Even in today’s “progressive” society, women directors are still considered an anomaly in the world of filmmaking. This brief interview, shot not too long ago, between one of today’s most buzz-worthy female filmmakers and a veteran female director who only recently passed away captures the angst:
This blog usually does not go out of its way to hype the gender of a director and attempts to consider the output of female filmmakers on equal footing with men (see ‘Sleeping Beauty’ offers ominous exploration of the prostitution of the female form and ‘Tiny Furniture’: a harsh humorous stare into the mirror). The Connection, Shirley Clarke’s film about making a film about a den of heroine junkies from 1962 begs for an examination with gender in mind. As anyone who has watched “Mad Men” knows, the era was a different time for women. But allow me to point out one of my favorite filmmakers, who made a name for herself in the 1940s as one of the pioneers of experimental cinema: Maya Deren. Though her film style existed far from the Hollywood studio factory, she gained much respect among her contemporaries (read: men) and has become a touchstone in experimental cinema, judged on her own, unique terms. Though lesser known, Clarke, who arrived about 10 years later to the experimental film world, should be no exception.
Just as I can hardly care that a director be gay or straight, foreign or American, black or white, I do not care if she is male or female. Sure, it must have been tough for a woman to be taken seriously as a director in the early 1960s, but you would not know it by watching the stark and raw Connection. Credit is due to the fact that it is based on a play by Jack Gelber, first presented as a play at New York City’s influential Living Theatre. But Clarke brings it to life on a cinematic level through the bold, shifting gaze of the camera.
As the years since its production passed, the Connection languished. According to the press kit for the film’s re-release, the movie barely screened because of the use of the word “shit,” which today flies around like nothing on basic cable. “[I]ts use in The Connection in reference to heroin disgusted many of the critics — and worse, it offended the New York Board of Regents” (see press kit). Though the film received praise at Cannes, censorship stifled the film’s distribution in the US. Only now, after the UCLA Film & Television Archive restored the film from the original 35mm acetate picture, a 35mm composite master positive and a negative soundtrack in 2004, is the film seeing a national, if limited, release in theaters before it comes out the following year on home video. It will have its Florida premiere thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which will only play it once per-night, for three nights straight, beginning this Friday.
On the surface, the Connection might seem dated. It unfolds only inside a Greenwich Village apartment in the late 1950s as a group of heroine junkies wait for a fix. While some characters deliver monologues, several actual jazz men from the time hanging out with them periodically burst into jam sessions. It has a quaint, stagey feel. Still, though hyper-realized, it captures a zeitgeist with the DNA of hipsterdom that informs Bohemian culture to this day.
Leach (Warren Finnerty, who won a Best Actor OBIE award for his performance in the stage version at the Living Theatre) hosts these men at his apartment. Over the course of the film, they transcend their seeming status as dregs of society into humanity via a dynamic script and mesmerizing performances, be it through speech or music. The atmosphere established by Clarke pegs New York City as it heads into its dreaded years of decline and decay. Voices from outside drift up and through the windows. They range from the sounds of an argument in Puerto Rican slang to children playing. Often, cars honk and trains pass by. There is even a siren screeching past more than once. Inside, the furniture creeks and the floor echoes of worn wood as the characters either drag their feet or stomp the floor while stalking around the space. Leach bitches about the pain of a boil on his neck throughout the film, and he and his fellow drug addicts speak in a beatnik slang, calling each other “man” and “baby” constantly. It amazes as a relic of an era 55 years in the past, as the image is flawless, thanks to UCLA’s sparkling restoration.
Then there is the music, written by Freddie Redd who also plays one of the junkies at Leach’s apartment and spends most of his time at the piano. A thesis paper on jazz and heroine use could be written alone from the mood shifts in the great pieces he and his band burst into between their fix. The line up also includes Jackie McLean on saxophone, Larry Ritchie on drums and Michael Mattos on bass. The music is varied and dynamic, and the camera takes its time to eat up their presence. Thanks to this beautiful restoration, Arthur J. Ornitz’ photography comes to life in light, shadow and detail. The viewer will even notice the sweat traveling down Redd’s neck, as he tickles the ivories on a beat-up, stand up piano with its hammers exposed. Clarke took editing duties, however, and the experience is dynamic. It ranges from a smooth, drifting camera that opens the film, as Leach introduces the junkies crashed out at his pad waiting for their man who they call Cowboy (Carl Lee). The opening set up following Leach carries on so long, you wonder if Clarke will ever break the film. But when edits do arrive, they do so in ingenious ways, bringing in the fictional filmmaker, Jim Dunn (William Redfield) out from behind the camera to bitch and complain about how boring his subjects are behaving. He says he wants to make a sincere cinematic statement chronicling a day-in-the-life of various kinds of men brought together for the same fix. Little did he know how boring it would seem. “Aw, come on!” he whines. “Do something!” As the junkies tease him, he begins to stutter and gets angry at J.J. Burden (Roscoe Lee Browne), the cameraman for continuing to roll on him, as he tries to gain some control over his picture. “I’m just trying to make an honest human document,” Dunn says.
In the end, humanity does appear in an array of interesting specters that are the experiences of these varied men brought together by a shared, irrepressible desire. The film patiently lumbers toward a devastating statement that probably felt more stark at the time, if it did not still have a resonance for today. The Connection is a thoughtful film feeling its way through a dynamic period. As subversive as it is sincere, whether the director happens to be male or female matters little. Artists like Clarke and her nearly all-male cast (also appearing at the den is a naïve, elderly missionary the junkies call Sister Salvation [Barbara Winchester]) reek of a desire for expression looking to burst out of the classical Hollywood from, many years before Dennis Hopper more famously helped establish a new standard for Hollywood with Easy Rider. Clarke was ahead of her time, and that matters most.
The Connection is not rated and runs 110 min. It makes its Florida premiere at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, July 13 at 7 p.m. and runs only through that weekend. If you live outside the area, I’m still working on a way to find out screenings across the nation from Milestone Films. Visit there website here. The director of the MBC loaned me a screener for the purposes of this review.