Even many who pride themselves on knowing every unheralded film and director might pause when asked about Shirley Clarke. Clarke's first love was dance, and she was a choreographer before becoming an indie filmmaker in the '50s. But her innovative approach and maverick spirit (a feminist long before that word became part of the lexicon) was most evident in a series of landmark films. These include the award-winning Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel With The World (1963), her stark and unsentimental look at gangs The Cool World (1964), and 1985's superb Ornette: Made in America, screening Sept. 21-23 at The Belcourt as part of its two-film Clarke salute.
Clarke used the musical backdrop of Coleman's freewheeling 1972 symphonic composition "Skies of America" to fuel a documentary that proves as fascinating, if at times erratic, as the album. Rather than provide a life portrait, Clarke makes the movie a tribute to Coleman's personality and avant-garde approach, blending interviews and performances with reflections and music video snippets.
Besides footage of Coleman and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, there are also scenes filmed at the opening of the now defunct (but unforgettable) Caravan of Dreams club in Fort Worth, and in Morocco. Other contributors include R. Buckminster Fuller, William S. Burroughs and critic Robert Palmer.
After languishing for years after Clarke's death in 1997, Ornette: Made in America has been restored on 35mm film and issued on DVD as part of a campaign to eventually make all Clarke's films publicly available. It comes to the Belcourt Friday, one of two newly restored Clarke productions that will be screened over the next week. The other is another controversial, seldom-shown Clarke work, The Connection, which shows Sept. 23, 25 and 27.
An unblinking look at jazz-musician junkies that calls into question its own method and motives, Clarke's 1961 debut feature was initially banned from New York theaters due to concerns over language. The New York Court of Appeals finally allowed it in theaters after Clarke and producer Lewis Allen filed suit. Even so, it's likely that more people have heard The Connection's outstanding score (composed by pianist Freddie Redd and featuring alto saxophonist Jackie McLean) than have seen the film. A negative New York Times review didn't help matters upon release, and The Connection soon disappeared from view. Through Milestone Films' efforts, however, these restorations should give a larger audience new appreciation for Shirley Clarke's vision and talent.
Note: Ron Wynn will host a Q&A following the Sept. 23 screening of Ornette: Made in America featuring saxophonist/bandleader and Coleman fan Rahsaan Barber.