Shirley Clarke

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Tomorrow in New York, another of the off-beat films of Shirley Clarke sees the light of day. WNYC’s Sara Fishko considers the trail-blazing filmmaker, in this Fishko Files report.


Shirley Clarke's independent films in the 50s and 60s were challenging and rough around the edges. Her subjects ranged from movement and dance to thornier pictures about the underside of New York. In the last few years Dennis Doros and Amy Heller of Milestone Films have launched Project Shirley. Their mission is to restore and re-release all of Clarke's films.

Their latest restoration is Clarke's ambiguous, intimate documentary Portrait of Jason (1967), which opens at the IFC Center on Friday, April 19th.



Portrait of Jason (1967)


The Cool World (1964)


Mainstream Moment for Shirley Clarke

Clarke's work didn't always focus on fringe characters. In 1963 she directed a documentary on one of America's most beloved poets, Robert Frost. Shirley Clarke received an Academy Award for directing "Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World."

“Shirley did consider [it an honor] that she won an Academy Award for this film and even went to Los Angeles to the Awards. She sat just behind Danny Kaye.” - Wendy Clarke, Shirley's daughter

How Clarke Was Seen

By now the film business is more open to women. But in the early 60s, when Clarke was working, she and Maya Deren were the two reigning female directors. They were both experimental filmmakers, but they carved out different territory for themselves: Deren had a downtown audience, Shirley's audience was a little more uptown.

A New York Times feature story from August 26, 1962, titled "Woman Director Makes the Scene," profiled Clarke before the release of "The Connection."

The author, Eugene Archer, writes...

"At a time when Hollywood’s attention is so focused on the spectacle of Elizabeth Taylor barging down the Nile, New York’s small but dedicated movie colony has been fiercely talking up a forthcoming film of a different hue. The film is Shirley Clarke’s 'The Connection,' a small-scale, black and white, uncompromisingly realistic study of dope addiction put together at an infinitesimal cost by a handful of little-known but  enthusiastic partisans from the off-Broadway stage and screen."

Clarke goes on to comment on the present and future of the indie film scene...

“'Now…I want to break away from the other conventions – the idea of heavy production, artificial lighting, all the slickness that plagues the movies. I want to just pick up a camera and go out and shoot the world as it really is. There must be forty or fifty others like me in the country, with a desire for self-expression and no urge to move to Hollywood and make soap operas. We’re creating a movie equivalent of off-Broadway, fresh and experimental and personal. The lovely thing is that I’m alive at just the time when I can do this - - that everything is happening right now.’”


For more on Shirley Clarke and Project Shirley, visit or Milestone Films' website.


WNYC Production Credits...

Mix Engineer: Wayne Shulmister

Associate Producer: Laura Mayer

WNYC Newsroom Editor: Karen Frillmann