The Connection, Shirley Clarke

still from The Connection, Shirley Clarke

still from The Connection, Shirley Clarke

I must admit I tend to get upset about the eulogizing representation of jazz as a defunct music frozen in a 60s time capsule. Sure, the 60s is probably the last preeminent era of jazz. But isn’t it the preeminent era of all things social, political, artistic in the 20th century? Last night I went to see what turns out to be an all-time classic about that defining period of jazz life. And didn’t rant.

The Connection is Clarke’s first feature. It was released in 1961 based on a play by Jack Gelber and previously adapted to the stage by Living Theater founders Judith Malina and Julian Beck.  With alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, pianist Freddie Redd, bassist Michael Mattos and drummer Larry Ritchie playing their own roles, I cannot believe I had been living without this.

Capturing the interweaving of drugs and music in a rundown New York loft apartment occupied by dope addicts – some of whom are the jazz musicians mentioned above – this fiction has all the makings of the run-of-the-mill documentary about inner city dereliction. Except it’s not. One of the strengths of the film is that the characters authenticity is revealed through their very theatricality. In fact, everything about the film evokes theater: the dialog, the one-set ambiance, the Beckettian wait for the drug connection named Cowboy. And most importantly, the basic premise of the film: a young, ambitious filmmaker named Jim Dunn who tries desperately to document the scene and get a film shot about junkie life. Only, this colorful cast of characters is a little bit on edge and reluctant to play along with the cinéma vérité script. Everyone is craving a fix, waiting for Cowboy to show up. Pretty soon, the characters’ theatrics feel more and more genuine, dispelling early impressions of bad acting. There’s Solly the erudite, Leach, a Steve Buscemi doppelganger who just can’t seem to get high no matter how strong the dope is, Sister Salvation, a benevolent old lady apparently on a charity field mission (hilarious!), Ernie who mischievously blows through a sax mouthpiece but not the actual instrument, and of course the musicians themselves who juggle acting duties with musical performance. Through it all, the intensely beautiful music composed by Redd and performed by him, McLean, Mattos and Ritchie flows in and out of the dialog, not so much providing commentary as playing its own unifying role. When Dunn asks the junkies to act natural, the very staginess of that request is compensated by the gritty reality of junk withdrawal and the raw musical statements that follow. In one striking scene, the junkies take turns for the bathroom to shoot up, followed by the musicians rotating to get their share after each solo. That scene is amazing. As I watched, I remembered vivid tales in pianist Hampton Hawes’ Raised up off me autobiography and multiple stories now part of jazz memorabilia. Clarke’s camera movements sparkle, echoing the spasmodic quality of the music in one seamless ballet. No wonder the filmmaker had a background in dance, as I just found out through a quick Google search.

Anyway, the question of representation and truth(s) in art is evidently the connective thread of the film and the multi-layered construction brings it into sharp focus: A film-within-a film based on a play, featuring real-life musicians not here to accompany but to play their own lives out. No voice-over, no romanticizing.  Another scene I really like is when Sam motions a confused Sister Salvation to a chair as he gradually stoops down with a cup a tea. The effect is both highly comedic and beautiful, and again very balletic.

Besides its cinematic qualities, the film is a rare and honest document of a certain milieu in the 60s, one where drugs weren’t so much hip as ubiquitous. Freddie Redd calls the tunes with a framed photograph of Charlie Parker hanging above him, Mattos nearly falls asleep on his bass, Ritchie looks in pain, and McLean’s searing tone cuts through the pervasive apathy. At the end of the day, music is the redeeming force. And Cowboy walks Sister Salvation to the door.

Unavailable for three decades, the film was recently restored, which allowed me to catch it on a cinema screen at a Shirley Clarke retrospective in Paris. Unless you can afford the outrageously prohibitive price of the DVD, you can settle for the soundtrack, a classic blue note under Freddie Redd’s name that belongs in every serious jazz fan’s lp-cd collection. How did i almost miss it?

“Cinema is between the frames”

Still from Walden, Jonas Mekas (1969)

Still from Walden, Jonas Mekas (1969)

One gloomy night in my hometown about 10 years ago, I was hanging out with a bunch of friends and watching a Jonas Mekas short that one film buff among us had brought. The film basically consisted of boats zipping in and out of a harbor in some kind of fast-forward motion. Maybe we had one drink too many back then but I remember feeling pretty bored (do you guys remember?) and wondering if I would ever connect with so-called experimental “underground” cinema, an art form I was largely ignorant about.

Last night I went to see Mekas’ film diary, Walden (Diaries, Notes and Sketches) projected on a cinema screen at the Centre Pompidou (excerpt here) And I was blown away. I guess you could call it one of those epiphanic moments when you first go “ok, how am I going to get through this 3-hour experimental downer WITHOUT grabbing my neighbor or tearing up my seat” and find yourself drawn into its magnetic beauty, surprised that it’s already finished three hours later.

In a fascinating echo to writer Henry D. Thoreau’s classic, Mekas’ Walden is a poetic celebration of detail, an impressionistic ode to the most commonplace and yet extraordinary manifestations of life. Admittedly, the Lithuaninan-born filmmaker documents an era and a place, mainly New York City in the 60s, whose aura has reached mythic proportions in our collective psyche. But somehow Mekas’ photographic eye captures a vibrant cultural environment that feels timeless and refreshingly alluring. The most striking thing about this film, I thought, was how naturally these fleeting impressions fit together despite Mekas characteristically jumpy editing. We just zap through snow-capped NY, sunrises that “you usually don’t see over New York”, leaves falling through Central Park, circus performers going about their acts in repeat mode, portraits of experimental filmmaker’s Stan Brakhage’s family in their countryside lodge, among myriad vignettes of indoor and outdoor scenes. The filmmaker’s voice steps in occasionally to briefly contextualize an event or relate funny anecdotes (for example, when he, Brakhage and other avant-garde filmmakers get talked into a trip to New Jersey for German TV and try to act “underground” by climbing trees and eating plain bagels!).

The film also documents the major art movements burgeoning in the 60s and one is stunned by how much Mekas witnessed and captured of this momentous era. It’s like a time capsule of the NY underground/pop art scene seen through the eyes of a Lithuanian exile who carves out his own path alongside living icons, including Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, The Velvet Underground, among others. Mekas juxtaposes this plethoric footage with deeply personal craftsmanship, creating kaleidoscopic vistas that are truly beguiling.

I’m no expert on the art of filmmaking but this is a compelling case for a no-frills attitude to creativity. What Mekas does with a 16mm Bolex camera proves that what is essentially a neatly assembled collection of home movies can make for lasting art. Whether he zooms in on Danish film director Carl Dreyer’s hands, anonymous kids roller-skating down the street, women handing out pamphlets for peace in freezing weather, flowers in bloom or dinner scenes of himself and relatives, the images take a life of their own. As Mekas comments at some point in the film, “cinema is light, movement…it is the sun…cinema is between the frames”.

I’m glad I got a chance to change my mind about Mekas’ luminous cinema.

And happy new year to all