Thursday, May 3, 2012

THE CONNECTION: Shirley Clarke's grubby classic returns to sport spiffy, silvery sheen

Milestone has done it again. The company that keeps turning out major restorations, with the help of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, of major (or minor, depending on how you view them) works of cinema -- from Araya to Rogosin, The Exiles to The Edge of the World -- has a new one opening tomorrow in New York City, fifty years from the time it first appeared, only to be shut down by the New York City Police Department. At the time of its debut in October of 1962, THE CONNECTION, directed by Shirley Clarke, from the stage play by Jack Gelber, was already a cause célèbre. Back in those days, the play itself was considered raw and real -- too raw and real for the more popular, affordable and accessible entertainment offered by the movies. (This was prior to the creation of our current and ever-ridiculous ratings board.)

At the time of the film's initial release TrustMovies was a very young man who had arrived in New York the month previous to begin drama school. He missed opening day and didn't see the film until it was once again allowed to be shown, at which point, that "raw and real" subject mater -- a group of junkies, including some fine jazz musicians, sitting around a dilapidated cold-water flat waiting for a fix from their connection who, unlike Godot, really does show up to service the guys -- did indeed seem shocking and much more frank than anything he had seen up until then. That's about all he remembers of the film -- except that the print did not seem particularly good. Certainly nothing like the gorgeous one we saw at the press screening of The Connection at the IFC Center, where the film opens this Friday, May 4th. (Is that even possible? That today's restoration might look better than the film projected at the time of the initial release?) The dismal apartment that is the set of the film still looks like shit, but the film itself -- all silvery sheen and so many lustrous shades of grey that you want to lick them off the screen -- is a jewel.

Are we now so carelessly used to watching DVDs at home and digital projection in theaters that we can be so easily shocked into renewed appreciation by something this beautiful? (This restoration is up there with the best of them -- like Rogosin's On The Bowery.) Past the film beauty on display, however, The Connection, as is true of a number of these restored films, has not been treated kindly by the passing of time. Gelber's play and Clarke's film of it is a kind of play-within-a-play/movie-within-a-movie that posits a filmmaker/journalist (William Redfield, above) and his crew making a documentary about these guys and their "habits."

What may have seemed like stark realism in the 1960s comes off now as not a little pompous and "arty." And Gelber's writing, which again, seemed so honest and pointed at the time can sound awfully "theatrical" now, with some of the more "dramatic" moments resounding as the least real. The apartment's owner, Leach (played by a terrific William Finnerty, above) is afflicted with a boil on his neck that pains him no end. It's a very theatrical boil, however, and the actor is often referencing it to huge dramatic effect. Just when we're thinking, "Will somebody please pop the damn thing so we and this poor actor can move on!", somebody does, and we do.

Fortunately, four of the junkies are musicians, so we get a nice dose of jazz (a form of music I appreciate much more now than when I first saw the film). Nearly half the cast is black, and though civil rights had barely begun to make its mark in our country by 1962, you can feel the shimmering beginnings in this film. Gelber, Clarke and the cast show us how things were, with just a hint of what's to come. The strongest character in the play/film is Cowboy (played by Carl Lee, below), the titular connection who provides a little bit of heaven -- drug-wise -- along with philosophy, strength and cynicism for his crew.

Clarke put together a grand crew of her own to man the film, with some movie greats doing great work. Arthur J. Ornitz (Serpico) was cinematographer, Albert Brenner (The Pawnbroker, The Hustler) did the art direction, and Richard Sylbert (with dozens of classic films to his credit) handled the production design. The still below gives you a sense of what was achieved by these three.

For her part Clarke has Ornitz's camera constantly prowling the apartment; she's seldom still, and her movement keeps us enrapt. At 103 minutes, the film still feels a tad too long for what it has to say. Yet, in its way, it is so visually stunning, I don't think you'll mind sitting, listening and looking. Then, too, there's all that jazz.

As I noted above, The Connection, from Milestone Films, opens Friday, May 4, at the IFC Center in New York City (and elsewhere, I hope?) -- with a promise of the institutional DVD and home DVD release available this coming winter, 2013.

No comments: