Bearing a striking resemblance to the Steve Buscemi of the future (the “Boardwalk Empire” actor wasn’t yet four when Shirley Clarke‘s first feature, “The Connection” premiered in Cannes in 1961), Leach (Warren Finnerty) invites us into his Greenwich Village “pad,” where he and friends, junkies and jazz musicians, are uneasily waiting for Cowboy, their dealer.
Based on Jack Gelber’s 1959 play (within a play), produced by the Living Theater, Clarke (with a script by Gelber) similarly structured her film, sending Jim Dunn (William Bedfield), a (fictional) young, preppy and uptight aspiring documentarian, to a pre-arranged (and paid for) shoot with the group, to search for “the truth.”
To describe “The Connection” in shorthand, it could be called the first mocumentary, but the term only fits it loosely because of the seriousness of the dialog, the experimental, constantly moving camera, responding to the music by a quartet including jazz greats saxophonist Jackie McLean and pianist Freddie Redd. Sam’s (James Anderson) rhythmic monologue, alternating between delusion and anger, backed by the musicians, is a forerunner of poetry slams. And anticipating one of Dogma’s chastity vows, all of the music in the film arises organically–in addition to the musicians, Harry (Henry Proach) arrives with a portable record player and an album.
Despite the dated hipster language the film retains its immediacy, even as it views a now lost New York real estate world–the film’s one set, Leach’s ratty, nearly raw, cheap, top-floor, sky-lit loft. (In his kitchen, separated from the main space with a curtain, is a 40s Kelvinator, twin to the refrigerator in my parents’ basement.)
Although Clarke is widely cited by filmmakers as a major influence, her films haven’t received significant release nor is she appropriatley recognized in contemporary film history. A press release from Milestone Films notes that “although there are more than 100 monographs, books and DVDs devoted to the works of (her) contemporaries like John Cassavetes, Stan Brackage and Andy Warhol; there is not one entirely dedicated to the life or works of Shirley Clarke.” Through its four-year Project Shirley, Milestone has acquired the rights to four of Clarke’s features and dozens of her shorts and will be releasing luminous restored prints of Clarke’s work.
“The Connection” will open on Friday, May 4 in New York at the IFC Center, 50 years after it opened and closed in New York on October 3, 1962, after two matinees, a victim of censorship for its language.