Tuesday, 18 November 2014

‘Try a Little Tenderness’: Some Films by Albert & David Maysles

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2007)

I started watching Salesman late one evening, not expecting to see it through to the end. After all, a 1960s documentary about Bible salesmen couldn’t be that interesting could it? Was I ever wrong. Within a few minutes I was hooked, stayed right to the end and then watched it all over again the next day. I should have known better of course. After all, I had seen and adored the Maysles’ films about Christo and Jeanne-Claude, but those were about a subject I was predisposed to and about artists in whom I was interested. Curiously, this blinkered me to the inherent qualities of the filmmaking involved. It’s interesting that it took a film about a subject from which I am (at least) twice removed in interest (selling and religion), to make me aware of the Maysles’ craftsmanship.

About Salesman, their narration-free documentary portrait from 1969 of door-to-door salesmen from the Mid-American Bible Company, as they go about their business of selling lavish bibles to low and middle-income Catholic families, Norman Mailer said, ‘I can't think of many movies which have had as much to say about American life and have said it so well.’ The film follows four of the salesmen, The Badger, the Gipper, the Rabbit and the Bull – their names reflecting their selling styles – and travels with them from Boston to Florida as they deliver their pitch: ‘it'll be an inspiration in the home’, ‘it’s still the best-seller in the world’. Yet for all the talk of placing something of lasting worth with families, there's an air of unease that accompanies selling to those that can ill afford the $49.95 (and this is the 1969 price) for a bible (‘it comes in red or white’). At the end of the day – which is when we see them discussing their sales in cheap motel rooms – it’s all about selling bibles on commission for dollars and cents: cash, COD or Catholic Honor Plan.

One salesman isn’t delivering. ‘Any man that's not good at sellin’ should be good at makin’ excuses’ says their boss. And ‘the Badger’, Paul Brennan, has plenty of excuses. He ‘couldn't find the houses’, ‘couldn't get in the doors’, ‘couldn’t get no pitches’, ‘couldn't get the old Mickey stuff to work’. His colleagues, still pulling in the sales, laugh along for a while until embarrassment sets in and they start to fidget and avoid his eye. One says that he's putting people in a bad frame of mind. ‘You’re fightin’ em, the people can spot it a mile off.’ The Gipper takes him along on a call of his own to try and shake him out of his negative attitude. It’s all running along just fine until Paul makes a badly-pitched and somewhat desperate interjection and ruins an easy sale.

As observational documentary, or ‘direct cinema’, Salesman is peerless. Though the term ‘fly on the wall’ documentary is misleading in many cases, presupposing that the presence of a cameraman and sound recordist has no affect on the events and conversations depicted, in Salesman, it at least conveys a sense of the physical limitations of the rooms in which the salesmen were filmed. The Maysles had been door-to-door salesmen themselves and knew and understood the world. That they managed to be such a remarkably unobtrusive presence in the confined spaces of motel rooms and people’s houses comes from a crucial empathy with their subjects that allowed them to get so close. Very few people can make this kind of film as it comes from connections on a level outside of the camera. ‘I have a genuine fondness for people,’ says Albert. It shows. In combination with David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin’s highly-accomplished editing, it’s one of the reasons why apparently mundane scenes are so memorable, staying with you long after you have seen the film. 

Salesman is listed in the Library of Congress National Film Registry as one of America's most important films. With its portrait of a redundant occupation and its subject matter of the intersection of commerce and religion, this is not surprising. (Says the salesmen’s manager Ken at the sales conference: ‘Money is being made in the bible business…and all I can say to people who aren’t making the money – it’s their fault.’) However, despite all the pep talks in the film, what lingers from the film is a sense of melancholy borne of sham transactions. In this regard, one scene stands out. As the Bible salesmen at the sales conference in Chicago make their ever-increasing income pledges for the coming year, Paul Brennan, the Badger, is shown on his way to the conference, staring out of the train window. The speakers at the sales conference talk over his thoughts, while the sound of wheels on rails plays underneath the speakers at the conference, adding their own plangent undertone to proceedings, reminding us of the long hours, the travel, the hustling, the homesickness and the two-bit rooms reeking of stale cigarette smoke, which everyone in the sales meeting has forgotten, just for a little while.

This empathy, understanding, love, forbearance, tolerance, call it what you will, with their subjects that I have mentioned is crucial to the Maysles’ films. It’s there in Grey Gardens, their 1975 film about the Bouvier Beales – ‘Big Edie’ and ‘Little Edie’, eccentric aunt and first cousin respectively of Jackie Onassis, dropouts from high society living out their mother and daughter theatricals in their dilapidated, flea-ridden, garbage and cat-filled mansion from whence the film gets its name. Continually bickering, performing their private dramas, singing, entertaining, leafing through past photographs and telling their stories, feeding their cats and raccoons, they put on a show for the camera and the tape recorder. Material like this could so easily be exploitative, and many of the scenes are almost painfully intimate, but the almost certain knowledge that the Beales would have themselves presented no other way hauls you back from making rash judgements. The Maysles were making a film with the Beales, not just of them.

Talk of making films with rather than about leads us directly to a relationship that covered 5 films and over four decades of friendship, between Albert and David Maysles and the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Said Albert of their relationship: ‘The four of us were a twosome’.

Briefly, since the 1960s, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have undertaken large scale environmental art projects that temporarily transform landscapes or buildings, typically by the use of fabric of some kind, sometimes wrapping or surrounding landmarks or buildings, sometimes suspending fabric from man-made structures. Out of their many projects, probably their most well-known works involved wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin in 1995 (a project that took 24 years to come to fruition) and warpping the Pont-Neuf in Paris in 1985. One of their most recent projects was The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979-2005, in which 7,503 16ft high gates were positioned along the walkways of Central Park and hung with saffron coloured fabric panels for 16 days. In all of their projects, Christo and Jeanne-Claude accept no sponsorship or donations of any kind, and finance the project entirely through the sale of preparatory studies, drawings, collages and scale models of the project. The works are temporary, and at the end of each project, the sites are restored to their original condition or better, and most of the materials are recycled. In response to a question about how much the projects cost, Jeanne-Claude responds that ‘every project costs the same thing – everything we’ve got plus everything we can borrow’.

There are five films on the 5 films about Christo & Jeanne-Claude collection; Valley Curtain from 1974, about Christo’s draping of a quarter-mile wide orange curtain in a Colorado valley; Running Fence, from 1978, about the siting and erection of a 24½ mile long drape of white nylon fabric through Sonoma and Marin counties in California; Islands (1980-83) in which eleven islands in Biscayne Bay, between Miami City and Miami Beach, were surrounded in hot pink fabric; Christo in Paris (1990), which is a record of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s project to wrap the Pont Neuf in golden fabric but also a record of the couple’s love affair, and finally Umbrellas, from 1992, a project about ‘comparison’ in which thousands of large umbrellas were situated throughout two valleys, one in California and one in Japan.

There are no expert talking heads and not a critic in sight; they are all simply unnecessary to the remit of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art. Instead the films concentrate on the projects themselves and the characters involved in their creation. Take the first two projects they document – Valley Curtain and Running Fence. The first was a 381m wide by 111m high orange curtain suspended in a Colorado valley and looking like a huge happy orange grin when unfurled. Even though the Maysles were only around to film on the last two days of the project, it’s enough to see that the steel workers and engineers have made it a point of pride to get the thing up and fixed into place. They share the project entirely, share the nerves before the unfurling and the beauty and triumph when it is unfurled. 

Running Fence was a 24½ mile long, 18 ft high nylon drape running through two counties of California and on into the sea. It was up for 14 days. In the film we are taken through the planning meetings with sceptical councillors and landowners, the special hearings and get to gauge the balance of public opinion. Amazingly, down-home ranchers are soon adopting the scheme of this long-haired, heavily French-accented Bulgarian man as their own and become determined to see it through against opposition. This is all part of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art of course – a democratic, public consultation of which the final works are an ephemeral expression, art in which ownership is shared and enjoyed by a community.

Time and again we see people wanting to get close to the art, enchanted by the pull of a combination of ephemeral beauty, good design and practicality. In Running Fence, one of the ranchers on whose land the fence is sited, after appreciating how firmly the poles are fixed in the ground, says ‘I think I’m going to come and sleep up here tonight, it’s so nice, sleep right up next to the fence.’ A similar sentiment comes in Umbrellas, in which a group of Japanese children agree that they would like to eat lunch under an umbrella, following it up by saying thay they should sleep under them. We then see them crying for the sheer unexpected beauty of the blue umbrellas, an effect we also see later in California as a woman looks at the yellow umbrellas, blooming like bright desert flowers after the rain.

It’s easy to see why the Maysles and Christo and Jeanne-Claude were such a good fit; Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art is about nothing if it’s not about making connections between people. In fact, there’s an awful lot of congratulatory hugging in the films between people you wouldn’t expect. Sometimes the praise is highest when it is most understated. When, in Umbrellas, a grounded Californian landowner says the words ‘Yeah, I think the man is alright’, that really is praise indeed that bridges all sorts of divides and makes a connection on the level of the heart.

I have said little or nothing about the Maysles’ filmmaking style – which only goes to show just how thoroughly self-effacing it is. However, I would like to repeat a point that Jeanne-Claude makes in her commentary on Valley Curtain, where she draws attention to a lovely piece of editing. At one point Christo is talking to an engineer on the project, who is smoking a cigarette. As they finish their conversation, he takes a draw on his cigarette, the tip of which glows orange, before the screen is suddenly flooded with the orange of the fabric that Christo is cutting. The films are filled with tiny, beautiful details such as this.

It is Jeanne-Claude who provides one of the most telling lines of the documentaries and one that goes to the heart of their art. In Islands, she says to a sceptical councillor, ‘How many children wake up early on a Sunday morning begging to be taken to an art gallery to see if a picture is still there? That’s what they will do if we wrap these islands, they will beg their parents to take them.’ For those of us who weren’t there, these heartening, uplifting documentaries partake in that same magic.

On the 5 films about Christo & Jeanne-Claude collection, there is an interview from 2003 between Albert Maysles, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, in which they talk of their friendship and the flms thay have made together. It’s instructive in a couple of ways. Firstly it shows Albert Maysles sitting back listening, calmly and comfortably, not interjecting but waiting for the appropriate moment to tell a story. You can imagine his presence like that when he is behind the camera. Secondly, the conversation moves onto what is central to the films they made. As Albert says to Christo and Jean-Claude, ‘the central thing in any work of art is the love, the human affection … the love for the projects, the films and for you guys’. I want to finish though with what Jean-Claude says in response to this when they talk of the film Salesman. She says that in a discussion about the film, someone complained that in that film the characters were all so unsympathetic, to which Albert responded, ‘try a little tenderness’. Amen to that.

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