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Of the Abstract, and the Real

'The Connection' begins a tribute to the late filmmaker Shirley Clarke.


In association with Filmforum and KAOS, the UCLA Film Archive will present "A Tribute to Shirley Clarke," which focuses long-overdue attention to a major force in American independent film. The tribute will commence tonight at 7:30 in the James Bridges Theater in UCLA's Melnitz Hall with a screening of "The Connection" (1961), which will be followed by a memorial to Clarke, who died last year after a long illness.

A dancer and choreographer, Clarke started making dance films in the early '50s. She soon co-founded the Filmmakers Coop with filmmaker-critic Jonas Mekas, which provided a crucial New York showcase for fellow independent filmmakers. It is hard to overestimate her impact on independent cinema, both by her example and her efforts to help others, including teaching at UCLA and elsewhere.

As an artist, Clarke was much concerned with racism in America, and in her experimental mode she deliberately blurred the line between the documentary and fiction films. Clarke's refusal to compromise and her independent stance made working in film increasingly difficult, and she spent her last active years working in video. Clarke's lamentable lack of opportunities makes her accomplishments seem all the more formidable and enduring. Her work ranges from the abstract to the rawest of raw realism, yet it is all of a piece in its vibrant lyricism.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 17, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 21 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Screening dates--Because of inaccurate information supplied to The Times, Calendar Weekend's Screening Room column had incorrect dates for two events: "Portrait of Jason" and "Rome Is Burning: A Portrait of Shirley Clarke." "Portrait of Jason" will screen Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at UCLA's James Bridges Theater in Melnitz Hall; the Shirley Clarke shorts program will be presented Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at KAOS, 4343 Leimert Blvd.

To have seen the Living Theater's 1959 production of Jack Gelber's "The Connection" was an unforgettable experience, thrusting you in the same seedy room with a group of junkies waiting for their fix to arrive. Yet Clarke did not merely record this groundbreaking play with its superb performances but managed to turn it into a real movie while preserving its inherent theatricality.

She did this by inventing the character of a relentlessly, sometimes hilariously square documentary filmmaker (William Redfield), who through his black cameraman (Roscoe Lee Browne) has invaded the dreary pad of Leach (Warren Finnerty), where the host and others are waiting for the arrival of Cowboy (Carl Lee), their heroin supplier. Cowboy speaks in an insinuating drawl and possesses a bleak wisdom.

In effect, we see "The Connection" via Browne's hand-held camera (which occasionally passes into the hands of others), and the film's jagged rhythms, punctuated by the musicians' jam sessions, gives a quality of naturalism to the actors' long monologues of alternately passionate and scabrous despair. "The Connection" is steeped in New York '50s cool, but seen today it seems as timeless as Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh." "The Connection" will screen on video Friday at KAOS, 4343 Leimert Blvd.

The premise for the 1967 "Portrait of Jason" (Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Bridges Theater) couldn't be more simple, yet the results could scarcely be more remarkable. Clarke took her camera, placed in front of it a man she had known for several years and shot away for the next 12 hours. Born Aaron Paine in Trenton, N.J., on June 8, 1934, the man who calls himself Jason Holliday is a hard-drinking black gay male hustler. By the time Clarke has finished with Jason, she had succeeded in getting him to strip bare his soul.

"I am scared of responsibility and I am scared of myself because I'm a pretty frightening cat," begins Jason, who proceeds to supply plenty of evidence. With not inconsiderable wit, charm and intelligence, he speaks philosophically of his chaotic life--"If I'd been a ranch, they'd have called me Bar-None"--and his dream of putting together a nightclub act.

But as the night wears on and the more drunk he becomes, his escapades take on a more harrowing quality; his incessant self-mocking laughter borders closer and closer to hysteria.

Finally, he tells of a brutal father and overprotective mother, and his anecdotes about race relations become more painful than amusing. In the end he emerges as a desperate outsider, struggling to make something of his life yet knowing that he won't.

Playing with "Portrait of Jason" is Andre S. Labarthe and Noel Burch's 55-minute "Rome Is Burning: A Portrait of Shirley Clarke," which captures Clarke's forthright personality and first-rate intellect. In the film she's interviewed by Birch and others in connection with the screening of "Portrait of Jason" at the Cinematheque Francaise in January 1968. The gamin Clarke is impressively concise on her filmmaking methods and philosophy and their relationship to her view of the world.

A vivid portrait of the despair and futility of ghetto existence, "The Cool World" (Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Bridges Theater) is a highly uneven but sometimes powerful work with generally poor performances from an almost entirely amateur cast, excellent photography--cinematographer Baird Bryant will appear with the film--and a good jazz score played by Dizzy Gillespie and Yusef Lateef.

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