• Milestone Films
The Connection
(Shirley Clarke, US, 1961, 35mm, 110 mins.)

"Sordid and disagreeable."
—Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

The Connection is a jazz film, and it's also a film about junkies. Not all jazz films revolve around substance abuse, but many do: Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm, Bertrand Tavernier's Round Midnight, etc.

In her first feature, the fearless Shirley Clarke (Cool World, the Oscar-winning Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World) shuns the heretofore glamorous, Hollywood image of the drug addict. These guys, who frequent the same Manhattan tenement, are a motley-looking bunch, even though den father—and Steve Buscemi lookalike—Leach (Warren Finnerty) prides himself on his housekeeping skills.

Though Leach sports a stylish neckerchief, it's just his attempt to hide a boil. If he can't stop talking, his compatriots spend most of their time nodding off. Soon, fictional filmmaker Dunn (William Redfield) steps in front of the camera to get them to "act naturally," but they see no point unless he pays them more. Since he already gave them cash to shoot up, ethics don't seem too high on his agenda.

  • Milestone Films
  • Set design by the great Richard Sylbert (The Manchurian Candidate, Rosemary's Baby)

The film-within-a-film's cinematographer, J.J. Burden (Roscoe Lee Browne), however, comes from their world, but left it behind for greener climes. He serves as a mediator between the self-justifying junkies and the self-justifying director.

Clarke shoots the film, Jack Gelber's adaptation of his 1959 Living Theater play, like a documentary, and the characters address the viewer as they would have addressed a live audience. It's unavoidably stagy, but she has fun with the concept by keeping the camera moving, and when the gents jam on saxophone, piano, drums, and stand-up bass—that's Jackie McLean on sax—it's easy to see why jazz fans embraced the soundtrack, even as the New York State Censorship Board cancelled the Manhattan run after only two screenings for "obscenity."

Clearly, the Board didn't get it. Clarke, a dancer-turned-independent filmmaker, was no finger-wagging moralist. Her depiction of junkies may have been more realistic than most, but the entire film serves as a disincentive to try the stuff. This is spelled out by the tagline: "Men held captive by the power of drugs."

  • Milestone Films
  • Blue Note recording artist Jackie McLean (1931-2006) on alto sax

It's ironic that the musicians play with such dexterity, because they move in slow-motion the rest of the time. Some of them, like the dealer Cowboy (Carl Lee), whose neckerchief is purely decorative, even have a "jazzy" way of speaking (he tends to place the emphasis on unexpected words and syllables). Cowboy is "the connection" of the title, making him the real director of the scenario.

This is only the second Clarke film I've seen after 1967's Portrait of Jason, in which she takes an open-minded approach to her subject's homosexuality at a time when such things were either disguised or condemned. Similarly, when Leach's pals mention that he might be gay, they criticize his denial rather than his (possible) nature, though their views on women aren't quite so progressive.

I didn't know this going into it, but The Connection has more to do with junk than jazz, though it's worth noting that Clarke also directed 1985's Ornette: Made in America. In the way the men in her first film look, I can only assume that it made a big impression on—or at least predicted—John Lurie, Tom Waits, and Jim Jarmusch, who have all dressed, played music, or made movies that reflect the same low-rent, bebop-beatnik world of pork pie hats and stained overcoats.

The Connection plays the Northwest Film Forum through Oct 25 as part of the 2012 Earshot Jazz Festival, which runs from Oct 19-28. More information here.