“Fifty years after it was first screened, then banned, then largely and idiotically dismissed, the audacity of Shirley Clarke’s 1962 film The Connection still packs a staggering wallop,” begins Glenn Kenny at the top of a terrific post at Some Came Running. “The movie, in a wonderful restoration from Milestone Films in collaboration with the Film Foundation, opens again tomorrow at the IFC Center, and it’s absolutely unmissable, an unassailable high-water mark for American cinema.”
The gist, courtesy of Karina Longworth in the Voice: “Shirley Clarke’s The Connection is a faux document of a day in the life of a group of heroin addicts holed up in a one-room New York City squat, biding time until Cowboy (Carl Lee) comes back with the day’s score of ‘shit.’ All the while, a wannabe vérité director named Jim Dunn (William Redfield) is filming their every move. Black-and-white, shot on a single set, with its handheld camera whips giving the illusion that we’re watching a nonstop, real-time drama, Clarke’s footage is presented as a film directed and then abandoned by Dunn, a pasty super-square who coaches his subjects to ‘act natural.’ ‘The minute I put a camera on you,’ Dunn complains to the assembled gang of jazz musicians, junkies, and racially diverse burnouts, ‘you change!’ When the drugs arrive, Dunn is coaxed into joining the natives; once high, he realizes the folly of his film.”
Further in: “Daughter of wealth going back two generations, Clarke’s friends and collaborators included John Cassavetes, Maya Deren, Allen Ginsberg, Agnès Varda, and Roger Corman. She co-founded the downtown cinema vérité collective Filmmakers, Inc. in 1958 with future documentary titans Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, and DA Pennebaker, but Clarke didn’t buy into the notion that vérité presented unvarnished reality. What about the choices made by the filmmaker, in terms of framing and editing? What about the ways in which the subject’s knowledge of the camera alters how they behave in front of it?”
Jaime N Christley for Slant: “Contrasted starkly against not only contemporaneous addiction dramas (Otto Preminger’s The Man with a Golden Arm, André de Toth’s Monkey on My Back, and Fred Zinnemann’s A Hatful of Rain), but also more recent crank spectacles, such as Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, The Connection aims neither for creaky ‘problem’ melodrama or flashy, experiential panoramas of whiz-bang movie artifice. Instead, Clarke anticipates David Holzman’s Diary by a few years, constructing a self-aware mockumentary that continually acknowledges its own production, its pretentious director, and the old saw—generally attributed to Michael Haneke—about the camera telling lies 24 frames per second.”
IndieWIRE‘s Eric Kohn discusses The Connection with Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday and David Sterritt, author of, among other works, Screening the Beats: Media Culture and the Beat Sensibility. Sterritt “knew Shirley a bit, back when she was still really active. I remember going to see her at the Chelsea Hotel where she lived and worked. She was an underground filmmaker. One of the interesting things about The Connection is that it’s a great satire of underground filmmaking.” Hornaday notes that Clarke “had a winking, ironic, wonderfully satirical look on the world and was always prepared to upend conventions and puncture pieties. She was idealistic enough to sign on to the Statement of the New American Cinema, with her fellow underground filmmakers. So she just had this completely winning combination of seriousness and idealism and this complete willingness to undermine the self-seriousness that goes along with those kinds of movements.”
More from Richard Brody (New Yorker), David Fear (Time Out New York, 4/5), Benjamin Mercer (L) and Michael Tully (Hammer to Nail). Earlier: Manohla Dargis‘s excellent piece in the New York Times on Clarke (“long overdue for a reappraisal”) and Milestone’s Shirley Clarke Project and a bit of viewing (53’05”): Noël Burch and André S Labarthe’s Rome Is Burning (Portrait of Shirley Clarke). Also recommended: Milestone’s press kit (PDF), which has had many calling for someone to take up the writing of a full-blown biography of Clarke.
Updates, 5/6: For the New York Review of Books, J. Hoberman tells the story behind the original production of the play as well as that of the controversy it kicked up in 1959. “While not unaware of The Connection‘s clever gloss on Waiting for Godot, which had arrived on Broadway in 1956, or The Iceman Cometh, successfully revived off-Broadway the same year, the daily press was dismissive…. But the Voice, a few months shy of its fourth birthday, made The Connection a cause.” Eventually, New York Times senior theater critic Brooks Atkinson “came to see for himself and was impressed, not least by the spectacle of the ‘mangled theatergoers’ who came ‘tottering down the stairs to the street in various frames of mind—horror, revulsion, terror or ironic amusement.’ Among them were Leonard Bernstein, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams, and Laurence Olivier…. Grove Press published the play in paperback; Blue Note records brought out an LP; a movie Connection was a logical next step.” But: “Late 1962 was not mid 1959; The Connection failed to justify the outrage or excitement it had once provoked. The contretemps was soon eclipsed by the excitement around and scandal of Jack Smith’s raw, orgiastic Flaming Creatures, shot on the rooftop of a defunct Lower East movie-house during that very season… The Connection purported to show a subculture; Flaming Creatures emerged from one…. The Connection is not a great movie but it is a singular and multi-faceted historical artifact. One doesn’t look at it so much as through it, a dusty window overlooking the site of a vanished landmark.”
For Artforum, Melissa Anderson notes that the “maddening experience” of tangling with censors “did not deter Clarke, who continued to take on provocative subjects and radically blur the lines between fact and fiction in two other features from the ’60s: The Cool World (1964), about street gangs in Harlem, and the documentary Portrait of Jason (1967), showcasing a drinking, drugging, jiving black gay hustler whom Clarke filmed in her Chelsea Hotel apartment—and a movie that says more about race, class, and sexuality than just about any movie before or since.”