Directors: David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin
(Maysles Films Inc., 1968; The Criterion Collection, 2001) Rated: unrated
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Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing
The practice of documenting the activities of average people engaged in their everyday lives has become routine, even something of a cliché, in recent years. We are currently deluged by the revelations of our fellow citizens on daily talk shows or series like MTV’s The Real World. The presence of cameras in people’s lives, recording everything from the drab to the dramatic, appears less an intrusion than an invitation to communicate our personalities, even our peccadilloes, as the popular HBO series, Taxicab Confessions, illustrates.
This being the case, it may be difficult to recall the 1960s, when the genre of “direct cinema,” or what some have called cinema verite, first took off in the work of such pioneers in the field as D. A. Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman, and the Maysles brothers. Their films—and their belief that some version of the “truth” might be perceived through the lens of the camera—could not have come about without the invention of some new-fangled cinematic aids. The introduction in 1960 of lightweight, professional-quality 16mm cameras, coupled with more sensitive sound recording equipment, allowed a team of observers to insinuate themselves virtually seamlessly into an environment. It became possible to compile an ethnographic record of any number of subjects, as well as to use film as a vehicle for addressing crucial questions about our culture and ourselves. This meant not simply filming people talking about their sex lives in the backseats of taxi cabs, but, instead, presenting subjects, like national politics, or institutions, like schools and the police, at the core of our lives. Making sense through cinema of cultural meaning and at the same time constructing compelling stories was the aim of “direct cinema.”
These ambitious goals are illustrated in the most well known work of the pioneers in “direct cinema.” The Maysles brothers in particular have tackled a variety of subjects, ranging from the Rolling Stones (Gimme Shelter ) to Christo (Running Fence ). As a team, the Maysles felt they could enter into any kind of situation and document it without materially affecting the action. Under the best of circumstances, the filmmakers believed a compelling sense of drama would emerge without their interference or voice-over narration that might take the place of the comments and actions of the subjects themselves. The Maysles have stated that they wanted their work to possess a deliberate moral dynamic. By showing life “as it is,” filming their subjects in their day-to-day lives, they might lead viewers to understand their own circumstances.
To that end, the brothers endeavored (before David’s death in 1987) to investigate activities or individuals that provide, in their words, the “stuff of which morality is made.” By watching the subtle compromises and complications that produce our everyday acts, the films of the Maysles brothers remind us that even the most innocuous actions—like deciding how to treat a door to door salesman or to care for the needs of an aging parent—are comprised of the most complex causes.
Salesman was the first full-length film the Maysles released, and it follows four Irish Catholic Bible salesmen from the Boston area as they peddle their wares to working class customers in New England and parts of Florida. The four men each have a nickname—the Rabbit, the Gipper, the Bull and the Badger—that serves as shorthand for their personality. Paul Brennan, the Badger, becomes the focus of the Maysles’ interest not only because of his lively manner but also because of the obstacles he encounters trying to meet his sales quota. As the narrative progresses, it becomes clear that Paul has, in effect, jinxed himself by dwelling upon his failures.
Paul’s descent becomes even more poignant as he reminisces about his childhood and the options he put aside in order to be an independent operator. In a self-conscious Irish brogue, Paul laments his loss of security, symbolized by a “regular” job and pension. The degree to which Paul is self-conscious about his job as well as his failure to succeed in it set him apart, even though his excessive dwelling upon the matter can at times appear maudlin. The other three characters, by contrast, refrain from any analysis except to count their sales and consider the prospects for the coming day.
The Maysles may sympathize with Paul’s dilemma, but that does not blind them to his willingness to bend the rules in order to succeed. This occurs most clearly when he visits a customer whom we know to be financially strapped and lies that her husband ordered a Bible. However, while the film engages in a clear critique of consumerism and/as religiosity, what intrigues one as much as anything is the nature of selling as a performance. Entering a person’s home and playing the part of a well-meaning representative of the “good book,” when the actual point is to take away someone’s hard-earned money requires a fair degree of graft and manipulation. The paradox is that Paul, the most capable performer, experiences the greatest difficulty on the job. By the end of Salesman, he allows his private anxieties to leak into the public sphere of the marketplace, where they can play no part.
Successful performers/salesmen, the film implies, must lose themselves so completely in their acts that questions of motivation or intention never arise. Paul’s turmoil provides the Maysles with a dramatic structure for their film, but it damages his ability to earn a living. As a result, the most telling ethical dilemma in the film turns out not to be the transformation of the gospel into a commodity, but the realization that success in the marketplace requires the obliteration of self-consciousness or self-criticism.
The Maysles’ fascination with the roles people play in their lives takes on a very different but equally compelling dimension in the 1976 feature, Grey Gardens. The film features a mother and daughter, Big and Little Edie Beale, cousins of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. While still possessed of all their well-bred pride and sense of privilege, the Beales live in elegant poverty and allow their East Hampton, New York mansion to crumble about them. The manner in which the walls dampen with decay or are eaten apart by errant raccoons brings to mind the ruined finery of Miss Haversham’s abode in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Like that character, the Beales appear oblivious to their circumstances. It was only when the town government forced them to repair their property that the two women did anything to prevent it from falling down around them.
In making Grey Gardens, the Maysles shot over 70 hours of film during the course of six weeks as summer turned into fall. In a sense, the change of seasons is the sole dramatic arc of the film, for one day is very much like the last in the lives of the Beales. Little Edie dresses in yet another idiosyncratic outfit, alternately argues with and amuses her mother and yearns to leave for a new life in Manhattan. Their conversations have the quality of a tape loop. Big Edie was left penniless when her husband ran off with another woman, leaving Little Edie to return home in her early thirties to care for her abandoned mother. Between them, a litany of deferred desires and unresolved ambitions circulate like the cats that occupy the house without restraint or supervision. They speak of infatuations with men who have been dead or absent for years or romances that never flowered into marriage. This constant retreat into retrospection gives one the sense that the Beales only barely live in the present moment.
As much as the bickering between mother and daughter remind one of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, there is little that is tragic or even melancholy about the lives of the Beales. Complain all they might, their dependence upon one another combines in equal measure symbiosis and parasitism. Big Edie’s infirmities require the aid of her daughter, while Little Edie luxuriates in the opportunity to dramatize her emotions for her mother. Her litanies of regret and recrimination for a life she was not allowed combine with a very palpable sense that she could exist no other way than this. Improvised and slapped together as their lives might seem, the Beales never come across as embarrassed or apologetic.
When we first meet Little Edie she is wearing one of her memorable outfits cobbled together from various, and often unmatched, items in her tattered wardrobe. Odd as the ensemble might seem, she tells the Maysles, “This is the best thing to wear for the day.” Their lives possess a similar appropriateness,” no matter how ramshackle the circumstances come across. Their home may be falling apart; food may be rotting on the tables; and the numerous cats might be using the floor as a litter box, but none of this appears eccentric, just the “normal” way mother and daughter have chosen to live.
Even as one is beguiled by the Beales, it is difficult not to reject Grey Gardens initially as a kind of upper crust freak show. The first time I watched the film, I found it hard to believe that the Maysles did anything other than take advantage of two aging and needy women, no matter how clearly they appear to revel in all the attention of their “gentleman callers.” However, after listening to the commentary track, and particularly the observations made by the trio of women who edited the film, a different side of the narrative emerged. The women call attention to the Beales’ indefatigable temperament, the fact that they both possess, in Little Edie’s words, “a staunch character.” Their comments underscore how much neither Big Edie nor Little Edie were manipulated by anyone. They chose to allow the Maysles into their life and never let them see anything they did not want revealed to the public. Big Edie died shortly after the film was released and Little Edie passed away earlier this year in Florida, but one imagines them still playfully badgering one another as the seasons pass behind the rotting walls of Gray Gardens.
Salesman and Grey Gardens each tell a different brand of “truth” by creating a narrative out of the seemingly random episodes in the daily lives of bible saleman and an eccentric set of women. What makes the Maysles’ work special lies in how they manage, by focusing so intently on their subjects, to elicit a body of information that the audience is compelled to examine for its possible meaning. The brothers always stressed that they came to the subjects with no specific agenda other than a fascination with the lives before them. What they, and we, find is that by paying very close attention, what at first seems to be a sequence of mundane business transactions or arguments between a mother and daughter convey information we would not otherwise be privy to about the nature of commerce and the many forms of love.
If certain present day filmmakers have transformed the techniques the Maysles helped pioneer into little more than salacious voyeurism, such as we find on MTV’s Real World or HBO’s Taxicab Confessions, the fault is not with “direct cinema,” but the ends to which it has been taken. The “real thing” lies all around us, waiting for others to take up cameras and seek it out.