The Connection

tn_connectionLong before Kathryn Bigelow swept the country into a state of frenzied Hurt Lockermania there were other women directors paving their own roads, carving out their own niches, laying their own tracks, mapping out their own nature trails, and other metaphors. One such director was Shirley Clarke.
(That’s not her to the left, that’s a goofy lady that’s in the movie.)

I first heard of Clarke when I saw ORNETTE: MADE IN AMERICA, a very strange experimental documentary about free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. It’s a mixture of interviews, re-enactments and performances in strange settings. Ornette talks about his life, his work, goes off on tangents about self-castration, geodesic domes, you know the drill. Or maybe not. I guess Clarke was not your everyday director. And not just compared to Penny Marshall or Nancy Meyers. Compared to everybody.

mp_connectionNow I’ve caught up with probly Clarke’s best known movie, THE CONNECTION. Based on a play, it takes place entirely in one apartment where a bunch of junkies are hanging out. So it’s very stagey, but it looks like they might’ve filmed in a real apartment. The grime and age looks much more real than a set for a play.

This might be one of the earliest fakumentaries. The junkies are supposedly opening their lives to this documentary director – not Clarke though. It’s a dude and we see him on camera, trying to act like one of the guys, using slang like calling everybody cats and what not. There’s also a cameraman who we see and hear sometimes. He has a very distinct voice and enunciation, because he’s Roscoe Lee Browne, the narrator from BABE.

It has some of the same formula that they use for horror fakumentaries now. For example there’s the part where someone claims the camera is turned off but actually it’s on, and the part where the person making the movie is criticized for wanting to make everything into a movie. This was maybe meant as a criticism of the cinema verite/direct cinema, pointing out that the presence of the camera changes things, and can be exploitative, or whatever. But I don’t know if that’s a good criticism because if they had really hung out with real jazz musician junkies and filmed them for real I bet it would be more interesting and more real than this fictional re-enactment, regardless of any documentary self consciousness or whatever.

This had to have been groundbreaking at the time. They mostly go into a bathroom to signal to the audience that they’re shooting up, but at the end there’s a graphic injection scene. Unfortunately by today’s standards the acting and dialogue are extremely mannered, not the kind of gritty realism the concept lends itself to. Most of the characters are pretty over-the-top in their philosophical monologues that they make, especially the director guy, who is gradually shamed into getting a first hand understanding of getting high, and then he instantly turns into a mess. So it’s pretty corny, but it does have some value as a movie that shows the piss-stained ugliness of addiction without demonizing the addicts.

These guys are losers, but it’s frustrating because you can see they’re smart guys who could do better. But they just won’t face it. In fact at the end one of them collapses of a possible O.D., and instead of dealing with it they all pretend not to notice and make excuses to leave. Cowboy (the connection of the title, I guess) politely bids them farewell and doesn’t acknowledge that he thinks they’re scumbags for abandoning this guy. They know it could’ve very well been them. Or could be next time.

Cowboy, although part of the drug scene, is a progressive black character for the time, being in control and intelligent like Ben in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Two black and white independent movies of the ’60s. Too bad Clarke never got to make DAWN OF THE CONNECTION.

The drug talk gets tedious, but there’s one aspect to this movie I haven’t mentioned yet that makes it pretty spectacular. A bunch of the characters are jazz musicians, played by real jazz musicians. So there are several impromptu numbers played live for the cameras. Sometimes a character is talking about something or the director is trying to set up a shot, and meanwhile these guys are playing away. And they’re really good.

The lineup is Freddie Redd on piano, Jackie McLean on alto sax, Michael Mattos on bass and Larry Ritchie on drums. I guess these guys were also in the original stage version, so even if the play itself was a little corny that must’ve been a great thing to see live. If I was a playwright I think I would rip off this idea, just get actors who can play instruments so in case it gets boring they can start playing. Or they could do a martial arts demonstration or juggling or whatever. You gotta get multi-talented actors is what I’m saying, as a backup.

For Clarke directing was a backup. She started out as a dancer but got into film by making some abstract dance related shorts. Soon she became a major player in the New York experimental film movement with Stan Brakhage and many other names that I have read before and let’s pretend like I know who they are. She was nominated for an Oscar in ’60 for a documentary short about the construction of a building. THE CONNECTION was supposedly pretty influential in its approach to what then was considered realism, and it was also a breakthrough in New York because it overturned some of their existing censorship laws.

In ’63 she actually won the Oscar for a documentary feature on Robert Frost. The year after that she did another feature, this one called THE COOL WORLD and about street gangs, but it’s never been on video. Alot of her other work was weird experimental shit, doing “video collages” in the ’70s and ’80s. She taught film for about ten years, made her last movie (the Ornette one) in ’85, died in ’97. So although you don’t hear about too many women filmatists they have always been there, and Clarke was one who accomplished alot.

Man, I’m gonna feel dumb if Shirley Clarke is actually a dude, like Carroll Ballard or Harmony Korine.

This entry was posted on Thursday, April 8th, 2010 at 2:32 pm and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

17 Responses to “The Connection”

  1. This sounds great, Vern. Doesn’t look like Netflix is gonna be able to get it to me any time soon, though.
    I’m surprised you haven’t reviewed ‘Bird’ yet. How about a jazz/junkie week some time?

  2. I don’t know if she’s my favorite female director but one who I’ve always liked is Katt Shea. I’ve always had a soft spot for late night viewings of Poison Ivy. It provided effective titillation when I was 12 and is delicious trash now. But not just delicious trash! Reasonably well-made, well-written delicious trash! No small feat there. And of course Stripped to Kill started the cop-undercover-as-stripper genre. How many directors can say they started a genre?

    Unfortunately her most interesting sounding film, Streets, is unavailable on DVD. Christina Applegate is an illiterate, roadkill-eating teenage prostitute being chased around LA by a psychotic cop. A job for Blue Underground perhaps?

  3. “The Cool World” is one of those films (like “Flaming Creatures”, “Wavelength”, “Scorpio Rising” anything by Harry Smith or Ken Jacobs, and “The Chelsea Girls”) that earlier generations of film geeks–like, critics and filmmakers in their 60s and 70s–rave about as having transformed cinema but are known almost wholly through second hand accounts because they’re so goddamn hard to SEE. “El Topo” and most Sam Fuller films were also like that for a long time, although those have now mostly reached DVD.

    Anyway, I’ve never seen it, but if you want to get a sense of what it’s like and how influential it is, check out the long version of Martin Scorsese’s music video for Micheal Jackson’s “Bad”. The whole black and white opening section is an extended homage to Cassavetes and “The Cool World”. Apparently, the scene at the beginning where the white passengers gradually all get off the subway and it fills up with black passengers, indicating the train’s route is taking it into Harlem, comes directly from THE COOL WORLD.

    The book that COOL WORLD is based on is also fairly easy to find, come to think of it–I’ve seen it at a number of libraries but never read it.

  4. I know Katt Shea as the lady who gets her dress ripped off and yells “bring my dress back here!….I’m naked!” in the movie My Tutor

  5. I think that Lexi Alexander is also quite talented, too bad PUNISHER WAR ZONE tanked harder than Iraqi domestic security.

  6. Well, if we’re gonna list ’em I gotta put in for Bronwen Hughes, director of STANDER.

  7. Mary Lambert, director of both underrated Pet Sematary movies.

    Okay, maybe one of them is slightly less underrated than the other.

  8. Jareth Cutestory

    April 9th, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Her politics are toxic, but Leni Riefenstahl knew a thing or two about pointing
    a camera. I feel dirty now.

    I liked Lynne Ramsay’s RATCATCHER a lot.

    Apparently both daughters of John Cassavetes direct films.

  9. Maya Deren, an experimental filmmaker from the 40’s and 50’s, made a number of awesome short films. Her work was fairly influential on David Lynch and other weird, surrealist types.

  10. I think that the multi-talented actors angle is a good idea . Today you look at action movies and more often that not they’re not muscle guys or martial artists turned actors like in the 80’s , but real actors trained to look badass. That’s obviously good for the acting part , but what if the project they’re in , movie or play , sucks ? You need a backup .Now imagine a Romeo and Juliet with Don Frye and Yoshihiro Takayama in the titular roles :


    If the thing really stinks , that’s the kind of backup I like !

  11. And since we’re talking about women directing movies , I will add Asia Argento . I’ve only seen Scarlet Diva , and it’s not very good , but I don’t remember it very well , and maybe it will grow on me in the future . The thing is , over here she’s often on TV in interviews , being one of the few international stars of the current generation that we have in Italy right now , and sometimes I strongly agree with her point of view on a number of issues , and sometimes I just want to punch her in the face.

  12. If I may cast a name into the ring, I’d have to say that I think Julie Taymor is one of the most savvy and fascinating directors out there right now. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE was kinda a shallow narrative mess, but I guess thats what happens when you edit out like a third of the film. Id love a director’s cut on that one, I feel like it may have been a real jewel at one point – at any rate, even as a failure its a truly unique and gorgeously crafted one. FRIDA is one of my favorite biopics ever, and TITUS is incredibly intense and absolutely brutal. She directs infrequently but I think she has potential to be one of the real masters of the craft. Sadly Vern’s fantasy collaboration between her and Michale Jackson wont happen now, but she might be the right one to helm an MJ biopic. A man can dream, right?

    Dan – good call on Maya Deren. I guess because her work didn’t necessarily obviously influence many mainstream filmmakers (other than Lynch) she kinda gets ignored by everyone but film students, which is a cryin’ shame. Ever seen her “DIVINE HORSEMEN: THE LIVING GODS OF HAITI” documentary? I always wanted to, but I’ve never been able to track down a copy. It sounds pretty wild.

  13. Female directors: Well, let’s start at the beginning, with Dorothy Arzner back in the silent days. Then there was one of the greatest, Ida Lupino; Stephanie Rothman, who made classic 70s grindhouse movies; and in Europe around the same time, Lina Wertmuller.

  14. Not on Netflix, but video on demand: shirley Clarke’s ornette. Made in America


  15. Mr. S: Good call on Titus. Hated it at first, then became fascinated with it.
    And I would like to mention Mary Harron(sp?), director of I Shot Andy Warhol and the classic American Psycho :)

  16. CC : Lina Wertmüller is still around , now directing even for TV . I love her “Swept Away” , a title that is absolutely nothing like the original Italian title : something like “Overwhelmed by an unusual destiny in the blue August sea” . Giancarlo Giannini is fucking amazing in that one .

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