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, one of the interesting things about “The Connection” is that there are multiple angles for discussing it. It’s a commentary on cinéma vérité, but also a portrait of the Beat Generation, as you point out in your book about the period. What do you think is the most essential aspect of the movie’s lasting appeal?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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: