The Connection Reviews
Of course, by its very nature, dialogue is an attempt to replicate human speech, and the great aspiration of all stage actors is to sound like they are saying these words for the first time ever, that it's just coming right off the top of their heads. That doesn't mean they ever really sound like that. If you can get a gifted playwright like David Mamet together with first-rate actors, they can breathe life into his stream of consciousness profanity. But no audience thinks the material is just being made up, and they wouldn't want to. Most comedy theaters charge nothing for their improv sets, with good reason; their output might suck, and often does. Any of the greatest improvisers you've ever heard of will tell you that most nights, the improv sets were terrible.
But occasionally you have a mock documentary that attempts to pretend that it's an actual documentary. The Connection is one of those movies, and it comes as close as I've ever seen to making this inherently difficult conceit work.
It's based on a play of the same name by Jack Gelber. In the play, a producer attempts to produce a play with actual junkies. All the junkies are waiting for their dealer to show up. I have never seen it staged, but I can't imagine it ever really looked real, no matter how grittily it was staged. You're still in a theater in a seat that you paid for, looking at a stage with people on it. No matter how skillfully casual the staging, you still had to be aware you were watching a carefully staged play.
The movie version had a much better chance of looking real because there is a real genre called documentary that has no equivalent in live theater. But still, it's very, very hard for a scripted film to look improvised. The Connection damn near pulls it off, and is a remarkable piece of cinema, if for no other reason.
And there are plenty of other reasons to admire it. The squalor is tangible in this movie. Half the cast are actors, the other half are musicians who play bop jazz (and quite well, too). The musicians are actually a significant key to the verisimilitude of the improv illusion, because they're looking to get fixed, too, and they play pre- and post-fix behavior quite subtly and plausibly, better than you'd expect musicians to act.
The script is also quite deft. There are extended monologues, but for the most part, they are disjointed and aimless, as one supposes junkie speeches will seem, without ever sounding tedious. The conceit of the film is that it is presented as half-edited raw footage, so the occasional interruptions by the director and cameraman seem generally plausible. Not always, but often.
The backstory for this movie is that, in exchange for paying for their next heroin fix and a small sum of money for each of them, a neophyte director has been given permission to film their next fix for his documentary. It's a highly unethical notion, and it gives the entire project (the conceit of the action of the movie, not the movie itself) a pallor of misconception. That is to say, you are watching a bad idea unfold. Of course, our rubbernecker curiosity gets the best of us, and we want to see how this messed-up idea plays out.
The Connection was the first feature-length film directed by Shirley Clarke, a long-overlooked, groundbreaking director. She walks this tightrope of documentary verisimilitude far better than most veteran directors would - quite remarkable for a first-time effort.
Three of the actors in the movie went on to greater fame. The "director" was played by William Redfield, who was most famous for playing the role of Harding in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, although he had been a professional actor for many years, since he was a child, long before The Connection. He was likely looking forward to a long career as a character actor after Cuckoo's Nest, but sadly, he died the next year of leukemia.
Roscoe Lee Browne, long a stalwart actor in movies and television, made his film debut in The Connection as the cameraman.
But to me, the outstanding performer in the movie was Garry Goodrow, who spent the rest of his life straddling the line between experimental and underground projects with occasional appearances in mainstream movies and television. He was a charter member of the San Francisco comedy troupe The Committee and was in the original cast of the legendary National Lampoon's Lemmings. He had small character roles in a number of movies and TV shows, but he never had another role as meaty as his role in The Connection, and he absolutely crushed it.
Actually, the movie's diverse cast is not the only thing that puts it ahead of its time. The story is framed as a documentary filmed by a two-man crew.(This is adapted from a stage play where I imagine the setup was quite different.) Jim Dunn(William Redfield), the director and possibly the squarest peg in squaresville, has only been allowed into Leach's(Warren Finnerty) apartment due to his cameraman J.J.(Roscoe Lee Browne) gaining an introduction through his pal Jackie(Jackie McLean). Jim's intent is for the addicts to tell their own stories which the cameras only make harder for them to do, fearing what the police could do with the footage.
Depending on who you talk to, Leach, who is being severely bothered by a boil on his neck, is gay. There are naked photos of both men and women scattered around the apartment. He promises to invite women to the party but the one that does show up is the last one you would ever expect. It's tempting to only view the apartment as a squat, dingy as it is, but considering how populated it is by musicians, it is definitely more like a musicians' union, with only Solly and Leach lacking any musical inclination.(Were there that many jazz musicians hooked on drugs or was that just a stereotype?) Ernie(Garry Goodrow) does not play but that's only because he pawned his instrument. All of which lends a jazzy flavor to the soundtrack. The only problem is the movie eventually loses its way but that's junkies for you.