I was working at the Museum of Modern Art in 1971 when the film department there presented a one-week program of the films of Shirley Clarke. Clarke was a well-known independent filmmaker during the 1950s and 1960s, when few women worked in the field. Her first feature, an adaptation of Jack Gelber’s play “The Connection” (1961), won praise for its graphic depiction of drug use, but entangled Clarke in a two-year censorship battle, which she ultimately won.
Her next film, “The Cool World” (1964), was a film about Harlem teenagers, on which she collaborated with Carl Lee, the African-American star of “The Connection” and Clarke’s long-time partner. Clarke’s “Portrait of Jason” (1967) was a documentary created from a single, 12-hour-long interview with Jason Holliday, a gay African-American hustler and aspiring nightclub performer.
According to Manohla Dargis, a film critic for The New York Times, “Shirley Clarke is one of the great undertold stories of American independent cinema.” Clarke was an integral part of the independent film scene then — John Cassavetes borrowed her equipment to shoot “Shadows” and Frederick Wiseman produced “The Cool World” — but while she helped launch the movement in the United States, she has been almost forgotten.
I met Shirley Clarke because she needed an assistant. Shirley had begun experimenting with video and wanted somebody from the museum to help her set up a live video event for the opening night of the film series. I was acquainted with the work of artists such as Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, and Joan Jonas, who were using video. I had even rented a video recorder and was spellbound by the sight of myself, live, on a television screen — albeit performing mundane household tasks. All of which is to say, I didn’t know much about the medium, but I knew more than anybody else at the museum at that time.
Shirley was living at the Chelsea Hotel, in a high-ceilinged, triangular aerie that became known among artists as the Tee Pee. I began to visit her there to discuss her performance and how to realize it, and she would often telephone me at home and talk for hours. I remember few specifics except that I mostly listened and she mostly talked. But she was charismatic, accomplished, outspoken, and sexy, sporting a derby hat, suede miniskirt, and tights on a petite frame. I had been drawn into the orbit of somebody famous — and attractive.
I was only 24 at the time, and she was 51. It never occurred to me this older, much more sophisticated woman would have any interest in me other than as a helper and, as far as I know, she never did. But she kept calling and inviting me over, and my wife at that time wasn’t happy about it.
Earlier that year, Shirley had been arrested with Viva, one of Andy Warhol’s superstars, for filming an apartment building with a collapsed wall. She used what was a profound innovation at the time, the Sony Portapak, a half-inch reel-to-reel video recorder that could be slung over the shoulder.
Shirley asked me if I would document her and Viva’s trip to court to contest the trespassing charge. I was very naïve at the time. I sensed it was a great opportunity, and I had a vague ambition to make films myself. Would the next step be an invitation to Warhol’s Factory, perhaps to shoot a video with Edie Sedgwick, Jackie Curtis, and Candy Darling?
I met Shirley and Viva at the Chelsea. I put the deck over my shoulder, hoisted the video camera, and began taping outside the hotel, where a limousine was waiting. I climbed in after them and shot the trip from Chelsea to Foley Square, which was uneventful, except for the constant chatter between Viva and Shirley.
As we were entering the courthouse, a security guard asked me to turn off the recorder. That was when I discovered I had never turned it on! Shirley and Viva disappeared into the building, I left the video equipment with the limo driver and slunk home. My dreams of superstardom were shattered, my days of socializing with celebrities finished. Shirley stopped calling. I did assist at the performance, but after that I never saw her again.
Milestone Films has established a website, projectshirley.com, that aims to rescue Shirley Clarke from history’s wayside. She deserves rediscovery.
Mark Segal is a writer at The East Hampton Star.