Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

" It’s been 84 years and I can still smell the fresh paint "
— Gloria Stuart, Titanic

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Milestone Films is releasing another of their Project Shirley disks (DVD or Blu-ray; this one is called “disc one,” though it is the third Project Shirley title I’ve reviewed [see sidebar —Ed.]).

Cowboy and Bebop

Clarke's first feature waits for a Connection
Clarke’s first feature waits for a Connection

This time we have the 1962 film The Connection, director Shirley Clarke’s first feature-length film. It is the most traditional effort I’ve seen by her, but the subject matter is anything but traditional. The story is about a group of junkies who are waiting for their connection to show up, and, as Lou Reed told us in I’m Waiting for My Man, “... he’s never early, he’s always late. First thing you learn is you always gotta wait.”

It’s not the first heroin-themed film. The higher profile studio production The Man With The Golden Arm was made in 1955. But being the product of a studio, it is much more sanitized that Clarke’s independent film. The Man With The Golden Arm had a hard time with the censors, but The Connection ran twice before the projectionist was arrested. Language was the main excuse for The Connection to be suppressed (the word “shit” was used, in this case as slang for heroin), but throughout it is a much tougher film than the 1962 audience (or censor) was used to seeing. Today it may seem quaint and dated but it is still a rewarding view.

The Connection originated as a 1959 stage play of the same name and used the same cast. Most of the characters are real musicians who conveniently form a rounded-out jazz combo. Indeed bebop jazz could be considered as one of the main characters of the film, with the music composed especially for the play and used in the film by Freddie Redd (piano). Also appearing are Jackie McLean (alto sax), Michael Mattos (bass), and Larry Ritchie (drums). The musicians played and improvised nightly on stage and again while filming.

The action is divided between the wait and the score. Along the way there is a lot of pain from Ernie (Garry Goodrow) a musician left with only the reed to his sax, the horn having been hocked. And there is philosophizing by Solly (Jerome Raphel) who is the poster boy for the Beats. This guy has the total Beatnik costume down pat... ragged sweatshirt, chinos and huaraches... and it would be no surprise if he launched into a recitation of Howl. Indeed all of them speak Beat slang that would make Maynard G. Krebs proud. “Like cool it baby, it’s my pad and I’ll swing like I will.”...or words to that effect. Nothing as gauche as “daddy-o” or “square” (I mean, like how square would that be?).

All of them are junk-sick, even Leach (Warren Finnerty) who’s offered his “pad” as the meeting place. We soon discover the aptly named Leach’s price for arranging the meet is a taste of the heroin that Cowboy (Carl Lee) is bringing. Finnerty will make modern audiences take notice because of his remarkable resemblance to Steve Bucimi in both appearance and manner (though the 1961 audience might have seen him as a thin Richard Widmark).

Burden’s Camera

The thing that makes this meet special is that a filmmaker, Jim Dunn (William Redfield) and his cameraman JJ Burden (voiced by Roscoe Lee Brown) are going to document this tribal rite as an anthropological film. We see all the action through Dunn’s and Burden’s camera.

The setup is further sweetened by the hint that the non-heroin-using filmmaker has bankrolled the score. The junkies see Dunn as a straight outsider come to gawk at the dope freaks, and they have a point. Being junkies they do what they gotta do, knowing that there is no free (Naked) lunch. They are locked helplessly into their need for a fix, and they resent the voyeur Dunn for riding their pained coattails.

They goad Dunn into “turning on,” and, having crossed the Junk Rubicon — having been to the Heroin Rodeo — having seen the Smack Circus (insert any further drug metaphors here) — he says he’s done with the film and leaves it to the cameraman Burden to finish. Is this because Dunn is no longer the filmmaker but now one of the subjects of the film? Or does being a filmmaker pale before being Really High? We just don’t know because we the audience are (presumably) all squaresville civilians and can’t understand.

Up to now the junkies have discretely gone off to the apartment’s wretched bathroom to shoot up... no doubt sitting on the toilet in formal junkie style. But Leach still hasn’t gotten off and wants another hit. Cowboy relents and Leach eagerly sets-up and ties-off right in front of the camera. This is the drug-porn money shot and with the needle stuck in his arm, Leach promptly overdoses. The pace then accelerates as the band packs up and heads for the door. Cowboy coolly performs some kind of strange lifeguard CPR on Leach who eventually starts breathing on his own again. Problem solved, and a valuable customer saved.

What Is Hip?

At first you might think director Shirley Clarke’s film The Connection is only about junkies and heroin but I think it is really a film about being hip. I’m starting to think that being hip is what all of Clarke’s films are about.

And what is “hip”? It’s being a step up on the knowledge-tree from the ground-level civilians even (especially?) if that knowledge is forbidden. In 1961 if you yourself were on that first step, there’s going to be someone hipper than you on the next step and so on until at the apex of the Beat-hip pyramid there is the heroin junkie, the guy who’s gone All The Way, not just some wannabe looking out the window of conventionality at the ragged weirdos.

It is through that window that Shirley Clarke looks up at the jazz outsider Ornette Coleman in Ornette, Made In America or Jason Holiday the gay black hipster in Portrait of Jason. They are people who were not just out of the ordinary by being out of the mainstream normal, but people who were hip because they had the knowledge. They did their thing while Shirley Clarke traveled, camera in hand, like Lowell Thomas bringing back reports from exotic lands with equally exotic people and then presenting it in that exotic Shirley Clarke way.

Extra Features

  • The Connection Home Movies (B&W, 6:27.) (you actually get to see the inside of the bathroom!)
  • A Conversation with Albert Brenner. (4:35 minutes.)
  • Connecting with Freddie Redd (27 minutes.)
  • The Connection-Behind The Scenes. (5:50 minutes.)
  • The Connection trailer (1:36 minutes)
  • Carl and Max at the Chelsea (04:11 minutes.)
  • Two 45rpm songs: Who Killed Cock Robin (Bebop) and I’m in Love (Rock’n’roll)