For the tenth feature in our screening series with Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation at Nitehawk Cinema, we present The Connection, an adaptation of an off-Broadway play and the debut feature film by Shirley Clarke. Taking place entirely within one room, the film concerns a group of jazz musicians and drug addicts waiting for their heroin connection to arrive. Wildly controversial for its gritty depiction of drug use, the film was entangled in a two-year censorship battle before disappearing into obscurity, which unfortunately was the case with most of Clarke’s work until recent, much needed restorations of her films began happening a few years ago.
If Barbara Loden is underexposed, Shirley Clarke is a ghost. The only female member of the New American Cinema collective, Clarke’s work occupies a unique, singular space in the context of the 60s New York avant-garde film scene. Almost all of her work features African Americans in starring roles with themes and ideas pertaining to the black experience, often in controversial settings. Coupled with her renegade storytelling techniques (now recognized as light years ahead of its time), Clarke has seemingly vanished from being included in the same canon as Jonas Mekas, Maya Deren, and John Cassavetes (whom she even loaned filming equipment to for his breakthrough debut, Shadows). Suffice to say, the revival of Clarke’s films are nothing short of a revelation. It’s therefore your civic duty to come see this unheralded masterpiece of independent cinema this Tuesday night, which will be introduced by writer/director Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior).
To get you prepped, we reached out to Shirley Clarke’s daughter, video artist Wendy Clarke, along with Dennis Doros, who is the co-founder of the invaluable Milestone Films, the restoration company that will be distributing new and restored versions of Shirley Clarke’s movies for the next several years.
-Introduction by Greg Eggebeen
WENDY CLARKE – Video Artist / Daughter of Shirley Clarke
I was in high school when my mother made The Connection. We—my mother, Shirley Clarke, my father, Bert Clarke, and I, Wendy Clarke; Jack Gelber and his wife Carol and their baby; my mother's best friend Peter Buckley and his wife Connie, Olivia, and her boyfriend (can't remember his name, but he was a Greek painter), and Louis Allen (the producer of the film)—rented a dilapidated old mansion in East Hampton, Long Island for the summer. Jack and my mother were working on the script most of the time and we played croquet and hearts the rest of the time. The script was finished by the end of the summer and in the fall the filming started. I went to the set once and sat on top of the tall flat that was one of the walls and watched the filming below.
I remember there was a terrible problem that happened when the film opened and was immediately shut down because the censors would not allow the film to play because the word shit was used. The word shit was a slang word for heroin and was not a swear word. There had to be a court battle to allow the film to be shown in theaters. The case was won and we were forever proud that my mother's film broke the ban on the word shit, which can now be said in movies. Unfortunately, I don’t think the delay helped the film getting the recognition it deserved.
I'm glad the film is getting the attention it deserves now.
DENNIS DOROS – Co-Founder, Milestone Films
Shirley Clarke’s The Connection is the ultimate jazz film and not only because of the incredible score by the highly underrated Freddie Redd or the brilliant playing by the legendary saxophonist Jackie McLean.
As a former dancer for such legendary choreographers as Martha Graham and Anna Sokolow (her close friend) and with a deep love for music—Clarke was born for the moving image. Despite facing almost a daily combat with cinematographer Arthur Ornitz (who insisted on making a film on drug addicts too beautiful), she created a film of such fluid artistry that one never notices that The Connection is a 110-minute movie shot in one room. Jack Gelber’s dialogue, the camera, the actors, and the musicians perform as a jazz combo riffing with and off of each other. (It helps that most of the actors and musicians performed in the original off-Broadway play for almost two years as well as overseas.)
There was another element that makes the film so compelling. Shirley’s greatest talent was her editing. Her films are intricately woven with enormous thought and care, while appearing as improvisations. Notice Shirley’s genius with her bebop construction of The Connection compared to her later free jazz editing of Ornette: Made in America. Clarke lived for the editing process. In her editing notes and later interviews for Portrait of Jason, Shirley was not afraid of slowing the film down almost to a halt because she knew that BANG!, the next moment of impact would be so strong as to be shocking. Her films rise and fall and suddenly rise again. They grab you and hold on to you.
Shirley Clarke never wanted to be considered a great female director. She wanted to fit in the film director encyclopedias comfortably among the men. She accomplished something far nobler than that. She became an artist of such intense and integral individuality that there could never be another director like her. Perhaps that’s why she was left out of so many film history books. There were no disciples. There weren’t any copycats. There could only be one Shirley Clarke—the most independent of all American independent filmmakers.
Preserved by UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by The Film Foundation.
Print courtesy of the Academy Film Archive.
For tickets, click here. Complimentary drinks will be available from Larceny Bourbon after the screening in Nitehawk’s downstairs bar.