Shirley Clarke’s 1961 film The Connection was adapted from Jack Gelber’s play, which had been a hit for the Living Theatre in 1959, and Gelber collaborated with Clarke on the screenplay, which incorporated the presence of documentary filmmakers into the plot.
Shirley Clarke made a variety of experimental shorts before her first feature-length film in 1961, The Connection, adapted from Jack Gelber’s play, which had been a hit for the Living Theatre in 1959. Founded by Judith Malina and Julian Beck in 1947, the Living Theatre was at the forefront of the 1950s Off-Broadway and 1960s Off-Off-Broadway movements. “New York theater at the time was just glittery entertainment—very, very glamorous and all that,” recalled Village Voice theater critic Michael Smith. “So the Living Theatre was very much an alternative to that, completely going against the mainstream culture.” In 1959, Shirley Clarke asked her sister Elaine Dundy if she could recommend a short story or play to adapt as her first feature-length film. “I didn’t even have to think,” said Dundy. “Something that would suit her right down to the depths of her avant-garde soul was the Off-Broadway play The Connection.” After Shirley optioned the film rights, she and playwright Jack Gelber collaborated on the screenplay, which incorporated the presence of cinema verité documentary filmmakers into the plot. “Shirley was like a rushing river,” Gelber recalled. “Warm, quick, garrulous, laughing at the slightest provocation, she seemed ready to jump at any new experience out there.” Clarke’s dance career also shaped The Connection; it was shot in carefully choreographed long takes and deftly edited together by Shirley and film editor Patricia Jaffe recalled how Clarke came to the editing room smoking a cigar while dressed in pants and a jockey cap. “I was eight months pregnant at the time, and we had a cutting room at 1600 Broadway,” she said. “People used to open the door just to look at the two of us. We were such an unusual pair.”
From Chapter 2 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore