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Posts Tagged ‘Shirley Clarke’

Lost “Masterwork” Found: Thomas White’s Who’s Crazy? (1966)

Friday, April 15th, 2016

A lost “beat” classic has been found and restored, featuring an epic soundtrack by Ornette Coleman.

As Peter Monaghan writes in Moving Image Archive News, “thanks to an overdue search of the filmmaker’s garage, a rarity from the experimental film ferment of the 1960s was just screened for the first time in almost 50 years, at Anthology Film Archives in New York. With that, Who’s Crazy?, in a restoration by Anthology’s John Klacsmann and distribution by Grand Motel Films, has reemerged as an emblem of its age.

In 1965, Thomas White, then a 33-year-old American living a bohemian life in Montparnasse, made the 73-minute feature in Heist-sur-Mer, Belgium, with a set of collaborators-of-the-moment. Those included members of New York’s Living Theater, playing a bus load of residents of an asylum for the insane, and a soundtrack by the jazz icon Ornette Coleman, who even recorded a cut for the film with singer Marianne Faithfull, then in her late teens and already embarked on a life course whose mayhem the inmates might have recognized.

The rediscovery of the film has made a splash, not only because, as Richard Brody put it in The New Yorker, in article entitled “A Lost Masterwork is Found,” the film “bursts the bonds of movie logic to unleash the primal ecstasy of the cinema,” but also because of its place in the history of truly independent filmmaking of that time.

It has, for instance, links to Shirley Clarke’s recently revived 1962 portrayal The Connection, which was made from a play mounted by Living Theater co-founders Judith Malina and Julian Beck . . . Who’s Crazy had been missing for decades, listed as lost by the Library of Congress.” And when the Library of Congress says that a film is lost, that’s usually the case. But here, we got lucky. Hopefully, as Brody notes in his essay, linked above, a DVD will soon be forthcoming.

Readers of this blog know that I hold a special place in my heart for such deeply personal works, made in an era before money was ruling factor in nearly all forms of social interaction, and what Brody referred to as “the primal ecstasy of the cinema” dominated filmmaking, which was then cheap, and within the range of nearly everyone- just pick up a camera and shoot.

At the same time, the standard rules of “three act narrative,” or any form of narrative for that matter, clearly went out the window, and what was valued above all was spontaneity, authenticity, and capturing the moment, rather than CGI ridden spectacles in which every movement is defined by green screen technology. Not everything has to be planned out in advance; in fact, sometimes nothing needs to be planned at all. Sometimes, if you get an enormously talented group of people together and give them free reign, the results can be remarkable.

Writing in The New York Times, Jim Hoberman agrees, noting that “an anarchic rave with a wacky new-wave flavor, “Who’s Crazy?” opens on a bus that breaks down in the middle of nowhere. The passengers are psychiatric patients who, eluding their keepers, take refuge in a deserted building, haphazardly creating a new society complete with rituals that include a trial and a wedding.

Mr. White, reached by phone this month at his home in Connecticut, said 10 hours of film were shot over 10 or 12 days. The scenario was based on the actors’ improvisation. ‘Nobody told them what to do,’ he said.

Left to their own devices, the performers engage in breathing exercises, dress up in funny hats, play instruments, mill around, stage group hugs, make a mess, cook food, play with candles, stare into one another’s eyes, break into primal screams and declaim poetry in beatnik rants that might have been recorded at an open mike at Cafe Wha? The polyrhythmic cascade of honks and squawks produced by Mr. Coleman, abetted by his sidemen — the bassist David Izenzon and the drummer Charles Moffett — imbue these activities with tremendous energy.”

Watch the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above.

Creative Tips from Legendary Directors

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

The website Film School Rejects has an excellent series of “tips” on the creative process in cinema.

Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs of the website Film School Rejects have assembled an excellent series of maxims and advice from key filmmakers around the world; everyone from David Lynch to Shirley Clarke to William Greaves to James Gunn to Jim Jarmusch to Alain Resnais to Abbas Kiarostami and all the stops inbetween, and archived it here – at this website. This is a really valuable resource not only for filmmakers, but also for those who want to understand the creative process in filmmaking, as outlined by the top practitioners, past and present, in the field. If there’s one theme running through all these condensed interviews, it’s to be true to yourself. As David Lynch put it, “there were very bad reviews [of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me]. I was under a bad cloud during that time and it just didn’t go well. But I loved the film and when you do something you believe in and it doesn’t go well it’s okay. If you sell out like I did in Dune and it doesn’t go, well, then you really die.”

Lots of food for thought here; click here, or on the image above, to read more.

Classic Cinema: The Cool World

Monday, August 1st, 2011

The Cool World (1964) is a pioneering independent American fiction film shot on location in New York for less than $100,000, using then-unknown actors, and directed by experimental filmmaker Shirley Clarke, who was one of the foremost members of the “underground” film movement that dominated American low-budget filmmaking in the early to mid 1960s. In the cast are the actors Antonio Fargas, Carl Lee and Clarence Williams III, among others, who all went on to lengthy careers in the cinema; for many working on the film, this was their first brush with commercial filmmaking.

Based on a novel by Warren Miller, the film was produced by Frederick Wiseman, who later became a major figure as a documentarian with such films as Titicut Follies (1967), which documented deplorable conditions in a Massachusetts mental hospital. Shirley Clarke had made a series of evocative short films earlier in her career, particularly the gorgeous In Paris Parks (1954), which documents children and couples during one day in Paris, and Bridges Go Round (1959), a brief abstract film that turned a series of Manhattan bridges into an extended merry-go-round of light and activity. In 1960, her short film Skyscraper, documenting the construction of a building on Fifth Avenue, received an Academy Award nomination.

Moving into features, Clarke directed The Connection (1961), based on the play by Jack Gelber, dealing with a group of jazz musician junkies anxiously waiting for a heroin delivery in their New York loft, which was hailed a new breakthrough for realism on the screen. This led to The Cool World, which dealt with black gangs in Harlem in an equally forthright manner, creating a gritty and often brutal film, although Clarke’s poetic streak often comes out in some of the film’s visuals, particularly in the dreamy main title sequence, in which the credits roll past abstracted scenes of trees in the mean streets of the city.

Though the film was sold sensationally as an exploitation feature (“HOOKER! FUZZ! JUNK! RUMBLE!” the film’s poster screamed), The Cool World is at base absolutely serious, and presents an unflinching look at the social conditions endured by African-Americans in the early 1960s. The film centers around a 15 year old gang member, Duke (Hampton Clanton), who wants desperately to buy a gun from the older criminal Priest (Carl Lee), so that Duke can become the leader of his gang, and lead his fellow gang bangers in a series of “rumbles” (gang fights).

Clarke shoots The Cool World in cinema verité fashion, so that it almost seems like a documentary, and the stark black and white imagery of cinematographer Baird Bryant, coupled with a cool jazz score by Mal Waldron, makes the world of Duke and his gang seem real and immediate. As an example of the independent film movement in America, The Cool World is a real, personal landmark. Clarke’s direction is unsentimental and tough, as fits the subject matter, offering the viewer a new level of realism in American filmmaking.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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