It’s a Cooler World: Shirley Clarke’s The Connection Back in Theaters


Shirley Clarke’s The Connection is a faux document of a day in the life of a group of heroin addicts holed up in a one-room New York City squat, biding time until Cowboy (Carl Lee) comes back with the day’s score of “shit.” All the while, a wannabe vérité director named Jim Dunn (William Redfield) is filming their every move. Black-and-white, shot on a single set, with its handheld camera whips giving the illusion that we’re watching a nonstop, real-time drama, Clarke’s footage is presented as a film directed and then abandoned by Dunn, a pasty super-square who coaches his subjects to “act natural.” “The minute I put a camera on you,” Dunn complains to the assembled gang of jazz musicians, junkies, and racially diverse burnouts, “you change!” When the drugs arrive, Dunn is coaxed into joining the natives; once high, he realizes the folly of his film.

Winner of the International Critics Prize at Cannes in 1961, where it was heralded by Variety as prime evidence that “America can make its own art films,” The Connection was barely seen in its time, the victim of a censorship battle that interrupted its original release. Beautifully restored from the original negative last year by UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Ross Lipman, Clarke’s film is now finally getting a proper theatrical release, opening at the IFC Center on Friday and wider in the coming months as the first step in Project Shirley, an effort between UCLA and repertory distributor Milestone Films to put high-quality prints of the pioneering dancer-turned-director’s films back in circulation.

Daughter of wealth going back two generations, Clarke’s friends and collaborators included John Cassavetes, Maya Deren, Allen Ginsberg, Agnès Varda, and Roger Corman. She co-founded the downtown cinema vérité collective Filmmakers, Inc. in 1958 with future documentary titans Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, and D.A. Pennebaker, but Clarke didn’t buy into the notion that vérité presented unvarnished reality. What about the choices made by the filmmaker, in terms of framing and editing? What about the ways in which the subject’s knowledge of the camera alters how they behave in front of it?

Jack Gelber’s play, mounted by the Living Theater in 1959 and titled The Connection, asked similar questions. Onstage among the junkies and jazzmen were two suits claiming to be a theater director and a playwright, there to coach the others through improvisations based on their real lives. At intermission, the junkies stepped off the stage to beg for change from the patrons. Rumors swirled that when Cowboy showed up in the second act with his bag of dope, it was really a bag of dope. The play brought the audience into the drama, obliterating the fourth wall, but in doing so, it turned its public on to the highly constructed nature of art claiming to be real. Clarke saw The Connection on the recommendation of her sister, the writer Elaine Dundy (who was married to one of its biggest fans, critic Kenneth Tynan), and left convinced it was perfect for her first feature.

In that rave filed from The Connection‘s triumphant Cannes premiere, Variety‘s Gene Moskowitz noted that the film “uses some off-color words, but they are part of the scene and never utilized for shock.” The trade critic, whose job was to foretell a movie’s future life or death in the marketplace, speculated that while “censor problems seem certain, it should have no trouble in some enlightened spots.”

New York, it turned out, was not so enlightened. The state Regents board, in charge of licensing commercially exhibited films, took issue with what one article termed the film’s use of “the Anglo-Saxon word for excrement” as a synonym for heroin. A shit storm ensued.

The Connection opened in New York on October 3, 1962, at the D.W. Griffith Theater without a license from the state board and with no ads in The New York Times, which refused to sell space to distributor Films Around the World. After two shows, a representative of the Regents bought a ticket at the box office, then had the projectionist arrested, and ordered all future screenings canceled.

The board declared the film obscene, suggesting the dirty word was intended purely to attract audiences with “prurient interests.” Ephraim London, the attorney acting on behalf of the film and its distributor, argued that said language was, on the contrary, indicative of “a naturalness and art, which created a strong sense of participation.”

The lawyer’s case that “shit” enhanced The Connection‘s realism ironically goes against Clarke’s intended takeaway, which is that it’s a mistake to read anything captured on a film frame as “real.” Clarke wasn’t trying to present junkie life as it was—she was trying to make the audience aware that art claiming to present life as it was is a sham.

That thesis didn’t come across to the daily New York critics, who watched the film during its matinees and then roundly panned it after the engagement was shut down. The Daily News gave The Connection zero stars. In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote that the film’s “main fault” was being “deadly monotonous, in addition to being sordid and disagreeable.” The negative reviews inspired the Voice‘s Jonas Mekas to pen an apoplectic “Open Letter to the New York Daily Movie Critics,” published in the October 11, 1962, paper. “You have completely misled the American audiences with your bloody columns,” he wrote. “You are deaf, blind, and dumb.”

A month later, the highest court in the state reversed the Regents’ decision, but the delay and the damage done by reviews ensured dismal returns. According to Milestone, The Connection still has not recouped its $167,000 budget.

During this time, Clarke co-founded the self-described “self-help organization” Film-Makers’ Cooperative with Mekas. Clarke was the only woman to sign the co-op’s September 1962 “Statement for a New American Cinema,” which planted a flag for film as a personal creative expression, argued for the “ethical and esthetic” necessity of low budgets, and railed against the tyranny of the established systems of financing, distribution, exhibition, censorship, and what they called the “Product Film.”

Clarke went on to win the Documentary Feature Oscar for Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel With the World in 1963, but she would remain a conflicted outsider to the industry, even after moving to Los Angeles in the mid ’70s. “People ask me why I haven’t made Hollywood films,” Clarke said during a seminar at the American Film Institute in 1975. “I reply: ‘If I were a man, I might have tried to be Orson Welles. But as a woman and an artist, it’s impossible. . . . They don’t take us seriously.”

She also might not have taken herself seriously enough. “I never felt that I was interesting,” Clarke said at the seminar. “So I used the ‘junkie’ or the ‘black man’ to express my feelings of alienation. Only now I can admit it. The women’s movement made me realize how brainwashed I had been; that because I was a ‘female’ filmmaker, my work was worthless, significant only to myself. But that has changed, and a female is the protagonist in my next film—a combination of Hitchcock and the Marx Brothers, which can be made for under $400,000.”

That incredible-sounding hybrid unfortunately didn’t come to pass. Between 1975 and her death in 1997, Clarke experimented with video, but she directed only one other film feature, the Ornette Coleman documentary Ornette: Made in America—which, also restored by Lipman, is the next target of Project Shirley.