Monday, March 9, 2015

On the Passing of Albert Maysles

by Nomad

Filmmaker Albert Maysles died the other day at the age of 88. You may not have heard of him. I know I hadn't until- thanks to the Internet- I finally stumbled across one of his films.

Albert and his brother, David, became famous in the art house circles for making slightly unconventional (at that time) documentaries.

The jarring film, Gimme Shelter (1970) was one of their most famous films.The subject was the final leg of t The Rolling Stones' 1969 US tour and culminated in the disastrous Altamont Free Concert, in which a member of the audience was murdered. Although the film has been deemed "the greatest rock film ever made," some also have seen the film as an indictment of the hippie culture and the chaos of a world without rules or, as one reviewer said,  a snapshot of a "counterculture experience in its decline."

Tormented Ghosts of the Upper Crust
Additionally, the Maysles are probably best remembered for their low budget exploration of the lives of the Beales, two relatives of the Bouviers- Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' family.

That film, "The Ghosts of Grey Gardens," revolves around a emotionally complex mother-daughter relationship. What makes the film particularly interesting is how unflinchingly the brothers reveal all of the personal pretensions of wealth and glamour and artifice, the wacky comedy and the abject tragedy of the Beale ghosts.
There's also the nagging question whether both of them were just insane. Whatever the case, the project was rescued from the charge of exploitation by a gentle sense of compassion the brothers had for the subjects.  

In their career, the brothers shot over 30 films, all very cheaply produced and mostly in gritty black and white. This style of cinema vérité requires no fore-knowledge of a back story, no narration or commentary and leaves the audience on its own to judge.

The Art of the Salesman
Before Grey Gardens came the self-funded, self-distributed 1968 film, Salesman. While less famous, it is nevertheless considered one of the Maysles' other triumphs and has been called "a social document."

In its portrait of a team of Bible salesmen, the film observes how easily the principles of  capitalism can mesh with  commercialization of religion and its paraphernalia. It captures a shady element of con artistry as the men appear to target the low-income families, relying on religion for legitimacy.      
In action, the salesmen rely on trusty catch phrases: "Could you say if this would help the family? Could you see where this would be of value in the home? A gain to you?" Talking, pushing, cajoling, telling jokes and stories, throwing out compliments, the salesmen make their "pitches" to a wide range of customers -- lonely widows, married couples, Cuban immigrants, bored housewives -- from those who clearly cannot afford the $50 book to those who, in the end, are convinced by the salesman's somewhat too-cheerful patter.
Salesman could be called a cinematic time capsule but there is also a political side. If  capitalism and religion made a overpowering tool to squeeze the poor, just think what happens when you add the political dimension.

For (probably) a limited time, you can watch the documentary in its entirety, courtesy of YouTube.