May 4, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: The Connection (1962)

by Vadim Rizov

The Connection

[Presented by Milestone Films, The Connection opens today at NYC's IFC Center in a new 35mm restoration.]

Though credulous French viewers allegedly mistook it for vérité footage at Cannes, Shirley Clarke's 1962 drama The Connection is unmistakably a filmed play. A camera swoop through a ratty New York apartment halts for a sweaty, self-and-everyone-loathing monologue from waspy addict Leach (Warren Finnerty), fuming about his "so-called friends" and their junkie worthlessness. Far from naturalism, this is Eugene O'Neill territory, with a drug connection subbing for the long-awaited iceman in a purgatorial living room. Leach finds his place under a big sign posted above the bathroom for maximum dark comic value ("Heaven or hell...which will you choose?"), holding forth with barroom intensity and pointlessness about the speed of light and the body's transparency.

Clarke meticulously records Finnerty's theatrical version of verisimilitude. More of-the-time hamminess comes from Solly (Jerome Raphael), a middle-aged intellectual with a penchant for philosophizing at the slightest provocation. Leach's problem is his sexual incompatibility with every woman on the planet ("a queer without being a queer," one of the addicts sneers), while Solly's seen gazing at male nudes. Their sexual marginalization isn't necessarily related to their drug habit.

The Connection

The Connection can be profitably viewed as an even-handed dual record of contemporary off-Broadway theater and bop only incidentally interested in heroin use. Many of the musicians weren't actually users, but saxophonist Jackie McLean taught them how to credibly mimic nodding in and out. When the connection finally shows up, Freddie Redd's ensemble doesn't stop their song: each monologue-averse quartet member drops out to shoot up, taking just long enough for another player to solo. After all four have had their fix, they all play a full-band reprisal, having never once lost control over song structure.

The Living Theater's original production had actors insulting patrons in the lobby during intermission, and young Martin Sheen (in his first stage role) interrupted the second act from the audience. More playfully, the adaptation subs out the on-stage director and producer and offers up a sacrificial lamb in the form of blustering documentarian Jim Dunn (William Redfield). "I know something about Eisenstein and Flaherty" he says in a badly misguided attempt to lend authority to his desire to capture unvarnished reality (both filmmakers noted for high artifice and overt authorial flourishes). Mostly unseen, cameraman J.J. Burden (Roscoe Lee Browne) observes with grim amusement his boss' attempts to ingratiate himself by stuttering how much he digs these cats rather than taking the obvious option of just shutting up and watching.

The Connection

Dunn and Burden have two cameras, the film ostensibly cutting between their viewpoints. The cinematography is mostly omniscient, executed by offscreen hands when everyone but J.J. is clearly too incapacitated to shoot. Instead of trying to develop two separate visual viewpoints, Clarke goes for vigorous movement that never duplicates an earlier move. "What do you want to hear?" a junkie fumes in schematic, audience-indicting protest. "That we're a petty, self-annihilating microcosm?" The play's guilty as charged, miles away from the urban rot of 1971's twin heroin landmarks, Panic in Needle Park (Manhattan) and Dusty and Sweets McGee (Los Angeles), similar open-air juxtapositions of actors and the real-life destitute. Less interested than those films in capturing unquestionably authentic locations, The Connection's vigorous record of a thorny production seemingly urges audiences to actively criticize and nitpick at the onscreen drama's credibility.

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Posted by ahillis at May 4, 2012 9:31 AM