Ornette Coleman in space, at the Cinematheque

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If her friends and collaborators included people like Stan Brakhage, DA Pennebaker, and John Cassavetes, why is filmmaker Shirley Clarke’s name so unfamiliar to us?

“Shirley died fairly young, which was part of it,” says Dennis Doros, whose NY-based distribution company, Milestone Films, restores and handles, among other things, the films of Shirley Clarke. “But she also didn’t play by anybody else’s rules. She was really beloved by a lot of people, but not the critics. She didn’t like the idea of being categorized, and she fought against it.”

Born into a wealthy New York family, Clarke pursued a career in dance before turning to film. She was the only woman to sign the 1962 Statement for a New American Cinema, and her 1960 short, “Skyscraper”, received an Academy Award nomination.

Still, her work has receded into relative obscurity, a state of affairs that Doros and his partner at Milestone, Amy Heller, are bent on reversing. Their restored prints of two films—The Connection and Ornette: Made in America—make their way to the Cinematheque for a run that starts this weekend. This is exciting news if you’re either a cinephile or jazz enthusiast, and God only knows how massive it is if you’re both.

The first film is Clark’s 1961 adaptation of the play by Jack Gelber, shot on a single set and constructed to blur the line between reality and artifice. As Doros puts it, “How can you make a film about eight junkies in an apartment?” Clarke’s approach is to choreograph a tight and kinetic relationship between her actors and the camera while introducing liberal doses—as in one particularly graphic scene—of something that at least looks like reality. That, plus a whole lotta jazz.

“The play was ahead of its time and Shirley Clarke was absolutely ahead of her time,” Doros says. “The Connection, which is made to look like reality, is completely a fiction. She really was playing with ideas that nobody else wanted to talk about, and ideas that were holy then and God knows are even more holy now—[namely], that cinema verite is the only way to do documentary.”

The Connection was hailed at Cannes, despised at home, and ultimately sacrificed to New York’s censorship laws due to the use of the word “shit” (meaning junk). Ornette: Made in America was Clarke’s last work, and it’s every bit as iconoclastic and unique as the man it portrays, free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman.

“She really liked to break down barriers,” Doros offers, “and here’s the great Ornette Coleman, who’s very, very esteemed as this great thinker in jazz, and she saw the imp in him.” Indeed, it’s nothing short of amazing to see Coleman messing around in a low-budget spacesuit in one of the Clarke’s more fanciful sections.

That sequence was prompted by an offer Coleman received from NASA to “work in space” (can you imagine that happening now?). Elsewhere in the film—which includes footage Clarke shot for an unfinished piece in the late ‘60s—we see Coleman at the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington in 1968; Coleman visiting the Master Musicians of Joujouka with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin; and Coleman mentoring his young son Denardo on drums.

He also speaks on camera about the influence of Buckminster Fuller and the time he considered self-castration as a means to “eliminating any sexual feeling in my body.” Clarke organizes all this and more into a sort of Chris Marker-like essay (“She had this inner sense of editing from being a dancer, and from adoring jazz since the ‘30s,” as Doros notes), complete with sections of pioneering video work, framed inside Coleman’s presentation of the piece “Skies of America” in his birthplace of Fort Worth, in 1983.

It’s an amazing piece of work, to put it bluntly. Viva Shirley Clarke.

Two by Shirley Clarke screens at the Cinematheque starting Saturday (October 27). More info here.

You can follow Adrian Mack's contribution to the lobotomizing techno-nightmare known as Twitter at @AdrianMacked.

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