Still coming down from the intoxicating experience that was The TCM Classic Film Festival one week ago, I've been grasping at straws to re-live the experience. Whether I'm hitting on the girls I met there via Facebook, listening to Randy Newman lyrics as if they actually reflected my experience or seeking out other senior citizen cinema legends in my hometown, I have been chasing the unattainable dragon.
Tonight I had the chance to see one of our greatest living filmmakers, Albert Maysles, speak in an out-of-the-way auditorium in North Vancouver, nestled off a forested path full of signs warning us about the dangers of bears. The 83 year old documentarian is responsible for some of the most interesting capsules of American life ever made. His three most famous litanies Grey Gardens (1975), Gimme Shelter (1970) and Salesman (1968) tell us more about their subjects with a grainy close-up of their eyes than any well-researched biography could ever hope to. The night, moderated by an unnecessary low-level newspaper critic, featured an elderly Maysles recalling his experience with Jackie Onasis' insecurities, his nostalgia-inducing moments with Fidel Castro and his deep-seated hatred for Pauline Kael. The interviewer asked him at one point why he hadn't been labeled an enemy of the state. Maysles explained that he has filed a request to determine if there is any file on his work and/or opinions at the State Department. At this point, a year and a half later, he hasn't heard back. Perhaps they discovered there is no file but it's high time they started one.
For my money (library card), the black and white picture Salesman stands as Maysles finest document of American life. The brilliant and compelling story of three struggling bible salesman, fighting the inner-demons that surface when they must skirt their own morality, turning on the hard-sell to poor, religious people, in order to make a salesman's living, might be the greatest exploration of what it takes for a working class stiff to survive.
Maysles talked about the film's amusing protagonist, Paul Brennan - AKA The Badger, a bible salesman that by documentary's end is questioning his choice of career. Two years after the film had been completed, Brennan had abandoned door-to-door bible hawking in exchange for a life in the vinyl siding industry. On the phone with Maysles in 1971 Brennan explained, "I might not be selling bibles anymore - but I'm still selling something that contributes to the foundation of the home!" Brennan, a conservative, mild-mannered, all-American figure was more eccentric than he lead on, said Maysles. "A few years later he was offered an acting role [after a filmmaker saw the documentary] in a Spanish film. He turned it down, he told me, not because he didn't want to do it... but because the part wasn't big enough."
Several clips of Maysles' early work on television news documentaries were screened. He told stories of network executives butchering his images of Latin American peasant life when they hired a narrator to read right wing propaganda over the film. Moreover, he had many disparaging remarks for documentaries that insist on using narration to tell their stories instead of simply letting the pictures unfold. He had no comment on the Drew Barrymore film based on his famous documentary Grey Gardens, but the opinion of a feisty old bohemian, who had nothing but praise for Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, and nothing but contempt for the corporate executives that had both tampered and capitalized on his work in the past, can be assumed.