Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 18, 2015

The Connection; Jason and Shirley

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:59 pm

Last December I reported on the ongoing restoration project at Milestone to make the groundbreaking films of Shirley Clarke available again as DVDs. I mentioned that I saw one film of hers as a young man that made a big impression on me:

The first and last time I saw a Shirley Clarke film was in 1961. As the title implied, “The Connection” was about junkies. It also happens to be the first restored film in the Milestone project. It is a truly amazing film that I can remember scenes from to this day. It has an improvised feel as the cast sits around in a tenement apartment waiting anxiously and even desperately for the heroin pusher “Cowboy” to arrive. Clarke’s boyfriend Carl Lee played Cowboy. He was the son of Canada Lee, a veteran African-American film actor who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. “The Connection” had to battle the censors to be shown in NY. They objected to the frequent use of the word “shit”, even though it was only referring to the drug.

About six months ago Milestone sent me a review copy of “The Connection” that I cannot recommend highly enough for young people today trying to get a feel what it was like to be a cultural rebel 54 years ago. Since McCarthyism was still a powerful lingering presence in American society, rebellion tended to adopt cultural forms including for director Shirley Clarke who had basically filmed Jack Gelber’s off-Broadway play. Six years later both Clarke and I would be fully immersed in the Vietnam antiwar movement, a path followed by many people from our generation.

Having see this film once again, I am struck by how bold an undertaking it was. In addition to using the word “shit”, the film fearlessly depicted the sleaziness of junkie life. Leach, whose apartment serves as a drug den for the cast, has a boil on his neck that is lanced by his fellow junkies. As a cockroach crawls across the wall, Clarke’s camera trails each step. One junkie is showing puking in the toilet—a scene of course that became a cliché in the 1980s. You see Leach sticking a needle in his arm later in the film. When I saw it, I resolved to stick to marijuana. For me, it was traumatic enough to get a vaccination. Who needed to be stuck on a daily basis?

Notwithstanding the importance of Clarke’s contribution, it was Jack Gelber’s play that blazed the trail she followed. Although Gelber’s play was deemed avant-garde at the time, it was clear to me at the time and even more so now seeing it anew that it was deeply influenced by Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh”, a play set in a saloon rather than a junkie’s apartment. The two plays serve as a rotating platform as each actor gets up to tell his story about addiction. (It should be mentioned that O’Neill’s mother was a morphine addict, as reflected in the autobiographical “Long Day’s Journey into Night”.

Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theater staged “The Connection” in 1959. Like Clarke, they too would become Vietnam antiwar activists. Most of the cast would appear in Clarke’s film, including Carl Lee as Cowboy, the dealer that the characters await anxiously as the play begins. Lee would marry Shirley Clarke and appear off-screen in “Jason and Shirley” that I reviewed last December. Lee was a heroin addict himself and died of an overdose in 1986.

Among the junkies awaiting the arrival of Cowboy, who is their iceman in a very real sense, are jazz musicians who perform throughout the play. Jackie McLean, who plays alto sax in his very Bird-like fashion, was a junkie just like Lee so the play has a vérité that other films would not dare at the time. It would be like casting a junkie in “A Hatful of Rain” or “The Man with the Golden Arm”. Hollywood would certainly not permit that although they obviously had no problems with alcoholics like Errol Flynn. As one character says toward the end of the play in reply to another’s question about why heroin was made illegal: “They wanted to protect us from ourselves”.

Gelber died in 2003 at the age of 71. He never wrote a play that was nearly as successful as “The Connection” but I am tempted to track down his 1968 “The Cuban Thing” that was based on his journalism in Cuba during the 1950s. Wikipedia states:

Produced at Henry Miller’s Theatre, the play was controversial for what some believed was a favorable portrayal of the communist leader Fidel Castro, when the Cold War was going strong. This interpretation sparked large and sometimes violent protests by Cuban exiles and others against the production, and the play ended its run after only one night.

It also states that Gelber signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge in 1968, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. Starting to see a pattern here? Clarke, Proyect (a 16 year old beatnik in 1961), Beck/Malina, Gelber… Maybe the way things are going, you’ll see all those Brooklyn hipsters at the barricades in a few years. I hope I live long enough to see it.

“The Connection” is available as a DVD or streaming on Amazon.com.

Among the characters in Gelber’s play are a stage director and his assistants who serve to set the whole thing up as a play within a play. As a slight modification to suit her medium, Clarke turns the director into a film director with a cameraman who is unseen until the very end (a very young Roscoe Lee Brown.)

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 6.57.36 PM

A good part of the dramatic tension in the film lies in the characters’ resentment of the film crew who they see as voyeurs exploiting their misery for “art”. Ironically, that is exactly the premise of Stephen Winter’s “Jason and Shirley” that premieres at the MOMA tomorrow.

Winter is of mixed Jewish and African-American background and is also gay. So for him, the Shirley Clarke/Jason Holliday connection is of key importance. To reprise my December write-up:

Jason Holliday was a 43-year-old hustler who Clarke interviewed in her penthouse apartment at the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. The Chelsea is a landmark hotel that was home to legendary bohemian and leftist figures in its heyday, including actor and filmmaker Frank Cavestani who I interview below. Jason was a friend of Carl Lee and Clarke even though he had given plenty of reasons over the years to make them wonder why. The final 15 minutes or so of the film are a kind of psychodrama as Carl Lee asks Jason repeatedly why he betrayed him.

Made 4 years before the Stonewall Uprising, “Portrait of Jason” is—as far as I know—the first film to give an openly gay man an opportunity to talk about his life and his sexuality. For nearly his entire time on camera, Jason laughs hysterically as he alternately downs cocktails and smokes joints. His performance reminded me of the cover of the old Lester Young record: “Laughing to Keep from Crying”.

To put it bluntly, Winter’s goal was to redeem the reputation of Jason Holliday and to trash that of Shirley Clarke and Carl Lee who come across as bullies. Sarah Schulman, the lesbian novelist and long-time activist, co-wrote the film with Winter and Jack Waters who plays Jason. Clarke is depicted as a variation on the film director in “The Connection”, someone who sees her subject as a means to an end—her own success. There is wrangling over Jason getting paid and in the closing credits Winter states that he considered legal action against Clarke who supposedly stiffed him.

Lee (Orran Farmer) comes across as a sadist who derides Jason for being a loser, something that Clarke harps on in the beginning of the film. She rubs the fact in his nose that Lee is appearing in a Shakespeare play while he is off trying to land gigs doing a drag queen performance in Village clubs.

I can recommend this film even though I didn’t like it very much—in fact in some ways I hated it. The performances are excellent and the film has an electricity generated from the tension between the characters that existed in Clarke’s original film and even made more palpable. If you accept that it is using the characters as a platform for the director’s resentment over what took place in a 1967 film, there will be no problem. He says up-front that he is creating fiction. I couldn’t agree more.


  1. I read every one of O’Neill’s plays while in college and wrote a paper on The Iceman Cometh. I also read Gelber’s The Connection too. I’ll have to see the film now. Somehow I missed it.

    Comment by michael yates — October 19, 2015 @ 12:50 am

  2. Nice piece. Sadly it is true that my father never had a critical or commercial success after “The Connection,” though not through lack of trying. He was always a hard worker. I saw two revivals of “The Connection”, one in the early 1980s, and the 50th Anniversary production directed by none other than the original director, Judith Malina. I enjoyed both quite a lot. But it is Shirley Clarke’s movie (my dad wrote the screenplay) that will keep the memory of “The Connection” alive, as stage productions are quite rare.

    “The Cuban Thing” was a nail in the coffin of dad’s career, I have never read the play (believe it or not) but I know my dad was, along with many left-leaning intellectuals of the time, enamored of Castro. He didn’t talk about it much, later in his life. Near the end of his life I was astonished to learn that around the same time he had been hired to write the screenplay of “Midnight Cowboy”. (I guess they thought the grittiness of “The Connection” would work here.) In any event, when the time came for the usual script revisions, dad either could not or would not go along with what the producers wanted, and he was fired. We all know what happened next–Best Picture. What (if any) parts of his script were incorporated in the final movie is unknown to me. He never, ever talked about it and I only learned about it from surfing the internet not long before he passed away. By that time he didn’t have much to say about it, his standard line was usually “That’s show biz”. Anyway, that firing, plus “The Cuban Thing” being smoke-bombed on opening night, made him “unbankable”. He never produced anything that would turn that around, sadly. He still continued to write and direct plays (winning an Obie for best direction in 1972), and supported the family through teaching. I liked “Sleep”, “Rehearsal”, “Starters,” “Big Shot”, and “Dylan’s Line”, though they all sank without a trace.

    If interested, see “Memories of Underdevelopment”, a Cuban film where dad makes an appearance.

    Comment by Jed Gelber — December 5, 2015 @ 8:03 pm

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