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. 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. Manohla Dargis has written about the film and its maker, passionately and eloquently, here; and Eric Kohn presided over a lively and informative exchange about the movie between David Sterritt, who knew Clarke a bit, and Ann Hornaday. I have a few notions about the picture I want to share, but the important thing is that you go if you can. If you can't, the movie will hopefully tour the country's art houses before getting the customarily excellent DVD (and hopefully Blu-ray) treatment that Milestone gives its pictures.
Clarke adapted the film from a play by Jack Gelber that was a sensation at the Living Theater. While it wasn't audience-participation theater on the Sleep No More level, The Connection's conceit was to put its audience more or less in the loft apartment where the arguably too-aptly-named junkie Leach and a cohort of fellow junk enthusiasts wait for the title character to show up.
In film, there's a more specific distance between the audience and the work, and Clarke and Gelber address that by making it something like a found-footage film. Something like, but not quite. The picture opens with a printed statement from one J.J. Burden, who announces that what the audience is about to see is the assembly of the footage he shot at the behest of a director who, for reasons unstated in the opening text, but which the viewer will infer by the movie's end, became unavailable to complete the film.
Aside from the human interest of the depicted junkies and their various "scenes," the strained cool of connection "Cowboy" (played by Carl Lee, to whom Clarke was married at the time; that's him above in the shades, with Leach portrayer Warren Finerty, an Ur-Steve-Buscemi if ever there was one), and the unforced demonstration of the soul-crushing power of addiction, The Connection's about something else, just as every Living Theater presentation was. The film's formal inventions and mutations bring up a lot of questions about both representation and appropriation that are all the more powerful and interesting for never being verbally stated. With the exception of one wizened Salvation Army type who accompanies Cowboy on his visit to the den of nodded-out iniquity, all the characters in The Connection are men, a mix of white and African American. The four members of the jazz quartet that "rehearses" and dozes intermittently throughout are black, and one of the other junkies is Ernie (Garry Goodrow), a white fellow who's also a player, and who's got his horn in hock (guess why), and who every now and then entreats saxist Jackie McLean to let him borrow his alto, which request Jackie kindly but firmly (and wisely) refuses. While would-be "director" of a documentary on junkiedom Jim Dunn (William Redfield) is an arty white dilettante, the aforementioned J.J. Burden, we see on those few occasions when he steps in front of the camera, is black. And given the way some of the subjects address J.J., it's clear he's hip, or has been hip, to their scene. He's played by Roscoe Lee Browne, who brings perfect insinuating not-quite-diffidence to the role. There are no discussions in the film about whether a white man can play the blues, or any such thing. This is part of its wisdom. Nick Tosches once observed: "Nothing can better bring together a black man and a white, a young man and an old, a country man and a city man, than a dollar placed between them." Replace "man" with "junkie" and "dollar" with "bag of heroin" and you've got the dynamic here, although one would be mistaken maybe in referring to such an unavoidably tension-fraught alliance as "togetherness."
But what Clarke does in filtering the story through the lens of Dunn commanding Burden, and then Burden shooting alone and with Burden's "editing" (Clarke is here credited as both director and editor) demonstrates the way that as even "real" events are unfolding, the person controlling the narrative, or trying to, imparts a certain amount of responsibility to the viewer. Which is one of the things that makes The Connection such a thoroughly engrossing experience, in spite of its closed-off setting. What's more exciting is the way that Clarke ups the ante in the final section of the film. In the Sterritt/Hornaday exchange, Kohn asks "Is The Connection a satire of underground film and yet also an underground film itself?" This question represents one of the many things that get me so exasperated by certain film writers: their eagerness to ascribe their own glibness to the artist they're supposed to be examining. Hornaday and Sterritt indulge Kohn, being polite and all, and allow that Clarke was "mischievous" but there's a deeper dimension to the pointedness with which Dunn and the whole idea of "authenticity" is treated in the film.
There's a very funny shot during a junkie's monologue during which the distracted Dunn's handheld camera breaks its gaze off the man and decides to follow an insect crawling up a brick wall. It's not too long after this, though, that The Connection breaks free of its self-imposed constraint. The characters begin talking to the camera less. Burden stops getting in front of the camera. Dunn is in a sense absent. A crisis occurs for one of the characters, and the film's editing rhythms become more emphatic, the camerawork more stable. Having erected a frame of artifice within her own frame, Clarke pulls back all of the curtains only to put a completely new frame in place: she turns The Connection into something like a conventional narrative film, and that's where she leaves it until its conclusion. And the fact that she makes it into that thing, and does so with utter conviction and makes it stick, is a testament to the almost alchemical powers of cinema and an acknowledgement of her own participation in the process, one in which she finally deigns to fully take the reins and does so with admirable tact and compassion and no trace of condescension...while never abandoning a certain tough-mindedness. It's breathtaking.
And of course one of the not entirely incidental pleasures of the film is seeing and hearing the jazz quartet, led by pianist Freddie Redd and featuring the aformentioned Jackie McLean on alto, and Michael Mattos and Larry Ritchie on bass and drums respectively. All four are exceptionally natural-seeming actors, and when they're playing, you can see them sweat; the sullen McLean of the film is, as it happens, a far cry from the free-jazz enthusiast portrayed by A.B. Spellman in Four Lives In The Bebop Business, which contains a few of McLean's observations about working on both the theater piece and the film. As for Redd, I saw him lead a quintet a few months ago at New York's Small's, and he's still got it at 83 years of age.
UPDATE: Richard Brody, my fellow jazz enthusiast (interestingly enough, we were both reading Hampton Hawes' galvanic memoir Raise Up Off Me earlier in the week, total coincidence) has a lot more good stuff on the movie and McLean and more, here.