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Talking Smack About Junk: Shirley Clarke’s ‘The Connection’

Milestone Films
The apartment setting of Shirley Clarke’s The Connection

Re-released in a lovingly restored print on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, Shirley Clarke’s debut film The Connection is an excavated relic of an earlier New York. The movie adapts an off-Broadway blockbuster—Jack Gelber’s “jazz play” of the same name—and concerns a filmmaker’s foredoomed attempt to document a gaggle of heroin addicts while they hang around a cold-water loft waiting for the salvation of their daily dose of the drug they call “junk,” “smack,” or most often “shit.”

When it was finished The Connection provoked a scandal, at least in its home town. In September 1961, the Motion Picture Division of the New York State Education Department deemed the movie “obscene” and denied it a license under the state’s Education Law. There were two objections. One was visual—a glimpse of a photographed female nude in a magazine leafed through by the resident Talmudic commentator Solly (Jerome Raphel). The other was aural—the repeated use of the word “shit” (twenty-four or twenty-six times per Variety, ninety according to Tom Wolfe’s overheated account in the old New York Herald Tribune). The producers appealed and lost.

Thus The Connection had its US theatrical premiere in Scottsdale, Arizona, in January 1962 and was shown elsewhere that spring including a private screening at the White House organized by Arthur Schlesinger. Had the New York Film Festival been established in September 1962 rather than a year later, The Connection would have been a natural for publicizing controversy. Instead, the movie opened, still without a license, at a Broadway theater in October. The projectionist was arrested, the print impounded, and producers went back to court. In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther rose to the bait, attacking The Connection as “a forthright and repulsive observation of a sleazy, snarling group of narcotic addicts.” In The Village Voice, Jonas Mekas rose to the movie’s defense with a jeremiad titled “Open Letter to the New York Daily Movie Critics.”

Lively stuff but far less epochal than the reception accorded the Gelber play itself. The production had opened a bit more than three years earlier, in July 1959, at the Living Theater, then ensconced in an upper floor of a shabby four-story loft building on the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue and 14th Street. Directed by Judith Malina, it purported to be an actual conclave of junkies, a quartet of jazz musicians among them, being paid (with heroin) to play themselves in a movie. The proscenium was extremely porous. The supposed screenwriter, seated in the audience, periodically objected to the actors’ alterations in his dialogue.

Act I had the addicts impatiently awaiting their connection, known as Cowboy. Intermittently, the musicians, including alto saxophonist Jackie McLean (who had two years previously had his cabaret license revoked for alleged drug use), jammed. After intermission, Cowboy—Carl Lee, dressed in angelic white and wearing shades—materialized at the pad to minister to each of his customers in turn. This was “off-stage.” Or rather, it occurred behind the closed door of an on-stage, actual toilet. In the dramatic climax, the loft’s proprietor, a whiny hipster unsubtly named Leach, played by Warren Finnerty, demanded more dope and overdosed as a result.

The Grove Press edition of Jack Gelber’s The Connection

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. According to the Times’s second-string critic, the play was “nothing more than a farrago of dirt, smalltime philosophy, empty talk and extended runs of ‘cool’ music.” But the Voice, a few months shy of its fourth birthday, made The Connection a cause: Jerry Tallmer’s long, analytical review was seconded in the letters column by endorsements from Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg.

Dominating the Voice’s 1960 Obie awards, The Connection was named Best All-Around Production and Best New Play, in a season that also included local premieres of The Balcony, The Zoo Story and Krapp’s Last Tape, while Finnerty was singled out as Best Actor. Robert Brustein, who, to his good fortune, had The Connection as the subject of his first New Republic review, was another supporter; Kenneth Tynan praised the play in Harpers. The Times’ senior critic Brooks Atkinson came to see for himself and was impressed, not least by the spectacle of the “mangled theatregoers” 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.

The Connection fused certain advanced European ideas, associated with Pirandello and the Theater of the Absurd, with more indigenous aesthetic notions derived from jazz spontaneity, beat poetry, method acting, and underground “happenings.” Ranting soliloquies alternated with prolonged musical improvisations. When not nodding out or ragging on each other, the members of the racially integrated cast questioned their roles and mocked the straight world for its unacknowledged addictions; they not only scrutinized the audience but followed them into the lobby during intermission (this just after the waiting junkies banded together to lance the nasty boil on Leach’s neck.)

Atkinson had the pithiest formulation: The Connection was “more like an experience than a play.” Indeed, some Living Theater associates like the painter Larry Rivers would maintain that the musicians were being given real heroin; others recall them occasionally passing out mid performance. One historian writes that, over the course of the play’s three year run, some 50 spectators fainted at the sight of Leach sticking a needle in his arm. By mid-1960, The Connection was, if not a sensation, than at least a thing. I know that because even my parents—musical comedy-loving New Yorker readers—drove into the city from Queens to get a taste. And I remember that because my mother’s annoyed account of the actors panhandling the audience during intermission impressed itself on my 11-year-old brain.

The Connection was both a notable theatrical experience and an event in the commodification of the cool. A few months after it opened, Life magazine ran a seven-page spread “Squaresville USA vs. Beatsville,” the New York Times Book Review devoted its front page to The Holy Barbarians, Lawrence Lipton’s quasi-sociological account of beat life in Venice, California, and Pull My Daisy, a half-hour movie directed by photographer Robert Frank and painter Alfred Leslie from the third act of an unproduced play by Jack Kerouac had its premiere at Cinema 16. Grove Press published the play in paperback; Blue Note records brought out an LP; a movie Connection was a logical next step.

Edinburgh Guide
Filmmaker Shirley Clarke in 1970

A former dancer and choreographer, as well as a maker of experimental 16mm films, Shirley Clarke purchased the rights; in late 1960, she began shooting her version of the play on a modest budget and a single soundstage that convincingly simulated a cluttered cold-water loft. Her cast was almost entirely drawn from the Living Theater. The mellifluous Roscoe Brown, who played the camera operator within the film, was one of the few additions—his character was credited with assembling the movie from the comically clueless director’s leavings.

The Connection was finished in time for the Cannes Film Festival where it was enthusiastically received as a fresh slice of American life. Mistaking Clarke’s faux cinema verité, replete with white outs, jumps cuts, and swish pans, for the real thing. Variety referred to the movie as a “documentary”—and, in a sense, it is. Clarke’s Connection not only preserved the play but largely because of her fidelity to Gelber’s dialogue, managed to reproduce something of its controversial reception.

Paradoxically, after more than a year legal maneuvering, the film finally opened intact and now passé. 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 (and featuring several Living Theater performers, Malina among them). The Connection purported to show a subculture; Flaming Creatures emerged from one. So did subsequent underground movies. The Connection anticipated but was surpassed by the lackadaisical immediacy of the fabulously desultory talkathons produced by the Andy Warhol Factory during the mid Sixties. (Clarke was hardly unaware of these. Her Portrait of Jason was, in effect, a more disciplined, focused version of a Warhol production—shown at the New York Film Festival in 1967, the same year that Warhol’s erstwhile protégés the Velvet Underground cut a record replete with post-Connection heroin glamor.)

As a movie, The Connection does have several fine passages. The frantic circular pan around one junkie’s self-centered rapping while McLean wails on sax has the kinetic energy of Clarke’s short dance films; the lengthy shot of a cockroach crawling up the wall occasioned by the drug-altered consciousness of the filmmaker within the film is a funny, daring bit of nothingness. Clarke’s Connection also preserves several strong performances, namely those of Jackie McLean, who would go on to enjoy a distinguished musical career, and Warren Finnerty, who, although featured in Easy Rider, would never again have a comparable role. Mainly, however, The Connection documents a particular moment. To watch it even now is to get some sense of what it might have felt like to climb the stairs of 530 Sixth Avenue and find oneself in a theater without a stage among a scuzzy cast of characters, alternately confrontational and indifferent: You know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is…

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.

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