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Critical Consensus: Ann Hornaday and David Sterritt Discuss Shirley Clarke's Newly Restored 'The Connection'

Indiewire By Ann Hornaday, Eric Kohn and David Sterritt | Indiewire May 2, 2012 at 11:00AM

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.
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Clarke on the set of "The Connection."
Clarke on the set of "The Connection."

That was something I wanted to bring up. This guy name-checks Robert J. Flaherty and Sergei Eisenstein, but he's totally absurd. The junkies may not completely understand what he's trying to do, but it doesn’t make a difference. He doesn’t come across as superior to them. In fact, he's basically defeated by them over the course of the movie. So here's what I'd like to know: Is "The Connection" a satire of underground film and yet also an underground film itself?

AH: Well, if I may: David, I never did get the opportunity to meet her, so I defer to you in all things in terms of what was going on in her head, but from reading about her, she was a very playful, mischievous person. She had just a scathing sense of humor, I gather, and her favorite iconic character was Felix the Cat. So, clearly, she had a winking, ironic, wonderfully satirical look on the world and was always prepared to upend conventions and puncture pieties. She was idealistic enough to sign on to the Statement of the New American Cinema, with her fellow underground filmmakers. So she just had this completely winning combination of seriousness and idealism and this complete willingness to undermine the self-seriousness that goes along with those kinds of movements. She was just the perfect combination.

DS: I think that’s just exactly right. The artist in any field, and that certainly includes filmmakers, who chooses to operate on the margins, is doing it for reasons that are very deep-seated. She really knew what she was doing. She was not only a director, she was a film editor, she knew how to produce her own movies, and so forth. She really could have had a mainstream career if she had wanted one. But her choice to be on the margins was prompted, in large part, by her determination to remain -- Ann has exactly the right word -- mischievous. She was a gadfly. She was poking fun at, and trying to provoke, I think, her own fellow, semi-underground figures. She was somebody who was determined not to settle into some uncomfortable niche.

AH: I wonder -- and again, I hesitate to ascribe things to her -- how much of that was a product of being a woman within a pretty macho culture. There was Maya Deren and there was Helen Levitt, but there weren’t that many women. It was such a male-identified time. I was thinking about how this film was made in 1961, when [Bob] Dylan is in Greenwich Village. It was such a time of cultural foment in New York, but it was really male. Truman Capote was probably beginning to work on "In Cold Blood." There was so much going on artistically in that city, not necessarily in a coordinated way. But I think that our image of the heroic male artist was so formed in so many different media at that time that I just wonder how much of her poking fun and sort of taking the Mickey out of that authoritative stance has to do with her subversive sense of being a woman.

"Clarke was determined not to settle into some uncomfortable niche." --David Sterritt


DS: She was also really concerned with racism in America. She regarded racism as the great original sin and the ongoing worst disease of American culture. So the fact that we have the black guys in “The Connection” are really perhaps the characters who interest her the most -- not just Cowboy, who, when he comes, makes quite a splash. But all of them. The last film she completed was her documentary about Ornette Coleman, a jazz musician so far ahead of his time and determined to remain on the outside, a figure very much like her in a way.

The modern civil rights movement was still gathering steam in 1961 when she was making "The Connection." So here again, it was an issue that was right at the center of her thinking of just about everything. That was another thing: Her very strong identification with African-Americans and her determination to butt into their world and somehow capture parts of their world. She did this over and over. She did it in "The Connection," she did it in "The Cool World," and she did it in "Portrait of Jason," without ever sentimentalizing anything, without any special kind of pleading, always showing with all of its harsh realities. But it was something that was really important to her in her whole career.

This article is related to: Critical Consensus, Shirley Clarke, The Connection, Reviews