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

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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Shirley Clarke in 1967.
Milestone Shirley Clarke in 1967.

You both seem to agree that Clarke was ahead of her time, not only artistically, but socially and politically. I wonder if you think that may have contributed to the fact that, even still, she's not that widely known. The restorations of her films may help change that, but it has certainly taken a long time.

AH: I’m still a little confused about her -- and I’m interested to hear, David, more about your conversations with her. I gathered that there was a little bit of an approach-avoidance relationship with Hollywood and mainstream filmmaking. They sort of tiptoed toward her and she was not completely averse to having a career, but maybe it was a function of timing and common interest. Even when she started to explore video, she really kind of became a pioneer. She just always seemed to be exploring. I even read somewhere that MoMA gave her a grant to start exploring videotape and video as a way to edit film, completely anticipating nonlinear film editing and AVID and all of that, that wouldn’t happen for several more years. It does seem like she really was, conceptually and practically, always sort of a little ahead of the curve. Just a little too late to be able to fully benefit from it.

DS: I think that she and Hollywood each made the other nervous and I'm sure that she would have been happy to work somewhere in the studio system if she could have done so without compromising her values too much. I'm sure Hollywood would have been willing to have her if they had been persuaded that she would be well-behaved. Probably they could have come to some kind of an agreement. But I think there was too much trepidation on both sides for something like that to have happened. And she was very interested in exploring things without knowing how they were going to come out. That is not one of Hollywood’s strong points. It's not all that fond of nurturing exploration for its own sake unless it's pretty certain there's going to be a payoff at the end of it.

The irony is that some aspects of what this film is anticipates the modern genres of mockumentary and found footage, both of which have been given the Hollywood treatment. Considering that the gimmick has been done to death, could this movie have been made today?

AH: I would say absolutely yes. Again, another thing that Clarke anticipated was funding. She funded this with a bunch of different people who were self-financing their films then -- but this one, I think maybe because it started as a play, they decided to finance it with backers like a Broadway or off-Broadway show, which is the way it's done now. We didn’t even talk about the use of the music, which is another edgily modern, forward-thinking, hip formal element to it, so I would say it could get made today. What do you think, David?

"Clarke really was, conceptually and practically, always sort of a little ahead of the curve. Just a little too late to be able to fully benefit from it." --Ann Hornaday


DS: I don’t think a movie quite like this would be made very easily today unless it was made on a super-low budget. We now have a big indie film movement, supposedly, but so many of the movies that are made in that new tradition are basically Hollywood calling cards and I really don't think she was interested in doing that. "The Connection" came out of a confluence of elements that were just there for a very short time. This was really the only successful play Jack Gelber ever had. There was the Living Theater, which, not too long after this, moved over to Europe and stayed there for ages because America was just too inhospitable for what they were trying to accomplish. You had this astonishing jazz scene in New York City at that time as well. You had simply brilliant talents -- I’m so glad you brought that up, Ann -- people like Freddie Redd and Jackie McLean who were just astonishingly great.

The first time I saw "The Connection," when it was still new, I saw it in Boston because it was banned in New York state and I was going to college in Boston. It just changed my thinking about jazz entirely. Something like this could be done by some doggedly independent spirit now, but I wonder if there's the same availability of the ingredients that came together to make "The Connection" such an extraordinary film in so many ways.

I would just like to point out that Milestone is doing such a tremendous service to film culture at large with this. And also now what they're doing with Lionel Rogosin, who was in some ways a kindred spirit of Shirley Clarke. Bringing these works together and putting them out and making them available in such sensational packages is just such a service.

Watch the trailer for "The Connection" below:

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







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