Heroine Chic

05.04.12

Shirley Clarke, The Connection, 1961, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 110 minutes.


There is no real difference between a traditional fiction film and a documentary. I’ve never made a documentary. There is no such trip.Shirley Clarke

SHIRLEY CLARKE (1919–1997) spent most of her life trying to figure out movies and how to make them her way. A daughter of Park Avenue privilege who abandoned posh comforts, Clarke started out as a modern dancer—an undistinguished career that led her to make short films about dance in the 1950s. After several more experimental shorts on various subjects, she grew restless, becoming increasingly frustrated by the limits of the form. Before branching out to directing longer works, Clarke and her peers, including Jonas Mekas, began advocating for radical changes in American film, forming a loose collective dubbed the New American Cinema, which issued a manifesto indicting Hollywood movies.

But in her first feature, The Connection (1961), Clarke also had another target in mind: those in the burgeoning American cinema verité movement, such as Richard Leacock and D. A. Pennebaker (former colleagues of Clarke’s), who believed that their style of “fly-on-the-wall” filmmaking was an objective attempt to record the natural world. Clarke found this idea of neutrality ludicrous, and wanted to emphasize just how subjective the whole process is.

Based on Jack Gelber’s Obie-winning play-within-a-play of the same name produced by the Living Theatre in 1959 (which Clarke’s sister, the writer Elaine Dundy, then married to the critic Kenneth Tynan, had encouraged her to see), The Connection is a film-within-a-film: A doofus documentarian named Jim Dunn (William Redfield) is chronicling a multiracial group of smack addicts living in a squalid Manhattan loft. The junkies play jazz, nod out, and taunt Dunn and one another as they await their “connection,” a package of heroin to be delivered by Cowboy, played by Carl Lee. (Carl, the son of trailblazing African-American actor Canada Lee, and Clarke fell in love on set; their tumultuous, off-and-on relationship lasted until his death—supposedly of a heroin overdose—in 1986).

The pretense of the virtuous documentarian “capturing” reality is constantly ridiculed in The Connection, underscored by Clarke’s use of multiple swish pans, which give the illusion of an actual vérité project. Early in the film, Jim Dunn loftily claims an understanding of the methods of Eisenstein and Robert Flaherty. He bleats, “I’m just trying to make an honest human document,” pleading with the junkies to “just act naturally.” He cajoles and provokes them: “I gave Cowboy enough money to keep you high for a week. I give you what you want, and you give me what I want.” The addicts—and Dunn’s hip assistant director, J.J. Burden (Roscoe Lee Brown, in his movie debut)—are constantly reminding this ofay how bankrupt his “exchange” is. Toward the end, Cowboy berates Dunn: “Expect to learn anything by flirting with people? Whaddya think this is—a freak show?”

Though it had been a huge hit in Cannes, where it screened out of competition in May 1961, The Connection wouldn’t open in New York until more than a year later: October 3, 1962—which was also the day it closed, shut down by censors who had objected to the film’s use of the word shit as slang for “heroin” and a fleetingly glimpsed nudie magazine. The maddening experience did not deter Clarke, who continued to take on provocative subjects and radically blur the lines between fact and fiction in two other features from the ’60s: The Cool World (1964), about street gangs in Harlem, and the documentary Portrait of Jason (1967), showcasing a drinking, drugging, jiving black gay hustler whom Clarke filmed in her Chelsea Hotel apartment—and a movie that says more about race, class, and sexuality than just about any movie before or since.

Melissa Anderson

A newly restored 35-mm print of The Connection, the first release of Milestone Films’ “Project Shirley,” opens May 4 at the IFC Center in New York.