‘The Connection’: Shirley Clarke’s Brilliant Breakdown of Vérité

Editor’s note: Yet another crucial restoration by the tireless Milestone Films, The Connection opens 4 May at New York’s IFC Center.

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.

Ann Hornaday

“I’m just trying to make an honest human document!” Even as director Jim Dunn (William Redfield) describes his intention, you see he’s lost his hold on it. For one thing, he’s stepped in front of the camera, exasperated that his junkie subjects aren’t behaving as he thought they might. And for another, as he reveals at this moment, he’s paid off their dealer, Cowboy (Carl Lee), enough money to keep them high for a week. “I give you what you want,” Dunn asserts, “And you give me what I want.”

What he wants becomes increasingly clear and also impossible over the course of The Connection. Shirley Clarke’s first feature — adapted from Jack Gelber’s 1959 Living Theater play and released and shut down after just two screenings by New York State’s censorship board in 1961 — opens with a title card noting that Dunn never completed his project. Instead, what you’re looking at has been assembled by the camera operator, J.J. Burden (Roscoe Lee Browne). “The responsibility of putting together this material is fully mine,” the card reads, “I did it as honestly as I could.”

Such explicit (and repeated) attention to “honesty” indicates at least one of the film’s focuses, namely, an incisive breakdown of vérité, then and still a much admired and little understood notion. A dancer and choreographer by training, Clarke made the most of film’s capacity for movement, certainly, cinematographer Arthur Ornitz’s camera traverses The Connection‘s single room setting, whip-panning from one speaker to another, then revealing the desperation of their immobility in handheld shots of a wood stove, the toilet door (so labeled), a swinging naked light bulb or the shadow of the cameraman on the brick wall.

The mobile frame is first put to use as Leach (Warren Finnerty) leads it around his tenement apartment, introducing the addicts one by one while explaining that they’re all waiting for their connection, Cowboy, to show up. While they wait, the guys nod off or hold forth, and in between soliloquys on light particles and the profitable business of heroin, they appreciate the band (jazz musicians Freddie Redd, Jackie McLean, Larry Rich, and Michael Mattos), whose occasional performances are as simultaneously jaggedy and smooth as the junkies’ own, punctuating their pontifications and also reframing that problem of honesty. Then and now, jazz improvisations pass as both virtuosic displays and also a means to self-expression: the film asks again and again what self might be expressed and what truths might be found in these and other performances.

Dunn is most explicit in his pursuit of “truth,” complaining that the addicts are performing too much. “You’re stiffening up on me,” he says, “Just act natural, the stuff that you do every day is fine.” Working in a tradition he attributes to Eisenstein and Flaherty, the director imagines that recording can be truth, seemingly unaware of his own shaping of the frame, his direction of action and where the camera might look. When he discovers Burden has been filming his rant, he instructs in passing that this part be cut out, which, of course, it isn’t. Pressed to more dire frustrations, the artist admits his part in creating all this “natural” acting. “You junkies don’t seem to understand that when a hand, see, is photographed, it becomes something other than just a hand. It’s a matter of cinematic selection see?”

Dunn’s gripes — over his subjects’ and his own performance — articulate the film’s thematic and frankly political focus on how any sort of honesty is shaped. When “Sister Salvation” (Barbara Winchester) appears on the junkies doorstep, invited by Cowboy for tea, she embodies a kind of perfect audience for vérité, willing to believe, never noticing their changed affects when they emerge from the toilet, where each spends a moment with the finally arrived Cowboy. Listening to Ernie (Garry Goodrow) rattle on under the influence, she helps him to remember California (where he’s “from”), saying, “It’s so clean and healthy there,” at which point he falls off his chair, so high he can’t keep upright. She nods, appreciating that he’s honestly exhausted: “He looks like a good brother to save,” observes Sister Salvation.

It’s not long before the guys must usher her out, if only to preserve her earnest delusions. On her exit, they turn their attention to Dunn, wondering about his interest in them and also, how he can claim honesty or insight if he doesn’t know what they know. Seeing another client in the making, Cowboy entices and performs (“Why don’t you see what it’s all about?”), and Dunn rationalizes. “There is something dirty about just peeking into people’s lives,” he tells Burden. But as you’re invited to feel apposite discomfort, you also realize that The Connection is not about junkies’ stress and distress or their shifting truths and lies. It’s about you, consuming without cost, believing what’s in front of you, succumbing to visible limits. Or you might understand how film, Clarke’s film anyway, can move you beyond such limits. It’s a matter of cinematic selection, see?

RATING 10 / 10