The Connection | Movie review
A restored print of Shirley Clarke’s influential 1962 debut screens at the Siskel.
First produced in 1959 at the Living Theatre in New York, Jack Gelber’s play about hip drug addicts and the culture-vulture squares exploiting them in the name of “art” was notorious from the get-go: Junkies and four-letter words plus Brechtian distance was bound to attract controversy. Neither the subject nor the sensationalism surrounding the work scared pioneering independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke, however, who thought this Obie winner would make the perfect vehicle to interrogate her own medium; she’d been palling around with young vérité turks like D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers, whose direct-cinema approach to documentaries blurred the lines of objectivity. So with maverick producer Lewis Allen at her side, she adapted Gelber’s play for the screen, keeping the single setting—a dingy Greenwich Village flat—and transforming the play’s uptown interlopers from theater director and playwright to movie director and cameraman.
The resulting 1962 movie may now seem like a variation on the era’s social-issue TV plays that directors such as Sidney Lumet cut their teeth on, complete with conspicuous hepcat-lingo dialogue and copious dramatic shouting. (One character’s admonition that something can be said quietly as well as loudly is beyond ironic, given the amount of bellowing on hand.) But Clarke’s decision to both literally and figuratively turn the camera on the creative types behind it was key; in many ways, The Connection sets the template for modern form-hijacking meta-movie gestures, from David Holzman’s Diary to the self-conscious indies of the ’90s. One man’s squalor is another’s mise-en-scène, it tells us, and anyone who thinks you can be objective with a movie camera running and a mojo pin in your arm is dreaming.