The New York underground film scene of the late 1950s and early '60s was a radically open space, one in which a variety of cultural and aesthetic influences — the literary Beat movement, urban jazz, European abstract painting and Artaudian experiential theater, to name but a few — jostled against and alongside one another. From this wellspring developed two related but ultimately distinct trajectories in American film history.
One was the poetic and non-narrative wing of New York cinema, the avant-garde exemplified by figures such as Ken Jacobs, Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage. These folks would become the foundation for experimental cinema in the U.S., and some (like Mekas) founded organizations such as Anthology Film Archives that remain vital to this day. The other became the feature-filmmaking wing of the New American Cinema, an artisanal street-bound answer to the cinematic New Waves flourishing in France, Italy, and the U.K. Its key figure was John Cassavetes, whose early works were made while he was very much in contact with Mekas, who was also making features at the time (1964's The Brig).
Shirley Clarke was one of the few filmmakers of the era who moved quite easily between these two related worlds. She produced several major experimental short films of the era, most notably Bridges-Go-Round, a kind of structural bebop city symphony from 1959. But Clarke, celebrated this week at The Belcourt with a two-film tribute, is perhaps best remembered for her groundbreaking features, all of which are being restored and re-released by Milestone Films under the "Project Shirley" mantle. Particularly notable is The Connection, from 1961, which has been restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Along with her single-subject 1967 interview documentary Portrait of Jason, it is the film that best embodies both the historical significance and formal prescience of this underappreciated filmmaker.
An adaptation of a play that Jack Gelber wrote and produced in 1959 with the Living Theater (also the force behind The Brig), The Connection is, in simplest terms, a film about a group of junkies, about half of whom are jazz musicians. They hang around the downtown flat of a guy named Leach (Warren Finnerty) while waiting for their "connection," a sanguine supplier called Cowboy (cult film legend Carl Lee), to show up with their fix.
For the first half, the men go from talkative to agitated, as it becomes unclear whether Cowboy will be an absent Godot figure or actually turn up with the goods. Like the play, Clarke's film version is punctuated by live jazz performances by the musicians in the loft, who jam as they wait for Cowboy to appear.
But there is a crucial additional layer to The Connection, one that makes the film not only aesthetically bracing even now, but also instigates a kind of mise en abyme of social commentary. The film we are seeing is supposedly a salvaged version of a botched Direct Cinema documentary, made by one Jim Dunn (William Redfield). He appears throughout the film, mostly because his secondary cameraman J.J. Burden (unseen, but spoken by the great actor and voice artist Roscoe Lee Browne) shoots him without permission. He wants to show the real world of inner-city junkies, so he has paid Cowboy for a week's worth of heroin to keep his cast nice and "real."
Eventually, The Connection becomes a critique of the ethics and supposedly transparent truth value of Direct Cinema, a form of self-questioning nonfiction filmmaking that was only a few years old at the time. But more than this, Clarke's use of unbroken, roving camera shots and apparent improv within a scripted structure work to create a film that disrupts conventions of cinematic address and performance style. The various characters — Solly (Jerome Raphael), the dissolute intellectual; Sam (James Anderson), the soft-spoken storyteller; Ernie (Garry Goodrow), the wastoid time bomb who would throw anyone under a bus for a fix — all deliver soliloquies, much to Dunn's chagrin. Theatricality exists in The Connection in part because the film purports to realistically capture the men's inability to "act naturally" for the film-within-the-film.
And so what Clarke contains within her own film is a kind of enclosed experiment wherein different levels of self-awareness and/or naturalism come and go, with an unexpected drift. The Connection was banned upon its release, supposedly for the use of a few expletives. More likely, it rankled because it displays, with disarming pokerfaced irony, the savage underside of liberal good intentions. Want to see how the other half lives? You may end up making more of a connection than you bargained for.
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