Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. Here, The Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday and National Society of Film Critics chair David Sterritt take on Shirley Clarke's 1962 cult hit about a documentary filmmaker attempting to document a group of junkies in the West Village. Newly restored by UCLA and opening at New York's IFC Center this Friday, "The Connection" marks the first of several restored Clarke films set for theatrical and DVD releases this year.
DAVID STERRITT: "The Connection" operates on quite a number of levels. Looking at it now, well into the 21st century, a lot of years after it was made, I think it functions for me mainly as one of those time travel movies. It's one of those films that seems to capture a time period in the past with such immediacy that half of me feels like I’m back there again when the movie was new -- which is when I first saw it, actually. It absolutely brings back thoughts of what the American drug underground was like before the sixties really happened. What we call the sixties didn't really crank up until at least the middle of that decade. This is before the sixties got underway and drugs of various kinds became a lot more widespread. So we have a different, more genuinely underground view of the subject that is of a piece with the kind of film that Shirley Clarke wanted to make, which is a movie that does not go along with any of the accepted norms of mainstream filmmaking of that time. So, both in terms of style and in terms of content, it harkens back to an earlier age and to an edgy kind of margin around that earlier period.
The comparison between the way the movie played then and how it comes across now is definitely something we should address. Ann, you wrote about the film during a Clarke retrospective about five or so years ago. When did you first encounter "The Connection"?
AH: I think that was probably the first time I had seen this film. I had seen "The Cool World" when it was at the Maryland Film Festival several years ago. I think it was one of the first films they ever showed it and that was the first time I learned about Shirley Clarke. But what struck me, like David, watching it fresh, is that given that period of time in which she made it, it would have been so easy to make it a gritty, naturalistic portrait of drug culture and underground culture. Instead, she makes this really post-modern, incredibly wry look at cinéma vérité and the authoritative nature of filmmaking itself that interrogates the whole structure of the cinéma vérité movements -- which she was even a part of, in many ways, but still had the kind of self-awareness to put a little ironic distance on that. [Jack] Gelber structured the play that way as sort of commentary on itself with the director. So it was already a self-conscious piece of work. But I gather that they really collaborated on adapting it to make it a filmmaker and his cinematographer being those on-screen presences. It's an amazingly sophisticated piece of work, philosophically and aesthetically.
DS: I completely agree with that. I knew Shirley a bit, back when she was still really active. I remember going to see her at the Chelsea Hotel where she lived and worked. She was an underground filmmaker. One of the interesting things about "The Connection" is that it's a great satire of underground filmmaking. Jack Gelber had written the play as a basic set-up, and certainly that was the way it was originally performed by the Living Theater. The audience and the addicts, the audience and the cast of this play, were in this little tiny space. One of the great projects of the Living Theater was always to break down the barrier between the spectacle and the spectator, between the play and the audience. So it was pretty much like sitting in the addicts’ apartment, waiting for the connection along with the junkies.
There's a playwright there who had written a play based on his own observations of junkies and he and the director are going to direct the junkies that we’re sitting there with -- in this play that the playwright has written. So it’s kind of very "Marat/Sade" kind of mirrors-within-mirrors construction. What Shirley did was bring in the character of a filmmaker, some sort of avant-garde documentary filmmaker who's determined to capture truth 24 times per second. But he is kind of a ridiculous character. He's the most ridiculous character in the movie, I think.