Behind Camera, Ahead of Her Time

Friday, March 16, 2007

Shirley Clarke may be the most influential filmmaker you've never heard of.

Best known for her 1964 film "The Cool World," Clarke studied dance with Martha Graham in the 1950s before discovering avant-garde cinema. As a member of an artistic circle that included Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren, Clarke forged a singular identity and style, combining the spontaneity and rigor of street realism with a dancer's exhilarating sense of poetry and compositional grace.

Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes were early acolytes; more recently, the directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris ("Little Miss Sunshine") have credited Clarke as a mentor during their years as students at UCLA, where she taught before she died 10 years ago at age 77. (One reason she has remained unjustly obscure is that complicated rights issues have kept her movies from the DVD market, precluding her work from broad circulation.)

The American Film Institute begins a retrospective of Clarke's work today with "The Connection, " her version of the Jack Gelber play in which a group of heroin addicts wait for their dealer. A one-room, real-time group portrait of jazz musicians and would-be philosopher-kings who are being filmed for a documentary, the 1962 classic is only nominally about the drug culture. Its true subject is the concessions, compromises and betrayals of filmmaking itself. (Other movies in the series, which runs through April 10, include "Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel With the World," "The Cool World" and "Portrait of Jason.")

Fluidly photographed and accompanied by a gorgeous live jazz score, "The Connection" is a breakthrough that is of and about verite filmmaking at its most revealing and manipulative; in subject and style, it anticipates generations of films to come.

$7.50-$9.25. Tonight at 10:10, tomorrow at 12:45, Sunday at 9:35. AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. 301-495-6720. For a full schedule visit

-- Ann Hornaday

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