“Brilliant, scandalous, bold, and incredibly talented.”
It’s instructive to compare the office of the presidency with the state of Hollywood in 2016. In the case of Barak Obama, his win seemed miraculous coming at the end of an unbroken line of 43 white dudes holding the office previously. And Hillary Clinton’s loss seems less devastating considering that she would have been the first woman to hold the office, and she got closer than any woman before her. Hollywood appears to be doing a bit better – names like Ava Duvernay and Ryan Coogler suggest that Hollywood has a bit more diversity than the Oval Office. But the difference is instructive. Obama was the first African-American to win the presidency, and only one of a couple of possible contenders, ever (Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm). In stark contrast, Hollywood (and filmmaking at large) has had a fairly lively and diverse background. Lots of women worked as writers and directors in the silent era. There have been plenty of African-American writers and directors too. The problem is they’ve been erased from history, sometimes consciously, and sometimes by “accident” as prints fell out of circulation. So part of advocating for diversity in Hollywood (and filmmaking at large) is recovering that history.
The folks at Milestone Releasing have been doing some of that work for the past eight years, restoring and releasing the work of Shirley Clarke, a pioneering filmmaker who worked across experimental, documentary, and fictional films. So far, Milestone has released the jazz film The Connection, her seminal Portrait of Jason (a documentary about a gay hustler in 60s New York) and Song for America (a film about jazz giant Ornette Coleman). Now they’re releasing The Magic Box, a three-disc collection that gathers some of the odds’n’ends of Clarke’s filmography in a lovely package.
Conveniently, The Magic Box has three discs that are separated thematically. The first disc focuses on Clarke’s more experimental works. These are interesting, historically important pieces that show off the kind of work that was being done in American experimental cinema in the 50s and 60s. There’s a lot of playing with montage and superimposition as Clarke creates rhythmic tension and visual contrast. The two versions of “Bridges Go Round,” for instance, feature footage of New York City’s various bridges superimposed on one another, moving through the frame, all to a score that highlights the forward-thinking music of the day. As experimental cinema, the films are solid, just long enough to have something interesting to show us, but not so long as to overstay their welcome. And they have the added benefit of historical interest, as Clarke collaborated with famed documentarian D. A. Pennebaker on some of them.
The second disc takes on Clarke’s love of dance. As the set’s liner notes make clear, Clarke was passionately devoted to dance. Though never quite at the level of a Martha Graham or Yvonne Rainer, Clarke spent time as a dancer and merged her passion for dance and filmmaking at every opportunity. The second disc is evidence of that overlap as we get a dozen or so films that feature dancing and/or choreography by Clarke capture on film. One of the films – “Dance in the Sun” – was even voted the best film of the year by the New York Dance Film Society, so that should give you an idea of the caliber of performance. Clarke’s specialty is definitely on the modern dance spectrum, so expect a lot of avant-garde movements and bodily contortions rather than tap and ballet.
The set’s third disc could arguably be its centerpiece. The main attraction is Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World, Clarke’s Academy Award-winning documentary on perhaps the most well-loved American poet of his day. Clarke uses the occasion of two speeches by Frost at colleges (Sarah Lawrence and Amherst) to guide the film between Frost’s remarks and a portrait of his life at home. We get some talking heads, some footage of Frost in repose, as well as a bit of voice-over from JFK. The film paints an intimate, homespun portrait of the poet without collapsing into parody. That would have been enough, but we also get a children’s film, Christopher and Me. It was shot by Richard Leacock, and only recently re-discovered among his effects. If that weren’t enough, we also get a handful of home movies by and featuring Clarke. It’s fascinating to see her in a more “natural” environment. Of particular interest is the footage of Clarke’s participation in Agnès Varda’s Lion’s Love.
All that is pretty impressive, and is complimented by a strong audiovisual presentation. Most of the films are 16mm in origin and feature 1.33:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfers. Short of a well-funded, full-blown restoration, these films probably aren’t going to look any better. For the most part damage isn’t a problem, and detail is strong throughout. That detail tends to reveal pleasing textures in the source film, though it doesn’t always make the image more legible (which is often the case with experimental films especially). Colors are often muted, though the black and white material looks more impressive. Black levels are generally okay, and I didn’t notice any significant compression artifacts. The work done here is impressive. Fans might dream of a better-looking release, but this one will be hard to top. The set’s audio comes in LPCM 1.0 mono on all the film’s featuring sound. Sound is a little less impressive, but that’s an issue with age and technology, not these tracks. But the films’ sparse dialogue – most obvious in Robert Frost – is clean and easy to hear. The films’ music sounds a bit dated, but very listenable.
The films themselves are like one big set of extras (a kind of addendum to the more well-known Portrait of Jason or Ornette Coleman: Made in America). So, the set itself is light on typical “extras.” There are some outtakes from a few of the dance films, if you want to count those. We also get an excellent booklet that puts Project Shirley in context and offers an overview of the films. It’s a solid addition to the box that ties everything together nicely.
The Magic Box does the important work of making the work of a pioneering woman filmmaker available to the world. Just as importantly, that work is still pretty amazing all these decades later. There’s some great experimental stuff for fans of Stan Brakhage or Jonas Mekas. There’s some dance films for those who like Martha Graham and Yvonne Rainer. And there’s even the great third disc, with a more family-friendly combo of a children’s film about boyhood and sailing, along with a documentary about Robert Frost. It’s a diverse package that sells Clarke’s talents and will hopefully earn her an even wider audience.