The Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke V. 4

by Glenn Erickson Nov 19, 2016

Milestone wraps up its ‘Project Shirley,’ an in-depth study of the independent director of The Connection and Portrait of Jason. Practically all of Shirley Clarke’s small and experimental films are here from the early 1950s forward, plus a wealth of biographical film.

The Magic Box: The films of Shirley Clarke, 1929-1987
The Milestone Cinematheque
1929-1987 / B&W + Color
1:37 flat full frame / 502 min.
Street Date November 15, 2016 / 99.99

featuring Shirley Clarke
Produced by Dennis Doros & Amy Heller

Some disc boutique companies license ready-made movie classics for home video, and some slap whatever odd-sourced items can be had into the Blu-ray format and call it a restoration. Although the general tide for quality releases is rising, only a few companies will invest time and effort in historically- and artistically- important films lacking an obvious commercial hook. Milestone Films has been consistent in its championing of abandoned ‘marginal’ films, and has dedicated serious effort to the rescue of the work of acknowledged great filmmakers, such as the documentary giant Lionel Rogosin.

Milestone has also invested years of research and restoration to piece together the film heritage of Shirley Clarke. Fans of the avant-garde know her Portrait of Jason, Ornette, Made in America and The Connection; Milestone’s ‘Project Shirley’ continues with a fourth volume. Rather than throw some odds and ends onto a disc, this three-disc set gathers all the extant Shirley Clarke film material that could be collected from her estate: celebrated dance films, commissioned work, a major feature documentary and later video experimentations. Together with its text notes and personal stills galleries, ‘Project Shirley’ stacks up as a definitive resource for an original American artist.


Disc One’s ‘experimental works’ show Clarke’s non- dance-oriented concept short films. The selection begins with a grouping called The Brussels Loops, ten or so 3-minute films about America assembled to be shown at the U.S. Pavilion at the Brussels Worlds fair. With two or three other filmmakers, including her recurring collaborator D.A. Pennebaker, Clarke traveled across America in 1957, grabbing film footage on the fly, for a number of themes. New York and San Francisco figure in several of these silent, short films, but we also see what looks like Chicago and many places in between. Sort of an anti-travelogue, the carefully chosen images isolate specific visual compositions or try to find a theme through ordinary observation. Many make good use of human faces. Most of the shots are fairly short. There are sections themed to bridges, houses, store windows, activities in a port city, etc. The visuals in a piece on neon signs are rather spectacular. The most impressive is a detailed journey into a 1957 supermarket. Just seeing the variety of products on sale, how they are displayed, the prices, the checkers, is a real time machine trip.

The first forty minutes is in good 16mm color but looks like hot-spliced 16mm Kodachrome (?) and is a tiny bit soft. The next ten-minute selection of ‘Loops’ is so much sharper that it’s either from a better 16mm negative… or is 35mm.

The other individual experimental films show scope and variety. Shirley Clarke could be freeform, but none of her work is as amateurish as a filmmaker like Marie Menken. First up are two versions of Bridges-Go-Round (1958), an experiment in superimpositions that comes off quite well. Version one uses a soundtrack by Louis and Bebe Barron that either sounds just like or is the soundtrack from Forbidden Planet. The second has an excellent jazz soundtrack with an interesting vocal, by Ted Macero.


Made with Robert Hughes, Scary Time is an accomplished charity appeal for UNICEF. The B&W movie begins with kids dressing up for Halloween, but soon begins intercutting them with file images of disadvantaged and suffering children from around the world. The abundance of Halloween candy contrasts with images of emaciated and starving children. Sort of an instant heart-grabber and reach-for-your-checkbook motivator, the film might be an effective fundraiser — if it didn’t send rich ladies running for the exits. It almost has the feel of a horror picture, focusing on one boy in a skeleton costume and ending on a particularly disturbing image. The ending audio uses the audio of children chanting ‘help, help help!, which links Scary Time thematically with Joseph Losey’s The Boy with Green Hair and These are the Damned. Elsewhere we learn that UNICEF never used the film, and it’s obvious why.

Distributed theatrically by Joseph Burstyn, the 21-minute Skyscrapers is a standard city symphony film giving us a day in Manhattan. It looks like 35mm to these eyes, B&W until the last movement, when color sneaks in. The handsome film is a flowing montage capturing the city in a moment in time — people, buildings, occupations, a construction site at 666 Fifth Avenue. The music is several jazzy vocals by artists I should recognize.

Butterfly is a 4-minute color abstract film screened only once at an anti-war rally. For most of its running time it’s a ‘scratches and ink on raw film’ effort until color images using Shirley and her daughter Wendy enter for a bit. The overt ‘war’ alignment comes through the juxtaposition of sound effects — a baby crying and a machine gun noise.

Shirley’s video works are less thrilling. Savage/Love (1981) and Tongues (1982) are much later video productions in collaboration with playwright Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaiken; each is an extended soliloquy, with Chaiken chanting his lines at the camera, as various video tricks come into play. Made for an exhibit at the L.A. County Museum of Art, One-2-3 (1977) video-flickers images of Persian art. The low-res image doesn’t help. It’s followed by three video variations that simply superimpose dancing figures on top via a Chroma-key setup. It yields little in terms of dance or visuals.

Disc Two contains Clarke’s dance films, which are better than most and certainly personal. As these are her first work several are unfinished remnants; additional entries are rehearsals or uncut dailies.

The selection begins with films of Shirley dancing as an adolescent. She’s definitely a serious student and she dances well. Fear Flight is an 11-minute test with no cuts of a dancer named Beatrice Seckler, who is excellent. Jelly Roll Morton is a two-minute unfinished item, meant to be a history of ragtime. The quality is excellent but the focus is out. The costumed dancers look nice.


Dance in the Sun (1953) has a good concept: dancer Daniel Negrin performs the same routine on a stage and on a beach, with Clarke intercutting the two locations at match points. It’s simple, it’s original and it works.


In Paris Parks (1954) is so good it almost reminds us of The Red Balloon. It’s not a dance film but it’s included here because Shirley and her daughter Wendy filmed it while in Paris trying to make dance movies. In 13 minutes the girl rolls a hoop and rides a carousel and a train; we see other activities like a puppet show and watch the parks other visitors play chess and enjoy the children.

‘Not in Paris Parks’ is a Milestone assemblage, with music by Donald Sosin, of other footage Clarke shot in Paris at the time. It’s more of a travelogue, but one that stresses atmosphere, not tourist traps. Quite nice.

Decroux is a fragment. Clarke hoped to shoot a full film with mime Étienne Decroux while in Paris but all that was done is this short B&W shoot. The idea seems good — the B&W images of the actor with his limbs and head coved in black cloth turn him into a disembodied torso, like something from a Cocteau movie. For whatever reason, the film didn’t get made.

Bullfight contrasts a modern flamenco performance by dancer-choreographer Anna Sokolow, with scenes from a real bullfight. It’s handsome enough, but the idea doesn’t take off.

Inspired by a Picasso painting, Rose and the Players is seen in rehearsal form, followed by a finished-looking color item that’s rather short; the notes say the dance show with several players was indeed not finished. More conventional but nicely polished is Moment in Love (1956), a simple romantic pas de deux. It’s conventional but handsome and effective, with good slow motion; at one point the lovers appear to materialize out of a cloud. With its many superimpositions the whole thing must be a dupe negative. It has faded somewhat, but still looks good.

The dance films end with another video series from the 1970s, four Journeys into Mystic Time that do fairly interesting things with video switching and manipulation of feedback, etc. Yet when Clarke moves into the video realm, something is lost; they seem less personal.


Disc three collects a great deal of biographical home movie content, but starts with a great documentary, Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World. Worthy of a separate release, this hour-long B&W show from 1963 gives us the 88 year-old just before his death. He’s filmed at poetry readings, some of which are before large audiences, and speaks about himself in an informal situation. The delightful man has a voice similar to that of Burgess Meredith. Photomontages tell us of Frost’s lifelong road to recognition and success; an early segment shows him being awarded with a medal by President Kennedy. Clarke gets a solo credit as director but an odd set of credits allow three people to claim ownership: ‘A film by Robert Hughes and Charlotte Zwerin’; ‘produced, written and co-directed by Robert Hughes’, with Zwerin as editrix. Zwerin later directed Gimme Shelter.

Christopher and Me is a real discovery, a poetic children’s film produced by Edward Foote. It’s based on a song by D.A. Pennebaker and was made in collaboration with Shirley Clarke and Richard Leacock. Much of the color film (16 min) shows children boating on a beautiful lake.


The home movies complete the biographical image of Shirley Clarke, showing her as coming from an affluent family, with a 16mm hobby as early as 1927. Two photomontages have been assembled by Milestone as well. Her childhood looks ideal, and we see her marriage and Florida honeymoon with a handsome Coast Guardsman. In the ’50s she dresses as a classy independent artist, and in the ’60s she wears her Mod fashions well. We see her home movies from the set of Agnes Varda’s rather flaky counterculture feature Lion’s Love. She played a filmmaker like herself, and her unflattering costume exaggerates her huge dark glasses and mod caps. With her connections and funding Clarke can’t be described as a Bohemian Manhattan film artist, although that eventually became her natural environment. When she’s with her family it looks as if she maintained connections; her daughter Wendy seems a collaborator and booster at all times.

All in all this is a terrific biographical resource of a vital, special artist, a classy way to present her life. Including all the unfinished films and remnants helps make the disc set more valuable as a record of a real filmmaker’s travails — not everything works out. Clarke was a small woman with a strong personality. She was just arriving to teach at UCLA, I believe, in the summer of 1976 when I was on my way out to work on ‘a big movie.’ I saw her a few times but only ran into her once in Melnitz Hall, on a Saturday night when the only activity in the building were people editing furiously in the tiny cutting rooms upstairs, like Charles Burnett, who never seemed to leave the place. She couldn’t find somebody, and the TV department was of course locked up. She was upset and frustrated but still polite when she asked if I knew what was going on. Nope, I was just cleaning out my cutting room.

The ‘magic box’ of the title refers to a story told by Shirley Clarke’s grandfather, quoted in the essay pamphlet.

The Milestone Cinematheque’s Blu-ray set of The Magic Box: The films of Shirley Clarke, 1929-1987 packs a lot onto three discs; it’s a reference work but contains six or seven items that merit individual attention. Milestone’s commitment to quality is again exemplary; all the shows and fragments are given polished presentations. Most everything is in excellent condition with the transfers only slightly affected by age and wear.

I popped around looking for subtitles on films that had spoken dialogue; I found subs on the Robert Frost documentary, but not items like the Sam Shepard plays or Christopher and Me.

The set comes with a too-short six-page illustrated pamphlet explaining and cataloguing the contents. Some of the items aren’t in the IMDB. This is an academic-grade disc set, with some highly entertaining films.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Magic Box: The films of Shirley Clarke, 1929-1987
Blu-ray rates:
Movies: Very good and Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: illustrated pamphlet guide
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES and N0; see above.
Packaging: 3 discs in keep case
Reviewed: November 17, 2016

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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