Eye For Film >> Movies >> Rome Burns - A Portrait of Shirley Clarke (1970) Film Review
Rome Burns - A Portrait of Shirley Clarke
Reviewed by: Chris
One of the most direct, first-hand insights into Shirley Clarke’s work available. Rome Burns is an episode of a French TV documentary series. In sharp contrast to informal footage, such as Michel Auder’s Chronicles: Family Diaries I, here is Clarke firing on all cylinders. She answers fluently all the rapid-fire skilled interview questions about cinematic technique coming at her in English and French.
Clarke speaks of ‘contemplative cinema’, yet that term can be rather vague. She contrasts earlier (mainstream) cinema with her video work, discussing her attempts to include the filmmaking in the subject of the film. Where the audience was the watcher, the filmmaker is now the watcher.
When she, unexpectedly, takes the camera off an interviewer and starts filming, she’s almost made her point - even in someone else’s film. She seems to be working towards a concept of total involvement. Instead of hiding behind a camera, she’s trying to expose the very thing that would normally have been on the other side (i.e. the cameraman’s side). It also seems to be about techniques to get the audience involved with the film, identifying with the ‘reality’ of it by taking away barriers. A sort of inverted voyeurism.
Although it features an interview, the atmosphere in Rome Burns is ‘informal'. In the sense meant by professional TV work. A joke lightens the tone as the camera is passed round. “Cameras are really for chicks – we’ve already got one.”
It is fascinating to hear Clarke speak about her feature length works, especially The Connection, The Cool World and Portrait Of Jason. Her tastes are perhaps not reflected by the films she makes. She dislikes agit-prop, and doesn’t watch experimental film, even though she makes it. She’s a feminist, but doesn’t make feminist movies. One area she is interested in though is racism, and this is dealt with obliquely in many of her films. “I’m afraid of being superficial,” she explains.
Rome Burns throws so much light onto Clarke’s work that it is essential viewing for anyone seriously interested in her movies. Possibly the most full-on ‘issues’ film she has made is A Scary Time, which was commissioned by UNICEF. But her commitment is somehow summed up when she says “I am working and doing something in order to be able to die.” She says she wants to complete her ‘contribution to the world’ and has spent a lot of her life with that theory.
In talking of fame and the popularity of films, she claims, “Godard’s films would have looked sloppy 20 years ago.” Although some of her films are very ‘finished,’ with good production values, some make no attempt at polish. She speaks of the difficulty she has had with producers. The Connection and The Cool World were ‘over-choreographed’ but she says it is nevertheless what she wanted at the time. The detailed screenplays include specific camera movements, “You write this down – this makes producers feel good!” It is a reference to the industry-wide reluctance she experienced in trusting any sums of money to a female producer. She sometimes had to have a man for a film she in effect produced herself, just because funders would trust a man’s name holding the purse strings more than hers. But if the film doesn’t do well, she says, “Put it on a shelf till the filmmaker’s famous - then they all do well!”
Clarke’s description of editing techniques is of interest, especially given that video editing, her favourite medium, was at a primal stage. She would engineer zooms in and out – or taking the subject out of focus – just to allow for easier editing later. This is very noticeable in the final cut of Portrait Of Jason, for instance. With that film she talks of frequently ‘pulling back’ – a medium shot giving less chance of ‘getting lost’ than a close-up.
Clarke is at her most animated describing her video installations and travelling workshops. A particularly mind-boggling one involved a circle of multiple screens with the audience rotated in the middle. By use of fast cutting all sense of motion was removed.
It is the sort of film anyone fascinated with theoretical aspects and new approaches to film will love. I can only find two criticisms. One is that the interview questions in French perhaps needed to be subtitled. The other is that it wasn’t long enough. Shirley Clarke could talk about film all day without being boring. Listening to her at such length would be an experience few would have the privilege of until she became a professor at UCLA in 1975 (teaching film and video until 1985).
The title Rome Burns is a reference to Clarke comparing her time in the U.S. to that of Rome burning.Reviewed on: 08 Jul 2008