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The Connection

Unavailable in any form since the 1980s (other than a poor quality VHS), Shirley Clarke’s 1961 debut feature has developed an unwarranted reputation as an oddity of value only for its jazz performances by a quartet featuring Freddie Redd and Jackie McLean. If you see this newly restored version (by the invaluable Milestone Films) for that reason, you won’t be disappointed—I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the film’s availability was what prompted Hallwalls to book the series of jazz-themed films of which this is a part.

But it’s worth seeing for so much more than the music. It was based on a typically pugnacious Living Theater production set in a single room where a group of heroin addicts wait for their fix to show up. The audience was provoked to examine its attitudes about drug use and abuse with verbal attacks from the players in the lobby and from the stage. Clarke re-created this aspect by making the junkies the subject of a documentary film being shot by a milquetoast novice, who has paid for their drugs. This keeps us constantly aware of the presence of the camera and its effect on the participants, who variously put on a show for it or treat it with contempt. At the time it represented Clarke’s critique of “cinema verite,” whose bastard grandchild is reality TV.

The Connection isn’t well remembered outside cineaste circles despite its initially strong reception because it was banned after two screenings by the New York State censor board. So it’s gratifying to see that its reputation as a hastily crafted improvised exercise is also untrue. The dilapidated setting may be viscerally seedy, but that’s to the credit of production designer Richard Sylbert, who went on to such “A” features as Chinatown. The cast, mostly veterans of the stage version, features some familiar faces (you’ll remember William Redfield as the director from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Garry Goodrow as the spineless Ernie from Eating Raoul). And despite the static location, Clarke (who also edited the film) and cinematographer Arthur Ornitz keep it visually interesting without breaking the illusion of spontaneity: look at the intricate but seamless tracking during Goodrow’s long soliloquy halfway through the film.

The Connection will be screened at 7:30pm on May 16 at Hallwalls as part of its ongoing “Jazz Noir” series. It’s a singular opportunity to experience a singular film.

Watch the trailer for The Connection

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