Salesman, the 1968 feature-length documentary by Albert and David Maysles, a landmark in American cinema, remains one of the finest documentaries ever made. It is a classic example of Direct Cinema, a style of filmmaking with no interviews, no narration and no manipulation of the truth; the film is found in the shooting. “Drop word logic and find a dramatic logic in which things really happened” was the way Robert Drew, an early proponent of the technique, put it.
Salesman is about four men who go door-to-door attempting to sell expensive Bibles to people without the money to buy them. Paul Brennan, the most gregarious and least successful of the quartet, moves from having little confidence to displaying plenty of despair. “This is ball-breakin’ territory,” he says at a particularly low point. He has pulled out all the tricks, even trying his various impersonations of being Irish, what he calls derisively, “all the old mickey stuff.” Brennan is a real-life Willy Loman, at once sympathetic and pathetic. He is the focus of Albert Maysles’s favourite scene, in which the young daughter of a woman, who is as committed to not buying a Bible as Paul is to selling her one, goes over to an upright piano and plays a bit of music that is a perfect sounding of Paul’s despair. “The kid knocks out a tune which Beethoven couldn’t have composed any more appropriately,” Maysles says in the following interview. His great instinct as a cinematographer is that he kept his camera rolling. It is an instinct he has acted upon for 57 years, from Psychiatry in Russia, his first film, shot in Soviet mental hospitals in 1955, to In Transit, a film composed of stories he discovers while travelling on the world’s long-distance trains.
The Maysles Brothers worked together from 1957 until David’s death in 1987, and for the last 25 years, Albert has continued to make remarkable documentaries. During their collaboration they shot and directed a string of indispensable films, including Gimme Shelter, 1970, Grey Gardens, 1976, Running Fence, 1978, and Muhammed and Larry, 1980. The subjects were various; the technique was singularly unchanging. Gimme Shelter started out as a concert film about The Rolling Stones Altamont concert and ended up as the forensic record of a killing. If Woodstock was the apogee of the ’60s; Altamont was the decade’s dark conclusion, and the Maysles and their camera were its unflinching witnesses.
In Grey Gardens they encountered an eccentric mother and daughter, Edith and Edie Beale, living in decaying circumstances in their once elegant and now dilapidated East Hampton mansion. An aunt and a first cousin to Jackie Kennedy, the two Edies are irresistible characters; you wouldn’t want to live with them, but you can’t take your eyes off them.
Running Fence is one of five films about the collaborative partnership of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, a pair of artists who realized massive projects in which the process was as important as the product. Before the fence runs its course across 24.5 miles of Sonoma and Marin counties in California, you see its many incarnations: at one moment a misty shroud, at another a billowing, bronze curtain, at yet another, a brilliant, white snake slipping into the Pacific ocean. “The eye of the camera is poetic,” Maysles says, and Running Fence is a dazzling example of that poetry in motion.
Maysles’s gift is for the intimate and the closely observed. His sense of detail is impeccable: the toes of Keith Richards’s snakeskin boots as he taps out the rhythm of Wild Horses in a recording studio; the radiant smile of a Cuban fisherman’s wife in her new government-supplied house; Jackie Kennedy’s hands held nervously behind her back as she faces a Polish community hall during the Wisconsin primary. The small gesture becomes emblematic, and then, revelatory.
Maysles is especially sensitive to the way the face registers complete involvement. His father loved music, and as a young boy he claims to have received a full musical education watching his father listen to classical music. It is this sense of attention that characterizes many of his most compelling sequences. (He also has a flawless sense of duration; he invariably knows how long to keep filming, which is itself a kind of visual music). His films are a trace of our looking at people who are absolutely absorbed in what they are doing: Marlon Brando, Seiji Ozawa, Truman Capote, Vladimir Horowitz, Charlie Watts. Maysles’s camera appears, almost impossibly, to be invisible. What he comes up with is both found and captured; it exists in reality and equally in the discriminating lens of his camera.
In Capturing Reality, 2008, an NFB film about the art of documentary, Werner Herzog says, “There is an ecstasy of truth that is way beyond facts,” an observation that searches the documentary form for the line between what is demonstrably true and what is poetically possible. Albert Maysles life-long commitment to truth-telling situates him and his films, uncategorically, in that ecstatic order.
Albert Maysles attended the “Gimme Some Truth” documentary forum held in Winnipeg from October 13th to 16th, 2011. He conducted a master class, and on consecutive evenings, introduced Grey Gardens and Salesman. He was interviewed by Robert Enright on October 14th. Border Crossings would like to thank the Winnipeg Film Group and DOC Winnipeg for their cooperation in facilitating the interview.
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