In 1960, drug use among jazz musicians was a topic of national debate -- so much so that Playboy magazine devoted much of its November issue to the subject. Was heroin consumption out of control in jazz? Did great jazz artists need drugs to play at a higher level? These were the questions that Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley and other prominent jazz musicians discussed in the pages of Playboy, but that year saw another important development in the debate: Shirley Clarke's completion of The Connection, a feature film starring actors and actual jazz musicians that dramatized the way heroin had taken root in a large segment of the American population. Based on an acclaimed play of the same name, The Connection has eight drug users hanging out in a large flat, waiting for the fix that will return them to the heights of ecstasy. While biding their time for the drug source to arrive, the addicts carry on conversations, yell at each other, occasionally perform songs, ruminate about their place in society, and address the camera itself since a film crew (portrayed by other actors) is capturing the whole scene.
It's all very meta -- one part Truffaut's Day for Night, one part Beckett's Waiting for Godot , and one part quasi-Ken Burns documentary. The Connection opens a one-week run at the Roxie Theater on Friday as part of a national re-release that is bringing new attention to Clarke's seminal work. The Connection was lauded by critics at its world premiere at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival, where Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and other Beat poets championed the movie's raw intensity. But when Clarke tried to screen the film at the D.W. Griffith Theatre in New York in 1962, the New York Board of Regents refused to license it, effectively banning the film. The regents' primary objection: The drama's then-explicit language, including the repeated use of the word "shit" to describe the heroin that the actors craved so much. Clarke screened her film anyway, on October 3, 1962, but a ruling by the New York Supreme Court shut down the theater, and authorities arrested the theater's projectionist. Only after Clarke's successful legal appeal was The Connection finally able to screen again. Important U.S. critics, though, had savaged Clarke's treatment, with the New York Times' Bosley Crowther opining that the film was "visual monotony," that it offered a "repulsive observation of a sleazy, snarling group of narcotic addicts," and was otherwise a "drab film."
To me, the intervening years demonstrate that The Connection was ahead of its time. It was an experimental film that, in the tradition of Beckett, stripped bare the distance between audience and subject. You can trace the history of reality TV and its in-your-face aesthetic right back to The Connection and other cinematic antecedents. If you want a film that spotlights a lower rung of society through characters (including one who's gay) that are desperate and wrestling with their predicaments, go to The Connection before you see 1969's Midnight Cowboy. With its discussions of race relations and class differences, the film can also be linked to 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. It's no surprise that Clarke latched onto subjects of race and class since she came from a family of immense wealth and partnered with the African-American actor Carl Lee, who portrays the drug connection in her film.
Where the movie is dated is its language. Characters used words like "jive," "cat" (referring to men), "chick" (referring to women), "junkie," and "pad" (referring to an apartment). But the truths in the screenplay, which was written by the work's original playwright Jack Gelber, about drug addicts navigating societal judgment and the addicts' own circumstances, still apply today. In the film's beginning, Leach, one of the main characters, offers this opinion: "I'm no junkie bum. Just look at my pad. It's clean, except for these creeps who come here and call me 'my friends.' They come here with a little money, see, and then they expect me to use my hard-earned connections to furnish them with heroin. But then when I take just a little for myself, they cry and they scream, the bastards. Come on, man."
By time the film comes to its end, we see the worst and the best sides of the eight main characters, including the saxophonist Jackie McLean, who had a serious drug issue in the years before his appearance in The Connection. McLean's musicianship in the film is masterful. In fact, the movies' songs by themselves are worthy of attention. Though the tunes go unnamed, they are reminiscent of the early 1960s works of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, two musicians who negotiated drug issues much of their lives. The Connection's re-release is part of a major project to bring renewed attention to Clarke's body of work by Milestone Film & Video, a U.S. company. After making The Connection, Clarke won an Oscar for her 1962 documentary Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World. Clarke passed away in 1997. On her death, the New York Times, the same paper that derided The Connection on its 1962 release, graciously referred to Clarke as "a champion of independent filmmaking." The times caught up to Shirley Clarke and her movie about drug addiction.
The Connection screens Friday, June 29 to Thursday, July 5 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit roxie.com.