Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Adventures in Blu-ray: The Connection (1961)

Milestone Films, the award-winning independent/classic film distributor that releases much of its splendid product to home video, unearthed a real treasure at the end of February this year: The Connection (1962), director Shirley Clarke’s groundbreaking slice of cinéma vérité that was at the center of much controversy at the time of its original release.  It’s a movie that’s been on my “must-see” list for many years, and thanks to the generosity of Milestone’s Dennis Doros—who was most gracious in sending me a screener—I was able to watch and in turn be fascinated by a film that is unquestionably one of the hallmarks of independent cinema.

The Connection tells the free-form story of eight heroin junkies who are biding their time in a Greenwich Village loft waiting for a fix that’s due to arrive from a pusher (Carl Lee) identified as “Cowboy.”  Four of the addicts comprise a musical quartet (led by renowned jazz pianist Freddie Redd); the others philosophize about their lives and experiences directly to a camera as part as a project overseen by aspiring documentarian Jim Dunn (William Redfield), who wants to make a social and political statement about the “scene.”  The characters’ wait for their “connection” resembles something out of Samuel Beckett; eventually Cowboy arrives to satisfy everyone’s jones, with a strait-laced evangelical woman dubbed “Sister Salvation” (Barbara Winchester) in tow.  Dunn is goaded into “shooting up” by the others so that he’ll be able to identify more with the subjects of his movie…but the experience leaves him disillusioned, particularly when one individual in the group, Leach (Warren Finnerty), nearly overdoses from a second sample of “junk.”

The origins of The Connection emanate from a 1959 play written by Jack Gelber, which galvanized New York audiences with its frank depiction of drug addiction; the press kit for the Milestone release humorously calls this “play within a play within a jazz concert” a “drug-addled crossing of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Waiting for Godot.”  Praised for its spellbinding improvisation (though some critics took issue with its highly controversial subject matter), Connection was later executed in various venues across the country, with the “Jim Dunn” character’s name changed to the name of the director in whatever theatre the play was being performed.

The Connection attracted the attention of independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke, who had received much critical acclaim for numerous experimental film shorts; Clarke, along with a group of directors that included D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles, had been one of the founders of Filmmakers, Inc., a cooperative that pooled resources such as film equipment and post-production facilities.  Filmmakers also became the vital core of what would be known as the New American Cinema, later joined by such talents as Frederick Wiseman, Charlotte Zwerin and John Cassavetes (Shirley lent John her camera equipment so he could shoot his debut feature, Shadows).  Clarke was convinced that Gelber’s play (Jack was also brought in to adapt the screenplay) would be the ideal vehicle for her cinéma vérité style, and took special pains to preserve Connection’s “piercing of the proscenium” (the original production allowed audience members to quiz and interrogate the players) by making the neophyte director (Dunn) and his cinematographer (J.J. Burden, played by character fave Roscoe Lee Browne) major participants in the drama.  (The director also utilized a moving camera—much in the tradition of the French New Wave—to recapture much of the play’s intensity and documentary-like realism.)

The Connection was tightly budgeted at $167,000; the film’s producer was Lewis Allen (he later went on to produce the likes of Swimming to Cambodia and The Queen, among many others) and Allen raised the scratch by offering potential backers a profit-sharing limited partnership.  (An idea that originated in the theater world, but has since caught fire in the age of the Internet with sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo.)  Making certain that the production of the film was overseen by an experienced Union staff is what elevated the production costs considerably, but it also freed Clarke (who was a novice to fiction films) to concentrate on her direction, secure in knowing The Connection was in the hands of a professional crew.  (The small contingency budget was watched over like a mother with her young.)  Much of the film’s success can be attributed to the striking cinematography of Arthur J. Ornitz (son of Hollywood Ten writer Samuel Ornitz), who later went on to such triumphs as Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) and Serpico (1973).

The Connection was a critical hit, and while it was praised when it made the out-of-competition rounds at the Cannes International Film Festival, it received a much colder reception once it returned to the good ol’ U.S.A.  Part of this was due to the frankness of its subject matter; though there had been previous films that dealt with the topic of drug addiction, many of those comfortably adopted a cautionary, preachy tone and several resulted in tragic endings.  The Connection refused to adopt this “drugs are evil” attitude, but what sealed its fate was a brief shot of the cover of a porno magazine plus its fearless use of the slang term “shit” to describe heroin—government censor boards deemed all that indecent (Heaven forfend!), and a two-year battle ensued before The Connection was allowed to be shown to American audiences.  While Clarke and Company eventually prevailed in the courts, the momentum of the movie had been slowed by all the legal wrangling and it did poorly at the box office.

The drug addiction movies that have followed in the wake of Connection have made Clarke’s groundbreaking film noticeably dated…so those individuals who’ve not seen it and are curious to do so need to keep in mind that it needs to be watched through the prism of its era.  As for me, I marveled at how a modest little movie still maintains its relevancy, and thought it interesting that while Connection certainly doesn’t lecture its audience, it also doesn’t shy away from subtly conveying the impression that doing drugs isn’t all that and a bag of Doritos.  (Dunn, the documentarian, is frustrated that his subjects have little of substance to offer before the arrival of Cowboy…and once everyone’s had their fix, he continues to be stymied by the junkies’ inability to contribute anything worth capturing on film.)  The movie is graced with a mostly unknown cast; Roscoe Lee Browne (J.J.) is easily the most recognizable thespian, though Warren Finnerty (as Leach, Finnerty could be the love child of Frank Gorshin and Steve Buscemi—in fact, I was kind of amused when I realized he’s also in The Panic in Needle Park, which I watched not too long ago), William Redfield (Death Wish) and Garry Goodrow (1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers) all became members in good standing in the “Hey! It’s that guy!” acting fraternity.  Carl Lee, who plays Cowboy, was the son of TDOY fave Canada Lee (Lifeboat, Body and Soul) and while continuing to work in such films as The Landlord (1970) and Super Fly (1972), he engaged in a tumultuous romantic relationship with Shirley that lasted until his death from a drug overdose in 1986.

Restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive (with funding from The Film Foundation), The Connection is the first in a series of planned releases dubbed “Project Shirley,” which will recognize the contributions to film by this pioneering feminist filmmaker.  The second and third Project Shirley releases, Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967—considered by many to be her masterpiece) and Ornette: Made in America (1985), are already available on DVD/Blu-ray, and like Connection are stuffed with extras and bonus features culled from home movies, letters and film files.  (I was hoping that Clarke’s 1963 feature The Cool World would be in the pipeline for a home video release…but it apparently exists only in worn 16mm print versions.)  I cannot stress the historical importance of seeing The Connection, a film that’s been out of the public eye since the 1980s…and I’m delighted that Milestone Films has afforded folks the opportunity to do so.

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