Friday, December 06, 2013

I'm way behind #10: The Connection (Shirley Clarke)

If I were the religious type, I'd say that Milestone Films have been doing God's work for years. They restore and release great lost and/or previously unavailable films (Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep and My Brother's Wedding, Kent Mackenzie's The Exiles, Lionel Rogosin's On the Bowery, Samuel Beckett's Film, de Oliveira's I'm Going Home and Oporto of My Childhood) in theaters and on video, and they recently restored a trio of films (The Connection, Portrait of Jason, and Ornette: Made in America) by the overlooked and under-appreciated Shirley Clarke, a former dancer who transformed herself into a pioneering independent filmmaker in the boys club art scene of '50s and '60s New York. She also helped another great independent filmmaker get his start when she loaned her equipment to John Cassavetes so he could shoot his first film, Shadows.
Clarke had range. She made avant-garde shorts, fictional narrative features, and documentaries, but these weren't separate, static categories for her. Instead, each of her works contained elements of documentary, narrative, performance, and experimentation. The Connection is Clarke's 1961 adaptation of Jack Gelber's experimental theater piece about a group of junkies waiting in a loft for a member of their circle to come back with some heroin. The play was notable for having the actors break the fourth wall and confront audience members while still in character, and another actor portrayed the play's author who was forced into the action by his own creations. In Clarke's film, a two-person documentary crew (director and cameraman) films the junkies while they wait for their fix, but the addicts aren't the passive subjects the director expects them to be, and soon he, and to a lesser extent his cameraman, become part of the film.
Though Clarke sets the movie entirely in the confined space of the loft, The Connection never feels like a filmed play. This is a cinematic experience, and Clarke's camera moves constantly, gliding through the simultaneously spacious and claustrophobic loft, capturing faces and movement and lack of movement, sometimes aggressive, sometimes backing away in what feels like embarrassment or fear. The men who live in the loft never leave it and are there from the beginning, but other characters enter and leave, including a small jazz group with their instruments. The junk-sick musicians play compulsively while they wait, but each performance is a little different. Sometimes they're just killing time, sometimes a moment catches fire, sometimes they play because they're afraid to do anything else, sometimes the playing is a provocation, a way to interrupt conversation and close themselves off. A man who presumably lives in a different room in the building comes in twice to play a record, plugging the portable phonograph into an outlet on a light bulb fixture. The loft fills with sick junkies until the connection, Cowboy (Carl Lee), finally shows up with the drugs. One by one, the men enter the bathroom with Cowboy. The door closes, we wait outside the door with the relaxed, floaty faces of the newly high and the tight, nervous expressions of the sick men still tensely waiting their turn. An elderly crusader for Christ, Sister Salvation, follows Cowboy into the loft to preach the word of God, oblivious to why the men are there. She eventually gets the picture and leaves, and the other junkies slowly trickle out the door. The instruments are broken down, packed up, carried out. There's a strange camaraderie in the group misery and release of the waiting and the receiving, even when arguments break out and grudges are expressed, but as the high fades, the whole breaks down into scattered, individual parts. These are solitary, lonely people, going back out on the street to live desperate lives.

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