The Connection (1962)
Directed by Shirley Clarke
Just after The Connection was roundly panned upon its release—a significantly foreshortened release, since after just two matinees a court order resulted in the closing of the single Midtown East theater where the "obscene" picture was playing—Jonas Mekas devoted his Village Voice “Movie Journal” column to upbraiding “the New York daily movie critics.” “No matter what you write, the works you butcher will be here after you are dead and gone,” he wrote. “The Connection will remain, Cocteau’s beautiful Orpheus will remain, Brakhage’s Anticipation of the Night will remain.” It’s taken The Connection, the first of five features by Shirley Clarke (1919–97), a while to really “remain,” but that’s finally coming to pass: Its reputation rehabilitated in recent years, the long-overlooked movie arrives on its half-centennial in a very welcome new restoration.
Clarke—working from a screenplay by Jack Gelber, adapting his own 1959 play; and retaining most of the cast from its original Living Theatre production—frames the movie as the abandoned project of a square documentarian trying to coax an accessible story out of a toxically hip demimonde. (In the play, it is a theater producer and playwright who unsuccessfully attempts to wrangle a troupe of inert heroin addicts into enacting a docudrama version of their lives.) Jim Dunn (William Redfield) is a fatuous, self-regarding (“You see, I know something about Eisenstein and Flaherty”) exponent of the putatively objective cinema vérité style. Jim’s footage—all shot within the confines of a single Greenwich Village flop—shows an increasingly tetchy congregation of junkies as they await the arrival of their next fix (we learn early on that the filmmaker is paying them to participate). The ensuing movie looks like a compilation of outtakes: The director regularly enters the frame; every so often, the fluid camerawork spins out into sudden swish pans, and the film runs into black leader.
This stubbornly Indirect Cinema—Jim’s subjects keep pushing back at his demands—bears witness to a space far removed from polite society but also the proverbial gutter: The top-floor tenement, owned by the hipster Leach (Warren Finnerty), hosts a quartet of tone-setting jazz musicians (including greats Freddie Redd and Jackie McLean); a handful of dopeheads who deliver caustically lapidary remarks in the beat cadence; and a few late-arriving drop-ins, including a confused elderly Sister Salvation. Leach offers a crackpot theory about light particles; someone airs the opinion that “vitamin-pill addicts” have it worse than he does. The “connection” finally shows in the duded-up person of Cowboy (Carl Lee, who would become Clarke’s romantic partner, and a co-writer on her subsequent feature, The Cool World), and with him the junkies disappear, one by one, into the bathroom and emerge in collapsed euphoria. Jim, suddenly concerned that peeking in on this realm from the outside is unconscionable, allows himself to get “turned on”—and with that his doctrinaire document effectively cancels itself out.
There is an element of playful self-interrogation in Clarke’s merciless picking apart of the pretense-to-truth vérité approach, as well as a skewering of male postures of authority. No trace of sentimentality, either, in her portrayal of the downtown dope sick. The film’s corrosive power seems to have remained wholly intact: The first-time viewer will have no trouble seeing why The Connection provoked such strong across-the-board reactions 50 years ago—the majority of today’s American independent productions look timorous by comparison.
Opens May 4 at IFC Center