Criterion Sunday 123: Grey Gardens (1975)

Clearly these two ageing women, scions of the Bouvier family (and hence related to Jackie O), make for great documentary subjects. They sit in their dilapidated Long Island home, bickering with one another in front of the camera. The mother Edith still seems like the sensible one and her daughter Edie flighty and irrepressible, prone to song and dance, improvising fashion including endless variations on headscarves to hide her greying hair, though wistful at the idea of living with so many cats and raccoons. Yet at the same time, it hovers on the edge of uncomfortable exploitation of what is clearly mental illness: Edie is very much aware of the camera and is equally clearly playing to it. She makes constant references to filmmakers David and Albert Maysles, flirting with them and at times opening up to them, and so their use of her at times feels like it could be stepping over a line. Of course, these two have wealth to continue being able to live like this, but there’s a basic dignity that’s not always evident and seems to me to push at the edge of documentary ethics.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer | Cinematographers Albert Maysles and David Maysles | Length 94 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 October 2016

Criterion Sunday 122: Salesman (1968)

The idea of going door-to-door selling Bibles is hardly one that you imagine can be particularly lucrative, and yet there are plenty of people we see doing just this in the seminal late-60s documentary Salesman (another film from the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin, predating by a couple of years their Gimme Shelter). But the film is not just about a bunch of guys in grey suits selling (or failing to sell) Bibles: it’s about a way of life under capitalism, and the toll it takes on those who follow it. Amongst the four or five salesmen we see (each of whom have animal nicknames), Paul “The Badger” Brennan is the one who stands out — hollow-eyed, with a punchy, almost angry, insistence on trying to win over people, which he is finding increasingly difficult (you can imagine him being played in a film by Bryan Cranston). He holds dear (whether for personal or business reasons) his Irish Catholic background and frequently lapses into an almost-mocking Irish accent when talking about his customers, but he also fails to see how poor so many of them are, how little need they have for a deluxe new $50 Bible for their home, and how stretched they’d be to afford it. Because that struggle to keep going — whether Paul in his selling, or the families he’s selling to — is another of the film’s themes. You get the sense that it will never work out, and the black-and-white photography and the men’s identical grey suits and salaryman demeanour make it seem (and must have surely seemed even on release) as a document out of time, bound never to fit in, like the product they’re hawking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin | Cinematographer Albert Maysles | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 October 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, early-2000s)

Criterion Sunday 99: Gimme Shelter (1970)

The first of several Maysles Brothers films in the Collection (and the brothers were always very good at crediting their, often female, collaborators in post-production as co-directors), this is a fascinating documentary, at once a band-on-tour film with some great concert footage, and also a dissection of a national psyche. It’s made in 1969 in a nation coming down from the post-Woodstock belief in love and peace, and that seems to be the spirit that suffuses its darker recesses. The film is framed by the Rolling Stones together in the studio watching footage of the negotiations that led to, and then the on-stage drama at, their chaotic 1969 Altamont free gig. The Maysles are deft at showing their faces, as we read on them the realisation of how completely everything got screwed up in the process. As such, this is somehow more than just a music documentary (though if you like the Stones, there’s plenty of that there), and more a ‘state of the nation’ type piece, and it certainly seems as if the 1970s being ushered in would be a darker place.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin | Cinematographers Albert Maysles and David Maysles | Starring The Rolling Stones | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home, London, Friday 27 May 2014 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 2002)