Connection, The (1961): Shirley Clarke’s Indie Film

Shirley Clarke applied cinema verité style to her first, independently produced feature, The Connection, shot in black and white on a miniscule budget.

Though it is now hailed as a trailblazer for alternative cinema, at the time, most mainstream critics didn’t get the film and thus deemed it crude and offensive.

Her first feature The Connection, from the play by Jack Gelber, concerns heroin-addicted jazz musicians, was part of the emergence of a New York independent feature film movement.

At the same time, John Cassavetes was beginning to make waves with his seminal indie films, Faces and then Shadows.

The film heralded a new style addressing relevant social issues in black-and-white low-budget films. Clarke intended the film to be used as a test case in an ongoing fight to abolish censorship rules. It was also meant as a chronicle of contemporary lifestyles, such as bohemia and gay, which have been labeled by the mainstream as “rebellious,” “anti-establishment,” and even “dangerous.”

The Connection generated controversy in New York City downtown arts community. Jack Gelber’s play had been condemned by mainstream critics during its performances off-Broadway, but it still drew audiences that included celeb artists, such as Leonard Bernstein, Salvador Dalí and Lillian Hellman.

Unfazed, Clarke was determined to film the play, and once completed, it received favorable reviews. It was screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Fest in 1961, where again it was well received. American Beat generation celebs who were in Europe at the time traveled to Cannes to show active support for Clarke’s film.

However, screenings of The Connection in the U.S. were subsequently banned due to complaints over “indecency,” based on one shot of a porn magazine and a word deemed obscene. Her film was permitted to be publicly screened if it had received license from the New York State’s board of censors. Another attempt to publicly screen the film a year later led to the police’s intervention. Following these incidents, reviews of The Connection became predominantly negative, which made it difficult for her to get funding and distribution for her projects.

While filming The Connection, she fell in love with actor Carl Lee. After her divorce from Bert Clarke, she began a relationship with Lee that lasted until his death in 1986 from AIDS (he had contracted the virus from using non-sanitized hypodermic needle).