Shirley Clarke with Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman, William S. Burroughs, and Buckminster Fuller (left to right)
ORNETTE: MADE IN AMERICA B
USA (85 mi) 1985 d: Shirley Clarke
USA (85 mi) 1985 d: Shirley Clarke
A film twenty years in the making, as Shirley Clarke went over a decade without making any films at all after PORTRAIT OF JASON (1967), initiating a film about jazz with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, whom she met in the 60’s through Yoko Ono, but the project floundered until she discovered the video camera in the 80’s, making a few shorts before returning to this film. Video techniques play a prominent role in the making of the film, as it allows the director to mix and match how she wants to effect the screen image, mixing realistic images with animation and elements of surrealism, creating an otherworldly effect, which matches the endlessly expanding universe that at least partially explains the music of Ornette Coleman. Seen in the opening sequence receiving an honorary plaque from the mayor and a key (which astronaut Alan Bean had taken to the moon and back) to the city of Fort Worth, his home town, his first hometown appearance in 25 years, the site of a world premiere of his “Skies in America,” a combined jazz and symphonic work utilizing his regular combo along with the Fort Worth Symphony. In fact, much of the documentary is a recording of this performance which is the centerpiece of the film. In it we hear Coleman’s free jazz style, which is completely non-melodic, played at such a rapid tempo with such quickly maneuvering improvisation that some are apt to question whether it even qualifies as music. During the 50’s, other musicians walked off the stage in defiance when he played, some destroyed his instruments, while others physically attacked and beat him, deemed a jazz pariah, and to some an embarrassment, receiving some of the harshest music criticism along with fellow avant garde pioneer, pianist Cecil Taylor. Both seem to play in abrasive clusters, characterized by an extremely energetic and physically aggressive approach to sound, never allowing it to remain static, but continually challenging the listener’s capability to comprehend. Even today, more than half a century later, the jury is still out on that. But this is not the focus of the film, which instead allows his music, and Clarke’s visual style, to continually expand what the audience is used to.
One of the surprises is realizing just how much of Coleman’s music is written composition, similar to filmmaker John Cassavetes, where both are attributed to using an improvisational style of art, yet each carefully compose and scrutinize every note and word ahead of time. However, neither artist believes it ends there, as they constantly tinker and adjust and rewrite, allowing the work to breathe like a living organism, where it’s never really cemented in time. Coleman rarely plays jazz standards, concentrating on his own compositions, where there seems to be an endless flow of enormous sound. Ironically, Coleman’s demeanor is that of a quiet and unassuming man, not at all vain, egotistic or reflective of the assaultive power of his work, where his mind is continually tinkering with new ideas and perceptions, heavily influenced by Buckminster Fuller, an inventor, futurist, and theorist, and also beat writer William S. Burroughs who is seen performing a reading dedicated to Coleman. Fuller, however, best represents what feels to Coleman like an ever expanding but mathematically ordered universe, where Clarke shoots a string ensemble sequence inside one of his geodesic domes. Coleman was particularly influenced by Fuller’s view that there was no up or down, but simply the concept of outward, as we are all effected by being inside or outside the gravitational pull, where he has always been driven to push his music outside orthodox realms, like a spaceship breaking through the boundaries of gravity. Clarke has some fun with animated sequences of Coleman in a sporty The Jetsons style space ship juxtaposed over grainy images of Neil Armstrong’s moon walk. During these space images, it was hard not to think of equally controversial jazz leader Sun Ra, whose musical mantra was always “Space is the place,” often seen performing in concerts dressed as a space traveler, with the band wearing an equally distinctive science fiction uniform, where he was an ardent believer that avant garde artists took themselves much too seriously.
One of the more questionable ideas was using a child actor to play Coleman as a young child, where he wanders alone by the train tracks carrying a saxophone, images which are interjected periodically throughout the film, rather manipulatively reminding us of the roots but also the pathos of poverty. Some of her other ideas are equally misguided, using abstract expressionist video techniques coinciding with abstract streams of Coleman’s music which have a diminutive rather than enhancing effect. Somewhat mysteriously, Clarke may actually misunderstand the musical artform, as she accompanies the music with some trippy psychedelic sequences that may have seemed cutting edge at the time, but they’re completely out of synch with the awesome power of Coleman’s music. Like many greatly misunderstood artists in their youth, Coleman’s refusal to acquiesce to popular tastes led to a reversal of critical opinion, calling him an uncompromising jazz genius later in his lifetime. Clarke’s film, showing different stages of his career from 1968 to 1983, doesn’t really capitalize on this clamor of support, where Coleman’s innovation clearly outshines that of the film director, who strains to keep up, using quick cuts, some unusual editing, where time moves simultaneously backwards and forwards, never in a traditional linear fashion, which makes this a somewhat rare and unusual documentary, but one that fails to honor the unique stature of the featured artist.
Too little information is provided about the man, too few interviews, too few performances, no archival footage, and barely a hint at the peculiar path he took to greatness. Only one interview from a jazz critic in New York gets it right, recalling a magical moment in New York on a snowy night when Coleman broke out in Charlie Parker style, often copied but never equaled, yet Coleman matched that same eccentric passion and precision, playing on into the night, never once faltering, matching the near impossible physical and technical demands of one of the most heralded musical greats in all of jazz. Yet when asked to explain his unforgettable performance afterwards, Coleman nonchalantly indicated he likes to do that every once in awhile “just for fun.” Clarke began her artistic career as a dancer and studied with the Martha Graham Dance Company, among other dance luminaries, developing an artistic kinship to jazz as a free form artistic expression, perhaps similar to what she was trying to accomplish in film. Her first films were dance movies, becoming more radically experimental, adding racial issues and a social conscience, often blurring the lines between fiction and documentary. This was Clarke’s last work, failing to capture the energy and imagination of her 60’s films like The Cool World (1964), which also happens to have an exceptional jazz musical soundtrack from Mal Waldron. Nonetheless, flawed as it is, the fusion between Ornette Coleman and Shirley Clarke can’t help but generate interest, both unheralded yet rare artists whose stature has only grown over time, where this unusual film is a part of jazz and cinema history.