Believe Me, We’re Not Here for the Money

Say you’re making a documentary. A documentary about heroin junkies in the inner city. You’ve got a handful of subjects lined up, but they’re a cagey, unreliable bunch. You’re not sure how “real” they’re going to behave once the cameras start rolling. And since you want to give the public the Truth, an authentic tour through the hip misery of this abject scene, you need a way to ensure your junkies stay good and fiending for the duration of the shoot. So what do you do?

Gather them into an apartment. Tell them a week’s worth of drugs is on the way. Film as they wait.

Such is the maniacal swerve, taken midway through Shirley Clarke’s iconic 1961 film-within-a-film, The Connection, that renders the feature so aesthetically and ethically bristly—to audiences both then and now. Clarke was a former avant-garde dancer who turned to making experimental short films in the 1950s. In a fizzy, post-war New York cross-pollinated by Beat poets, Abstract Expressionists, and jazz hepcats, she was something of an intellectual blender, whipping the era’s disparate bohemian flavors into single-serving medleys of cool.

The Connection, which tonight finishes a month-long run at the Trylon, was her first feature. Based on a play by Jack Gelber, the story unfolds in a dingy downtown flat, where a group of heroin addicts and jazz musicians slump around, waiting for their “connection”—a dealer named Cowboy—to arrive. At first the action seems like an improv jam; the junkies toss off beboppin’, Beat dialogue, occasionally pausing to noodle around on their instruments. The whole thing would have a Waiting for Godot feel—Becket’s play, which had debuted just a few years earlier, is a clear influence—except for Clarke’s clever shake-up about the documentary.

Turns out what we’re watching is fake found footage. A preppy, would-be documentarian, Jim Dunn, keeps wandering into the action, directing his “actors” to be more “natural,” and dialoguing with an unseen voice: his cameraman. As the film reveals itself as a film-within-a-film, a postmodern electricity juices the entire story. We get nods to Brecht’s epic theater, a swipe at the “truthiness” of so-called Cinema Verité, and, perhaps most enthralling to a modern audience, a scarily prescient insight into the unscrupulousness of “reality entertainment.”

Clarke’s place in the film canon seems to be surging: out of distribution since the early 1980s, The Connection, as well as a few other Clarke films, was just restored and rereleased by UCLA’s Film and Television archive. But this might be your best chance to see it on the big screen.

The Connection
Tuesday, November 20
7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m.
Trylon Microcinema, 3258 Minnehaha Ave., Mpls.