THE CONNECTION (1961)

  • Director: Shirley Clarke
  • Writer: Jack Gelber, adapted from his stage play
  • Starring: William Redfield, Roscoe Lee Browne, Warren Finnerty, Carl Lee, Garry Goodrow, Jerome Raphel, Barbara Winchester, Henry Proach, Freddie Redd, and Jackie McLean
  • Accolades: 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#68), shown at Cannes International Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on the Criterion Channel, buy or rent with Apple TV

The Connection was so cutting-edge in its day that it required a major court case just to be shown in the state of New York, where it was set and filmed. If it feels dated today it’s less because of its approach to its material than the material itself: this is probably the closest you’re going to get to a movie by and for Beat Poets, and there are long interludes that are just a bunch of dudes playing jazz. That there was a time where a movie could be seen to be more “gritty” than most people could handle, sort of The Wire of its day, while at the same full of characters asking each other if they can “dig it” and calling each other “cat,” is hard to believe today. Even once it was cleared for release, The Connection found itself too cool for the room, but with an increased interest in years to the work of its director, Shirley Clarke, along with a widely-available release on Criterion DVD and on the Criterion streaming service, it has come back into the cinema world in recent years.

This is a movie based on a stage play of the same name, which had achieved some off-Broadway success within a very specific portion of the New York scene (Allen Ginsburg was reportedly a big fan). It makes absolutely no effort to “open up” the play. The entire movie takes place in one room, for example (we never even get a view out the window), and there are long stretches in which single characters give monologues that feel very, well, stagey. The cast from the play is used in the movie, as well, with only one or two notable exceptions. However, this is also a movie that plays with its own form, long before that was “cool.” It takes what was then the relatively new movement of Cinema Verité and turns it on its head. It is startling to watch black and white jazz musicians turn and talk directly to the camera about being in a movie, but here it is.

The movie opens with a title card from the point of view of the cameraman, J.J. (Roscoe Lee Browne), stating that he finished the movie after its director, famed documentary filmmaker Jim Dunn (William Redfield) disappeared. The movie is presented as the documentary footage Jim and J.J. filmed as they tried to make a film about a bunch of “real heroin junkies” in a New York apartment. In the first part of the movie, they are waiting for the “Connection” (hence the title) to show up with their drugs. Part way through, a dealer called Cowboy (Carl Lee) does show up and everyone gets high, including Jim, in the name of “realism” or something. In the end, the owner of the apartment, Leach (Warren Finnerty) overdoses, and Jim decides he’s going to wait with the rest of the junkies for his next fix, handing the movie over to J.J. That’s all that really happens.

For me, in 2021, if The Connection works it’s mostly as an exercise, a fake documentary about a documentary going off the rails, so to speak. Characters glance sideways at the camera, not happy with the fact that they’re being filmed. At one point the cameraman is supposed to be high, and while dialogue continues he just starts shooting light bulbs and bugs climbing up the wall. If its drug trips seem realistic, perhaps that came from experience. Many of the characters are played by jazz musicians, who also play jazz on and off throughout the movie, and heroin was rife within the jazz community at that time. As a hard-hitting portrayal of drug addiction, however, it feels a bit passé today. The different landscape at play in 1961 is shown by one exchange where J.J. suggests that Jim might want to start on a non-addictive drug, like Pot. “What’s pot?” Jim asks, while making a documentary about drug addicts.

Today, there are probably three primary things that The Connection is known for. One is those jazz musicians, many of whom are very famous in jazz circles and recordings of whom are relatively limited. I am told that any movie where Jackie McLean plays saxophone is a big deal for some people, though while I found the jazz vaguely pleasant I am not enough a connoisseur to tell great jazz from good jazz, if you see what I mean. The second reason is that this is the first feature for the great experimental filmmaker, Shirley Clarke. Over the next several years she would make a series of surprisingly modern movies like The Cool World and Portrait of Jason, both of which we may come to at some point soon. It was in the course of this movie that she met her long-time partner, Carl Lee, with whom she collaborated on several later projects. Their relationship lasted until his death from AIDS in 1986, having contracted it from a dirty needle.

The final reason is that, despite having been shown at the Cannes International Film Festival, this movie became the subject of a court case in New York that ended up being higher-profile than the movie itself. At that time in order to be shown in New York you had to have the approval of the state’s Film Licensing Board, and that board refused to approve The Connection on the grounds of “obscenity.” The grounds for this were several uses of the word “shit” (used as slang for drugs) and one shot of a pornographic magazine from a distance. One attempted screening was broken up by police. Ultimately, this ban prevented the film from making any money at the box office, but in a legal sense the movie prevailed. The New York Court of Appeals (the highest court in the state) ruled that the usage of “shit” in the film was “vulgar” but not “obscene” (sure).

For me, except for the intellectual, formal interest in the movie, I mostly found it not super enjoyable. The performances are skillful, realistic depictions of people I have no desire to spend time around. When writing about Midnight Cowboy, a movie from the same decade about the same underbelly of the same city, I called it an “exercise in radical empathy.” I think I’d say the same thing about this movie. The issue for me isn’t that I don’t feel that empathy, it’s that when the characters I’m feeling it for are unpleasant, I also feel unpleasant. Maybe it’s helpful to me as a person, but in the moment I am not a big fan of it.

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