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Fifty years ago, a movie called "The Connection" opened in New York City, then closed after two screenings. Police shut down the theater and arrested the projectionist. The movie is about drug addicts and the language is sometimes frank - too frank for 1962. The director was an independent pioneer named Shirley Clarke, and now her groundbreaking film is back in theaters to stay. Pat Dowell reports.

PAT DOWELL, BYLINE: "The Connection" started out as an Obie-award-winning play, written by Jack Gelber and premiered in 1959 by The Living Theater. Like all of the groundbreaking troupe's work, it was provocative - an unapologetic look at a group of heroin addicts waiting together in a seedy apartment for their dealer to arrive with a fix. Often characters heckled the audience from the stage.

GARRY GOODROW: I was one of the guys in the play who shouted at the audience: You don't want to know me.

DOWELL: Garry Goodrow, like most of the play's cast, repeated his role in the film. And filmmaker Shirley Clarke kept the play's confrontational tone, with characters addressing the camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CONNECTION")

GOODROW: (as Ernie) Like, I only care to play - a little dope makes life enjoyable. Right? Well, I play the same anyway with or without it, that's the truth. And no jive mother's gonna change me either, man.

DOWELL: The movie also kept the notorious language of the play, recalls Garry Goodrow.

GOODROW: I don't know if I could use this word...

DOWELL: No, you still can't.

GOODROW: One of the critics, using his little counter I guess, counted 50-some times during the course of the film that the word (bleep) was used.

DOWELL: The number was 28, as reportedly counted by Variety, but that was quite enough for the film to be declared obscene by New York's Board of Regents, which refused to issue a license for "The Connection" to be shown. The film's producers won a court battle, but still the Board would not issue the license.

The producers opened the film as a civic protest and it was promptly shut down by police. It didn't help the film's fortunes that the New York Times critic panned it, even though it had already won a Critics' Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and had been shown at the White House. The Connection seemed doomed to an obscure corner of film history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOWELL: "The Connection's" musical score helped keep it alive. An album was released. Jazz fans collected it because the LP was all that was generally available of this mysterious movie about junkies that featured acclaimed saxophonist Jackie McLean.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOWELL: McLean was part of a quartet that pianist and composer Freddie Redd assembled for the stage production and carried into the film. The musicians were part of the cast. McLean himself struggled with drugs, but Redd remembers he was a cutup on stage.

There's a moment in the play when someone says the police are coming. In the script, they weren't supposed to show up. Redd says one night they did.

FREDDIE REDD: A knock came on the door, and when the gentleman who was the head actor in the play, Leach, he opened the door and there was a real uniformed policeman there. Jackie McLean had gotten the policeman on the beat to come up to the theater and stand there. So we all thought we were being busted.

DOWELL: Redd says filmmaker Shirley Clarke didn't let the actors get away with much.

REDD: She was hard but she was always fair. And she knew what she wanted. She always knew what she wanted. And she was always in motion. I never remember her just sitting still. She was always very thoughtful and into something. Something was on always on her mind; she had that kind of mind.

DOWELL: Clarke's career was always in motion too. A former dancer, she started with dance films, then experimental shorts and documentaries. Her 1963 film "Robert Frost: A Lover's Quarrel with the World," won an Oscar. She ventured into experimental hybrids, bringing the lives of Harlem teenagers to the screen and giving gay men a voice as well - always using her camera to put her audience in the same room with the subject.

In a 1970 French television documentary she described this desire to dissolve barriers.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)

SHIRLEY CLARKE: I think that I've gotten to the point that I believe so much that the filmmaker, the audience and the film must all be part of something together, and I don't want them separated behind the screen anymore. But I'm well aware of who my audience is. Most of the time it's the people who already agree with me, which is rather unfortunate. But you know and I would, I think, really like to broaden that.

DOWELL: Clarke was part of a tumultuous time in independent filmmaking in New York. John Cassavetes, considered now the dean of American indies, borrowed her equipment to shoot his first film. Clarke, in turn, was an early adopter of video, convincing her best friend, Viva, to switch to videotape in her own work. The novelist and star of Andy Warhol movies is pleased that Clarke's films are going to get their due, even though it comes more than a decade after Clarke's death in 1997.

VIVA: I'm just sorry that Shirley had to wait until she was dead for so many years - on top of being dead - before she got all this attention for her fabulous, genius work. I hope she's watching from heaven. I have to believe in heaven now so that Shirley can see that her work is being appreciated.

DOWELL: That appreciation is mostly the work of Dennis Doros, the film distributor and archivist who's releasing "The Connection" as part of what he calls Project Shirley. He'll release four of Clarke's features, newly restored, in theaters. And many of her short films will be included in an eventual DVD release. They will show, he says, the range and rebellious genius of Shirley Clarke.

DENNIS DOROS: She really wanted to break molds. She really wanted to break rules. And with "The Connection" she broke just about every rule you could in film. She played with the idea of what's reality, what's fiction, what you think of people.

One of the things that upset people of course is that these junkies were unrepentant, that there's no tragedy that happens to them. They're not people who have fallen on bad times and they regret their lives. There is no regret in these films.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CONNECTION")

JEROME RAPHAEL: (as Solly) What do want to hear? That we're a petty, miserable, self-annihilating microcosm? That's what you wanna hear. Dope fiends. Hurry, hurry, hurry, the circus is here. Suicide is not uncommon among us. The overdose of heroin is where that frail line of life and death swings in a silent breeze of ecstatic summer.

DOWELL: And the woman who made "The Connection" was unrepentant as well. As she told NPR in 1983, she would do anything to overcome obstacles mounted by censors, Hollywood, and men who thought women had no place in filmmaking, independent or otherwise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

CLARKE: I was really so determined to do it that I didn't care what anyone thought of me. If they thought I was crazy, it was OK by me. If they thought I was insane, that was fine. If they thought I had a lot of self-will, it was all right. And so as far as I was concerned, as long as I would get done what I wanted, I was willing to go to almost any lengths to do it.

DOWELL: For the first time in half a century, the general public will have a chance to decide what Shirley Clarke accomplished. For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

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