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The (Almost) Trial of Shirley Clarke

By Mike Everleth ⋅ September 9, 2018

Shirley Clarke behind the camera directing The Connection

In 1961, Shirley Clarke finished directing her first feature film and debuted The Connection at the Cannes Film Festival to much acclaim.

Previously, Clarke had begun her creative career as a dancer before moving on to direct many well-respected short experimental films, such as 1958’s Bridges-Go-Round. Clarke had always aimed her sights high with her career and, despite the improbability of a woman directing an independent feature film in the early 1960s, she accomplished just that.

The Connection was originally a play written by Jack Gelber and performed by New York City’s Living Theatre in 1959. The plot revolves around a group of junkies waiting around one afternoon for their drug dealer to arrive.

Clarke had seen and loved the play, but it was her brother-in-law — theater critic Kenneth Tynan — who convinced her to make a film of it. Money was raised through Lewis Allen, a theater investor who wanted to move into producing films. Thus, it was the first film for all three principal players — Clarke, Allen and Gelber, who worked with Clarke on the script adaptation.

An early champion of the finished film was Variety movie critic and Paris-based correspondent Gene Moskowitz, who convinced the Cannes selection committee to screen it. Clarke went to Cannes with her film and brought with her several members of the Beat scene, such as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky.

The May 15, 1961 New York Times ran a short article with the headline “‘Connection’ Hailed at Cannes Festival”. The article noted that The Connection screened out of competition twice and that “Press reports have been enthusiastic, with many critics naming it the most interesting item shown.”

Since the film garnered such great press at Cannes, a theatrical release in the United States was hotly anticipated by its makers. However, the New York State Board of Education’s motion picture division banned the film from screening in the state. Without a NYC opening, there was little chance the film would screen elsewhere in the country. The head of the division, Lewis M. Pesce, said the film was refused a license due to the repeated use of a single profane word; and for a brief scene of a man looking at a photo of a nude woman. That profane word was “shit,” a term the characters in the film use to refer to heroin.

The Connection‘s distributor was a company called Films Around the World, which had previously distributed films such as Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. The distributor hired lawyer Ephraim London to fight the Board of Education. London had experience in such matters, having successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that the New York Board of Regents’ ban of a 1955 film adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was unconstitutional.

The only problem was that, this time, the New York State court system refused to hold a trial on The Connection‘s censorship ban for over a year.

Finally, in August 1962, London decided to try to force the issue by having Films Around the World find a theater in New York City to screen the film without a license. And they did. The D.W. Griffith Theater on 45th Street had not opened yet, but when it was granted an operating permit on September 27th, theater manager Henry Rosenberg set The Connection as the Griffith’s first film to be screened on October 3rd.

Shirley Clarke directs the cast of The Connection

The plan was to invite all of the NYC film press to attend the screening and watch as Clarke got arrested for showing an “obscene” film. The most notable critic who showed up was the New York Times‘s Bosley Crowther. Except…

Nobody got arrested. Not Clarke. Not Rosenberg. Not the projectionist.

Pesce did show up and personally seized the film, but didn’t have anybody arrested. A temporary injunction order prevented the film from being screened further, an order that was held up and made permanent by Justice Kenneth MacAffer, who sat on the state supreme court.

However, the theater stunt ultimately was successful. At the court of appeals, London argued that “shit” was not an obscene word since it did not refer to a sexual act. The court agreed and The Connection was deemed “not obscene.”

Unfortunately, in the New York Times, Crowther gave The Connection a scathing review, calling it “deadly monotonous” and “drab;” and writing that “there is little … to distinguish it as a significant piece of cinematic art.” The only positive thing Crowther wrote was to note Clarke’s “bold direction.”

Perhaps the only NYC critic to give The Connection a positive review was Jonas Mekas in the October 4, 1962 edition of his “Movie Journal” column in the Village Voice. Then, the following week in the October 11 Village Voice, Mekas penned an “Open Letter to the New York Daily Movie Critics” that chastised his fellow film writers for not appreciating what he considered the best movie of the year. Mekas called the critics “deaf, blind, and dumb.”

Clarke would go on to direct other feature films, such as The Cool World and Portrait of Jason, but her career would never really pick up full steam. She would eventually teach film production at UCLA and direct few films. She passed away in 1997.

Luckily, film distributor Milestone Films has undertaken a restoration of Clarke’s work. The Connection was preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and, after a brief theatrical re-release, the film is available for streaming on Amazon.

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