkies. I mean, not that every actor there was a junkie, but some were. And then a real jazz band was part of the show.” The Connection was framed as a play within a play. A man who introduced himself as the show’s producer told the audience that he brought in actual heroin addicts to improvise on the playwright’s themes for a documentary they were shooting. In exchange for their cooperation, he explained, the men were promised a fix. The show’s first act consisted of the junkies waiting for the heroin, and during The Connection’s intermission the performers wandered into the crowd and bummed change. “It had the actors, still in character, haranguing the spectators for money during the intermission so convincingly that they left profound doubts in the audience as to whether or not they were the real thing,” recalled Elaine Dundy, whose sister Shirley Clarke directed the film adaptation of The Connection. “It was, to use a word just gaining favor, a Happening.”
Wendy Clarke, who helped her mother through all the stages of the production, recalled that it was the first feature film shot in Harlem using inexperienced actors and ordinary people. “Over two thousand folks auditioned for The Cool World, and I got the role,” said Hampton Clanton, who was cast as the lead—Duke, a fifteen-year-old gang member. “I never acted before, so there was a lot of things I never did, like look at a script.” He grew up in the projects, though Clanton himself was nothing like the character he portrayed. His parents raised seven kids who went to church every Sunday and stayed out of trouble. “But I grew up on the Lower East Side, where all of that was around me,” he said. “The gangs were prevalent, man.” Clanton had been employed as a summer youth worker at St. Augustine’s Church when Carl Lee came by scouting for young actors and encouraged him to audition. When Clarke asked the aspiring actors to improvise a gang scene during auditions, everybody was quiet until Hampton shouted from the back, “Get that motherfucker!” They all started fighting, and she said, “Bring that kid over here.” Clarke and Lee sat Clanton down and gave him a script, which he had difficulty reading because he had never seen one before—though that didn’t stop the fourteen-year-old from landing the role (he has since appeared in dozens of films, as Rony Clanton). Over a half century later, Clanton vividly remembers the production. “Shirley was very focused, very creative,” he said. “We’re talking about 1962, right? Because of Shirley, I was one of the first cats that walked around with an Afro back then, in 1962, because of working on this movie. Duke was one of the first cats who was wearing it natural, which was the way Shirley wanted it. That’s how innovative this film was.”
Shirley Clarke’s early films were multimedia experiments that explored how dance movements worked in dialogue with camera movements and edits. Her first short film—Dance in the Sun, a collaboration with choreographer and dancer Daniel Nagrin—effortlessly melded the expressive worlds of cinema and dance. “She would have a gesture that Daniel was making with his arms onstage in the rehearsal hall in New York,” her daughter Wendy Clarke said, “and there would be a cut to the completion of that gesture that was shot on the beach. When she got into film, she was a really good networker, and people came over all the time. Jonas Mekas and other people came over for dinner and they would all show each other the films that they were working on.” Mekas and Clarke were classmates in 1950 at City College of New York, where she studied film with Dadaist Hans Richter. Mekas and Clarke stayed in touch and eventually formed the New American Cinema Group in 1960, along with other likeminded filmmakers, as well as the Film-Makers’ Cooperative. This group advocated for a low-budget, more personal and auteurist approach to cinema; their manifesto stated: “We don’t want false, polished, slick films—we prefer them rough, unpolished but alive.”
Shirley Clarke’s journey from modern dance to independent film and experimental video embodies the downtown’s boundary-blurring—straddling many scenes and facing even more obstacles. While the gay men at Caffe Cino were subject to routine homophobia outside their little theater’s walls, Clarke dealt with rampant sexism that left her emotionally bruised but defiant, as did her home life. Her father was a difficult man who wanted a son to take on the family business, but he instead had three daughters. Worse still in his mind, he was saddled with artistic daughters: Shirley became a dancer, and her sister Elaine Dundy took up writing and authored the bestselling 1958 novel The Dud Avocado. “Shirley argued with Daddy, pitted herself against him, knowing full well the denunciations and derisive mockeries she was subjecting herself to,” Dundy wrote in her memoir, Life Itself. “It made dinner a different kind of hell, but she stood her ground. Nevertheless, I know his constant disapproval took its toll on her. She was wounded by him in a way that would last for the rest of her life and lead her to seek more and more dangerous ways of rebelling against him.” Before she dove into the world of downtown bohemia in the 1960s, staying at the Chelsea Hotel for many years, she lived a respectable middle-class life married to Bert Clarke, a successful art book designer. She had married Bert in 1942 and settled in an uptown brownstone not far from where Andy Warhol lived, then gave birth to her daughter Wendy Clarke in 1944.
Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World, released in 1963, was also shot using handheld cameras and high-contrast film stock in a cinema verité style. It was based on Warren Miller’s best-selling novel about Harlem teens and was shot on location with nonprofessional actors, further giving the film a gritty realism. “It was Carl who gave her the entry into this world,” Dundy recalled, “where he was a man of substance, a respected presence in the cool black underworld. Without his endorsement of her, Shirley would not have had access to record it so intimately.” The Cool World begins with speech by a black nationalist street preacher in Harlem and then follows youths over the course of a day—intimately portraying blackness in ways that Hollywood still has not caught up with. In contrast to mainstream films about blacks that were narrated from a white perspective, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, it was presented entirely from an African American point of view. “Shirley was a genius,” observed Hampton Clanton, who played the lead role of Duke, a fifteen-year-old gang member (he was cast after Shirley Clarke’s longtime partner Carl Lee discovered him at St. Augustine’s Church). “She worked hard, man.” Clarke not only broke new narrative ground, she pioneered a new visual style by having cinematographer Baird Bryant carry a bulky 35-mm camera during the whole shoot. “That was unheard-of at that time,” Clanton said. “Shirley took a clothesline and dollied the camera, going back and forth. When I look back at her creative genius as a filmmaker, I’m amazed.”
The New York State Film Agency labeled The Connection obscene, based on the use of the word shit as slang for heroin (as well as the brief appearance of a nude picture of a woman on the set). The D. W. Griffith Theatre, hoping to make a name for itself as an art cinema, screened it on October 5, 1962, and was promptly busted by the police. Although it couldn’t be shown in commercial theaters, the progressive Judson Church held a private screening. “Both performances were packed,” Judson pastor Howard Moody recalled. “We didn’t know whether the district attorney’s office would try to shut it down, but no one appeared.” Before it was banned in New York, The Connection became a massive critical hit at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival—an artistic triumph that coincided with the end of Shirley’s marriage to Bert Clarke. “At Cannes Shirley’s hour had come,” Elaine Dundy recalled. “She was heroine of the Beats, the Queen of Cool. And she had found her Prince Charming. She and the young black actor, Carl Lee, who played Cowboy, the Connection himself, had fallen in love. She would later tell me he was the only thing that mattered to her in the world, the great love she had been waiting for all her life.”
MacDougal Street intersected with the park on its south side, creating a critical mass that included Wendy Clarke, the daughter of Shirley Clarke, who was another regular at Washington Square Park. “It was such a mixture of gay and straight and black and white,” she said. “You talked to anybody and everybody, and there was a lot of hanging out on the street. I loved walking around the Village, barefoot.” Back when Debbie Harry began catching the bus from New Jersey to wander the streets of Greenwich Village, Chris Stein (her eventual boyfriend and Blondie cofounder) was taking the subway to hang out in the area. “I used to come in from Brooklyn a lot,” said Stein, who would not meet Harry until 1973. “It was an interesting time, right after the Beatles came along. We used to play Washington Square, just hanging out there playing banjo and finger-picking stuff. We went to the clubs there to see groups, all that folk stuff.” When the city passed an ordinance banning musical performances in the park, the folk crowd pushed back hard. “There was the New York Mirror headline, 3,000 beatniks riot in village, on the front page,” recalled Village Voice critic Richard Goldstein. “That was for the right to sing in the square, and we won. So that became a huge gathering place, huge.”
From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Shirley Clarke began work on Portrait of Jason with Carl Lee. She had already divorced her husband and began living with Carl Lee, the actor who had appeared in her first two feature films, The Connection and The Cool World. Their off-and-on romance lasted twenty years. Portrait of Jason was the first film project Clarke shot in the Chelsea. She produced it with no funding by using donated stock film left over from an NBC television production and a very small crew. “I was the set dresser for Portrait of Jason,” said Wendy Clarke, who was a teenager at the time. “I left before they started filming. It was a very closed set.” This feature-length documentary was distilled from a twelve-hour interview with a gay African American male prostitute who went by the name Jason Holliday and was the only person who appeared onscreen. Clarke and Lee stirred up Jason with their off-screen questions, which ventured into uncomfortable, very personal territory—getting him to respond, riff, and perform for the camera. “It was the first time a black gay hustler had ever been seen by most human beings,” Wendy Clarke said. “It’s a very provocative film, and it raises a lot of issues about race, class, politics, sexuality.” Portrait of Jason was, in part, a pointed critique of cinema verité documentaries, implicating filmmakers who claim to objectively capture real life—without acknowledging how their very presence alters that reality.
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
In 1967, Ed Sanders began collaborating with Shirley Clarke and fellow filmmaker Barbara Rubin on a satirical anti-Vietnam project, Fugs Go to Saigon. (Sanders also suggested several alternative titles: Eagle Shit, Aluminum Sphinx, Oxen of the Sun, America Bongo, Vampire Ass, Gobble Gobble, Moon Brain, and It’s Eating Me!) After Rubin took Sanders to see the Velvet Underground at Café Bizarre in late 1965, they began discussing ideas for the film, which was to star the Fugs alongside William Burroughs, LeRoi Jones, Allen Ginsberg, and a host of other downtown denizens. Clarke attempted to fundraise from summer to fall of 1967, but she still wasn’t being taken seriously as a filmmaker, despite her previous successes with The Connection and The Cool World. Clarke’s inability to get funding for Fugs Go to Saigon may have also had to do with the outrageous “plot” ideas supplied by Sanders: “William Burroughs dressed as Carrie Nation attacks opium den with axe,” he wrote. “LeRoi Jones as homosexual cia agent. naked viet cong orgasm donuts suck off gi’s with poisoned teeth. . . . horny priests disguised as penguins fight savagely for captured viet cong grope boy. . . . Shower of candy canes comes from sky over us headquarters in Saigon.”
When the Yippies, Fugs and other coconspirators arrived at that antiwar rally in the nation’s capital, the New York underground stood center stage in American politics and popular culture. Peace Eye proprietor Ed Sanders and the rest of the Fugs flew there in time to perform a show the night before the big protest, and Shirley Clarke was at the airport to document their arrival. She also filmed the exorcism ritual Sanders performed at the Pentagon with musical accompaniment from the Fugs. “In the name of the Amulets of Touching, Seeing, Groping, Hearing, and Loving, we call upon the powers of the Cosmos to protect our ceremonies,” Sanders said, reciting his tongue-in-cheek incantations. “For the first time in the history of the Pentagon, there will be a grope-in within a hundred feet of this place.” It was the largest antiwar protest in the nation’s history, and a major turning point in the shifting opinion against the Vietnam War. The East Village Other described it as a “mystic revolution” led by protesters who “cast mighty words of white light against the demon-controlled structure”—that is, until the riot police descended on them in full force later that night.
From Chapter 15 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Wendy Clarke felt that the Chelsea was a great place for her mother, Shirley Clarke, because it connected her to other like-minded souls. “It was the perfect lifestyle for her,” she said. “The lobby was like your living room, so you can sit in the lobby for hours and just have conversations with the most amazing people—Jonas Mekas, Divine, the guys who did Hair, Jim Rado and Gerry Ragni.” Just off the lobby was El Quijote, a Spanish restaurant and bar that served inexpensive lobster and was a popular hangout. Smith wandered in one night and came across Grace Slick, Jimi Hendrix, and other rockers who were downing mounds of shrimp, paella, sangria, and bottles of tequila. She was amazed, but didn’t feel like an interloper because they were on her turf.
From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Shirley Clarke had lived at the Chelsea since 1965, and at times her daughter Wendy also had a room in the hotel, where the two often crossed paths with Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Patti prowled the hallways and peeked in other rooms, each of which was its own little universe. On some days she loitered in front of Arthur C. Clarke’s room, hoping she might get a glimpse of the famous author. During another one of her hallway adventures she came across the underground filmmaker, folklorist, and occultist Harry Smith, who wore big Buddy Holly–style glasses that complemented his wild silver hair and tangled beard. On another evening, Patti Smith wandered into the restaurant connected to the lobby of the Chelsea and came across Grace Slick, Jimi Hendrix, and other rockers who were downing mounds of shrimp, paella, sangria, and bottles of tequila. She was amazed, but didn’t feel like an interloper because they were on her turf.
Wendy Clarke’s way of rebelling against her mom was to not do anything artistic, though she eventually found herself making visual art. “Then I stopped painting and drawing, and just did video,” she said. “My mom and I became video artists, so we stopped what we had done before. We had lost interest because video was so exciting. It was so new. There was no history, which was very freeing.” After getting a New York State Council on the Arts grant to create video art, Shirley Clarke began acquiring video cameras, monitors, and other recording equipment. Unlike today’s portable digital cameras and mobile phones with high-definition video capabilities, Sony’s reel-to-reel DXC 1610 Portapak camera was quite bulky. It weighed about six pounds, not including the heavy batteries, external microphones, headphones, and other gear. As Shirley acquired more video equipment, her Chelsea Hotel penthouse became a hub for video aficionados of all kinds. “There were different groups that were happening in New York,” Wendy said. “We all would do these events at the Chelsea, on the roof.”
From Chapter 22 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“One time,” Wendy Clarke recalled, “Arthur C. Clarke came over and he had just gotten this small laser that you can hold with your hands.” The science fiction author, another Chelsea resident, had been given the handheld laser beam projector by a crew member who was working on the film adaptation of his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. The mischievous Clarkes (who were not related) projected the laser onto the Twenty-Third Street sidewalk below—and then Shirley, dressed as Groucho Marx, did a slapstick routine while playing with the beam on the ground. “People on the street would become fascinated with the beam,” said Nancy Cain, a member of another collective called the Videofreex. “They would try to take the beam with them as they walked all the way down the street and then they would turn the corner, but the beam couldn’t turn the corner with them.” Viva recalled, “I was with Arthur when he and Shirley had the laser. I said, ‘Isn’t it kind of dangerous?’ They said, ‘No no no, it’s fine.’ Well, I wasn’t so sure.” Viva and Shirley got to know each other when the two worked together on the 1969 film Lion’s Love. “I was married at the time to Michel Auder, and he, Shirley, and I all moved into the Chelsea. Shirley had the penthouse, and we also had a place, so we became close friends.”