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Flicks - The Connection
The Connection 13/07/11 3:02
Flicks - The Connection
Shirley Clarke's adaptation of a famous stage play about heroin addicts was first banned, then became a breakthrough for greater freedom of expression in film. Shirley Clarke was a filmmaker from New York, one of the pioneers in independent film in the 1950s and 60s. Because her work lay outside of the Hollywood film industry and challenged social norms, she was largely ignored and marginalized in her lifetime, although she was nominated for an Oscar in the short film category for a movie called Skyscraper in 1960. Of all her films, the one that got the most attention was The Connection, a full-length black-and-white feature she made in 1961 that was eventually banned in New York, but went on to spark a successful court case that helped free the movies from censorship.
The story concerns a group of heroin addicts waiting in a New York apartment for their dealer to arrive, while a director attempts to make a film about them. It's adapted from a play by Jack Gelber that enjoyed a long off-Broadway run, in a production by the Living Theater, whose actors are also in the film. Everything takes place in one room, but Clarke's constantly moving camera (with the regular and handheld cameras sometimes getting in each other's sightlines) and acute spatial sense keeps the picture from being static. The narrative device of having a director filming the junkies pays off in a couple of ways. The tension between reality and the way people stage their reality in front of a camera becomes one of the film's themes, reflecting the addicts' alienation from themselves and society. The junkies talk not only to each other, but to the filmmakers, and sometimes directly to the camera. This immediacy implicates the audience in the events (the junkies accuse the world of hypocrisy for condemning them while essentially using their own kinds of drugs, such as alcohol, sex, and power, to get off) and allows the actors to present themselves in a way that combines naturalism with theatricality.
Best among the actors are Warren Finnerty as Leach, a pathetic, sarcastic hipster who can never seem to get enough (his neurotic performance reminds me a little of Steve Buscemi); and Carl Lee as Cowboy, the cool, contemptuous drug dealer. A few of the guys have their instruments on hand so they can play jazz—actually it's Jackie McLean and his band. When Cowboy arrives, he brings a naive old lady with him, a Christian street preacher they call Sister Salvation (played by Barbara Winchester) and things start to get very weird, with the "director" of the film within the film (William Redfield) finally agreeing to shoot some dope himself to see what it's like.
The Connection has stood up well over time. The "beat" lingo is not overdone, probably because the actors are familiar with it, so it seems natural. Rather than presenting junkies as freaks to be gawked at or pitied, the film places their despair and addiction in the wider context of a world that is smothered in lies and facades. It's one of those rare filmed plays that succeeds in conveying the power of the source without distancing the viewer.
The Connection ended up winning the Director's Prize at Cannes. It's on DVD now, as I hope the rest of Clarke's films will eventually be, and it's definitely worth your time—a gritty and fascinating alternative to Hollywood tradition.