Shirley Clarke was a trailblazing, staunchly independent filmmaker who fused documentary methods and subject matter with fictional storytelling techniques. Her films often dealt with urban living, jazz music, and American artists. Her 1963 feature, Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World, won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Milestone Films is in the process of restoring a number of Clarke's most influential and under-seen films, bringing them to home video for the first time. And her final film, Ornette: Made in America, is even getting some theatrical screenings, including in S.F. this week. This unique portrait of one of the 20th century's key jazz composers displays Clarke's fusion of documentary and narrative techniques to create a seamless, vivid portrait of a man whose influence not only in jazz but throughout a number of musical genres is still a creative force today.
Saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman was kicked out of his high school band for improvising. He first found success in Los Angeles, where his experiments in what would later be dubbed "free jazz" set the stage for further experimentation by the likes of John Coltrane (though the two never worked together). Coleman didn't stop there. As with most of the really important figures in jazz, he moved through a number of creative phases.
Clarke's film documents Coleman's return to his native Fort Worth. There, he bemusedly accepts a key to the city from the mayor before a performance of his radical orchestral work, Skies of America. This was Coleman's major contribution to Third Stream music, which blended jazz and classical elements. Clarke spends time with Coleman and his son and musical collaborator, Delgardo. But Clarke avoids talking heads entirely; in fact, at no point during the film do we sense that an interview is taking place. Clarke captures her subject, his colleagues, and his family in casual settings. One of Clarke's mannerisms, however, is to transparently recreate scenes from Coleman's childhood using actors -- yet somehow this never seems artificial.
This appropriately impressionistic film captures its subject primarily in terms of his music; we hear Coleman speak in snatches, not in the long-winded justifications usually heard in documentaries of this type. The restoration has done the film a great service: it looks terrific, and contemporary ease of distribution is sure to gain the film a larger audience now than it attracted upon its initial release in 1985. Clarke's film remains fresh in its form and execution; Coleman's music is just as jarring and absorbing as it ever was.
"Ornette: Made in America" screens at the Roxie Theater Saturday, Nov. 3 through Tuesday, Nov. 6. For showtimes and details, visit www.roxie.com.