For Reel

Salesman (1969)
December 29, 2016, 3:34 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , ,

Director(s): Albert and David Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin
5 Stars
salesmanAmerican documentary films in the late 1960s/early 1970s were often attracted to the rise of counterculture, most spectacularly laid out in the contrast between Michael Wadleigh’s fly-on-the-wall appreciation of Woodstock and the account of the hellish tragedy that unfolded the night that the Rolling Stones packed the Altamont speedway in Gimme Shelter. If Salesman doesn’t document this type of counterculture in such an explicit way, it is undoubtedly a crucial piece of the puzzle: this is exactly the America that certain young people were desperately trying to leave behind. The film argues that the commercialization of the country has dehumanized its citizens—in this case, salesmen like Paul Brennan grow frustrated with their predatory work, and customers are told that their only path to respectable class status and even religious salvation is to buy an expensive Bible. Brennan’s “Badger”, the most sorrowful of the salesman, is one of the great documentary subjects, both giving a hugely empathetic performance and yet still maintaining a certain unknowability—the filmmakers often linger on Brennan’s detached expressions as if searching desperately for the emotional meaning behind the facade. The most powerful aspect about Salesman as a work of political criticism is that it argues that there are few winners in this game of commerce, and that Brennan and his fellow salesmen themselves serve as both the predator and the prey.

Iris (2014)
August 28, 2015, 11:16 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Albert Maysles
3 StarsIris
Albert Maysles (along with brother David) released Grey Gardens in 1975, a film that explored the lives of two eccentric relatives of Jackie Kennedy Onassis who inhabit a decaying mansion. His second-to-last documentary similarly involves an offbeat woman with an indiscriminate fashion sense, although in this case it’s a woman who lives the high society lifestyle that Big and Little Edie Beale had abandoned. In the earlier film, Little Edie often addressed the filmmakers, even aggressively flirting with them as they were being filmed. Similarly, Albert Maysles becomes a character in Iris–one which, again, is often referred to as attractive by the subject. But Maysles doesn’t so much seem interested in comparing himself to Iris Apfel as yet another aging artist, but rather he humbles himself as her protégé. In fact, the film’s weakness is that it largely serves as a hagiography, expelling Iris’ many virtues without risking the desire probe too deeply. Stylistically, it has more in common with the recent run of documentaries following aging stars like Elaine Stritch, Joan Rivers, and Bill Cunningham than it does with Gimme Shelter. But there are some beautiful moments near the end of the picture in which Iris espouses that we are all simply renting everything we own in life as she deliberates which of her pieces to sell or donate. Iris directly refers to the memories inherent to these material objects, and her transference of them suggests that she’s whittling down her life to the essentials in her late years, her remaining objects becoming a museum that best reflects the image she wishes to be associated with.

Gimme Shelter (1970)
April 20, 2012, 1:10 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , ,

Director(s): Albert & David Maysles

Of all of the films to emerge from the New Hollywood movement – including Easy Rider, Head, and Bonnie and Clyde, among others – perhaps none better encapsulates the disillusionment facing youth culture in the late 1960s than Albert and David Maysles’ non-fiction telling of the fateful Altamont Free Concert, Gimme Shelter. The pictures begins, as one might expect a concert documentary to begin, with a lively performance of one of the Rolling Stones’ biggest hits, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. In the next scene, the Maysles’ bring the band into the editing room to watch elements of their production, which includes cryptic references to the deaths that occurred at the concert that the film addresses. After that, a performance from the same Madison Square Garden concert that began the picture is played – this time, however, it is muted by a sense of foreboding, its pleasure no longer so vivid. Anyone could have made a harrowing picture about a spectacle like Altamont, but it is the Maysles’ ability to structure the material that makes Gimme Shelter one of the great American documentaries. Although the filmmakers are often spoken of in terms of naturalism, they were, in fact, quite deliberate and manipulative in the editing room (in the very best of ways). After the horrors of Altamont have concluded and the crowds walk home through the fields, one reflects on the myth perpetrated by Woodstock – that music could bring people together. Altamont was the antithesis of such optimism. If Michael Wadleigh’s important documentary Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music was about people coming together, Gimme Shelter is about people being driven apart. It not only deconstructs the image of the Rolling Stones through its unwillingness to mythologize the band, but it tears apart and exposes the falsity of the 1960s as a “peaceful” era.