Shirley Clarke and Ornette Coleman's common ground
Ornette: Made in America is the last feature film made by the underheralded filmmaker Shirley Clarke. Completed in 1985, it's a film that was two decades in the making. Although jazz innovator Ornette Coleman was always the movie's focus, the documentary that it became is a far cry from the film it started out as in the mid-1960s.
Initially introduced to Coleman in the Sixties by the artist Yoko Ono, Clarke began work on the documentary after receiving a commission to make a jazz film. The crux of the film, however, was not the music, but rather, the interesting relationship between saxophonist Ornette Coleman and his son Denardo, who began working as the drummer in his father's band at the age of 10. It's a position Denardo holds to this day. Clarke found this father/son relationship intriguing – more so than any discursive study of Coleman's career or his idiosyncratic theory of harmolodics. Further work on the film was scuttled by the producer after viewing the early reels, and for the next dozen years, Clarke's abandoned film and video footage was stored underneath Coleman's bed.
In 1983, that footage was dusted off and repurposed when Clarke received a commission to film the opening show at the Caravan of Dreams – a bold new arts and entertainment facility in Fort Worth, Texas. Native son Ornette Coleman, who had not been back to Fort Worth in 40 years, was to be the venue's opening act. Coleman performed with both the Fort Worth Symphony and his jazz group, Prime Time, but Clarke intersperses the performances with much additional material, including some of the footage from the Sixties. Clarke and her director of photography, Ed Lachman, who would become a versatile fixture of indie filmmaking, shot scenes of Coleman yakking with old friends on the porch of his childhood home by the railroad tracks in Fort Worth, and back in New York with friends in the music business. William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin are recorded for posterity at the Caravan of Dreams' opening, and in interviews Coleman speaks of his great feeling for the work of Buckminster Fuller and tells an odd story about his earlier desire to be medically castrated. Re-enactments of Coleman as a child and psychedelic outer-space fantasias are also in the mix.
"I wasn't trying to make a 'documentary' of Coleman," said director Clarke during an interview printed in The Los Angeles Times at the time of the nonlinear film's 1986 release. "I hope nobody goes to this film expecting a record of Ornette's musical life because that's not what it is." Yet Clarke, who had begun her artistic career as a dancer and studied with Martha Graham and other dance luminaries, bore a sympathetic attraction to the free jazz form as something similar to what she was trying to accomplish in film. Her first films were dance movies until she turned to more radical experiments with the obliteration of the lines between fiction and documentary. Milestone Films has now restored many of Clarke's key films under a program called Project Shirley and is directly responsible for us being able to see Ornette: Made in America and begin a reassessment of this pioneer's career.
AFS Doc Night presents Ornette: Made in America on Wednesday, Oct 17, 7pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar (1120 S. Lamar). See www.austinfilm.org for ticket info.