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'The Connection': '60s shocker returns, with emeritus status ✭✭✭

Michael Phillips

5:56 PM EDT, September 14, 2012

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Two time capsules in one, "The Connection" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1961 and received a scant, notorious U.S. release in 1962, its rough language (for the time) causing all sorts of censorship troubles.

Bring-down, man! Total bring-down.

But now it has returned in a crisp black-and-white print, recently restored and looking like it was made yesterday, for a run at the Siskel Film Center.

Born in Chicago, dramatist Jack Gelber began writing "The Connection" in 1957. He confined the play's action, or rather, nervous stasis, to a dingy Manhattan loft, full of heroin addicts waiting for the arrival of their pusher.

In 1959 the play received its notorious off-Broadway premiere, and it handed Julian Beck's and Judith Malina's Living Theatre its first bona fide success. A live bebop quartet, led by alto sax man Jackie McLean (who had years of troubles due to heroin himself), provided background and foreground music. The musicians became part of the action. This was immersive shock theater, with characters haranguing the audience ("Why are you here, stupid? You want to watch people suffer?") when they weren't turning their disappointments inward.

Into this gang of itchy, scratchy, strung-out denizens, Gelber introduced the characters of two bourgeois theater types who've come to the lower depths to observe the addicts' interactions for their art. The uptown critics blanched at "The Connection," its focus on grime, effrontery and meta-theatrical gaming.

"A farrago of dirt, small-time philosophy, empty talk and extended runs of 'cool' music," wrote a stringer for The New York Times. But Gelber's play traveled, and inspired others (Chicago's A Red Orchid Theatre opened its doors in 1993 with a "Connection" revival starring Michael Shannon and Guy Van Swearingen). Later, more artfully unruly works as Lanford Wilson's "Balm in Gilead" are unthinkable without Gelber's work.

The second time capsule: Experimental and documentary filmmaker Shirley Clarke undertook the filming of "The Connection" in 1961, retaining most of the original cast. Her movie trafficked in faux-documentary tropes decades before everything in U.S. film and TV became fake reality of one kind or another. Instead of theater people slumming with the lowlifes, we witness a low-budget film crew chronicling the activity in the loft belonging to Leach (Warren Finnerty, the proto-Steve Buscemi, with a nasty boil on his neck).

Like his "Iceman Cometh"-type cohorts, Leach heralds the arrival of Mr. Big, the connection, the smack dealer known as Cowboy. By the end of "The Connection," the director has dropped the pretense of objectivity and the name-dropping of "Eisenstein and Flaherty," and become one more customer.

Clarke keeps the action confined to the loft and has the actors address each other, and occasionally talk to the camera and then recede while someone else's dirtbag aria begins. The result is a peculiar mixture of theatrics and cinematics. Clarke went on to win an Academy Award for a documentary on Robert Frost.

"The Connection" was destined for no Oscars. But anyone interested in the history of American theater as well as early-'60s off-Hollywood filmmaking should see it.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'The Connection' -- 3 stars

No MPAA rating (some language and much drug use)

Running time: 1:50

Plays: Friday-Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday at Siskel Film Center