New York

Shirley Clarke

Squat Theatre

One hand on hip, drink perched precariously in the other, he declares, “I was wild, black and crazy and I had white-boy fever.” Collapsing into a confidential baritone, he whispers “I love you Richard, trust me. I’m going to fuck you up.” We are watching Jason Holiday ( Aaron Paine), a middle-aged black male hustler, as he alternates between poignant reflection and spasmodic giggling fits. Acting out for the camera like Veroushka on a roll, he is an intelligent man playing cat and mouse with his own sanity. And this Jason is not just a struggling, troubled guy, but a cinematic object, good material to hinge a movie on, a supplier of entertaining pathos for Shirley Clarke’s voracious camera. Portrait of Jason (1967) is both a powerful stare at a human being as a collection of symptoms and a canny encapsulation of the monologue form. Its sparsely elegant shooting hones in on Jason like a thirsty bloodhound. And it is this predatoriness that renders the film problematic.

For Jason’s performance is cued by an off-camera chorus of suggestions and directives: “Hey Jase, do one of the nightclub bits”; “What else have you got?”; “C’mon Jason, tell the one about . . . ” These requests, like Clarke’s audible directorial comments (“fade to black,” “keep the sound going”), function critically as reminders to the viewers that the spectacle before them is a construction of dictated passages, an amalgam of pictures and words that comprise a movie. Together with episodic head-shot dissolves and misfocusings, they display the film’s Brechtian fluency. But these views and coaxings also work to foreground Jason’s objectification and to duplicate conventional viewing procedures. With all its power and acuity, Portrait of Jason repeats some of the operations that have oppressed and marginalized this black homosexual man. Putting his verboten otherness “to good use,” the filmmakers ply him with reefer and drink to get “interesting” material, to get him to deliver the goods, to make for a good movie.

While Portrait of Jason exposes Clarke’s indulgence in cultural tourism, The Connection (1961) allows her to comment critically on this unfortunate game plan. Based on a play by Jack Gelber and smartly shot by Arthur J. Ornitz, it shows a director’s attempts to film a bunch of junkies in their “natural habitat,” a very dressed-down loft pad. This movie-within-a-movie format allows an examination of the psychological and filmic apparatus that comprise the liberal documentary genre. Facing the camera (and probably cued by George Burns as much as by Brecht) Clarke’s “director” tells us that he is not interested in making a Hollywood picture but is trying to make “an honest human document.” The junkies in turn stare at the camera (and the audience) and protest, “What do you think, we live in a freak show?”. They taunt the director about his naiveté and manipulative voyeurism until he screams “Stop looking at me!” and aims his camera at them as if it were a hot-to-trot Colt .45. This recognition of photography and the cinema as the victory of the image over the actual makes The Connection a rigorous examination of not only bohemian adventurism (the director’s picaresque sight-seeing through the oppressions of race and class) but of the subject/object relations in much documentary production.

But what enables The Connection to deliver its words and images loud and clear is a device which is also the motor of Portrait of Jason and Clarke’s newer works: the talking head having its say, and to some extent its way, with the spectator. The direct address of the tight and medium frontal shot allows Clarke to revel in the informational, the literary, the theatrical. A monologuing man is the central figure of both Savage/Love (1981) and Tongues_ (1982), Clarke’s recent video collaborations with Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin.

Ostensibly about Love and Death at the post office, Savage/Love frames Chaikin as he speaks, sputters, and gestures, spilling Shepard’s savvy speech in accelerated dribs and drabs. The incessant self-crit tumbling out of Chaikin’s mouth is accompanied by a lone flutist who is shown playing a riff that sounds like the intro to “The Open Mind,” a bastion of old-time cultural television. Chaikin recites an outline of reactions and feelings which prime him for a romance with the imaginary: “Which presentation of myself will make you want to touch?”; “When I sit like this do you see me brave?”. Likewise, in Tongues, Chaikin’s talking head describes the steps “from mourning to being completely dead.” This soapboxing creates an excess of characterological flourishes and serves merely to showcase Chaikin’s virtuosities and the eccentricities of the avant-garde delivery. But the main difficulty with these new works lies not in their resemblance to early-’60s cultural television, but in the effort to disguise that resemblance in a mélange of contemporary video special effects. This overkill is not only silly but manages to trounce the power of Shepard’s brilliant speechwriting and Chaikin’s nimble vignetting. Clarke thumbs through a catalogue of video trickery with the hunger of a toddler salivating at the sight of a cupcake. Chaikin’s face is jarred out of the directness of the talking head and stretched this way and that. Poof! he’s shaped like a square and then, oh wow, now he’s a circle! Clarke rolls out the red carpet for every trick in the book and the results wear the kind of disappointment that only novelty can induce.

What has sustained Clarke through twenty-five years of independent filmmaking has been a clarity of vision and an articulateness of speech. Her films have sent messages from the margins to a larger audience and made those who are perpetually absent from “polite society” present on the screen. The recent videos are clearly based on the strengths of this earlier activity, but are undermined by her ill-considered submersion in tech trickery. It is to be hoped that this will give way to the more economic approach to the image that marked her earlier films.

Barbara Kruger