Cleo From 5 To 7

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In the 1970s, film studies in Great Britain and the United States took an interesting turn. Scholars lessened their preoccupation with retrospective, hero-worship analyses of the oeuvres of individual directors (e.g. “John Ford is a genius and here is why”) and took up the mantle of other socio-political movements that were drastically altering the landscape of the Humanities and Social Sciences. Foremost among these was feminism and the study of gender representation, which opened up multidisciplinary areas of research previously ignored and, in turn, deeply invigorated film scholarship.

Well, everywhere except France. French film scholars remained a recalcitrant, old-boy network, with only a small cadre of researchers pushing against a canon that had become almost unquestionable it its position of cultural dominance. As one feminist scholar, Genevieve Sellier, points out in her study Masculine Singular, it is the “blind spot in French historiography of the New Wave.” Part of the problem is that, almost from its inception, the New Wave was a movement intensely reflexive and self-conscious, bordering on narcissistic. It cemented its ideology quickly via its own journal Cahiers du Cinema, essentially carving out an identity within its pages, with more “objective” critics falling in line without too much protest. For an “avant garde” movement on the cutting edge of modernity, it was suspiciously comprised solely of white men, and the exceptions to this can be counted on one hand. Last week’s film, Hiroshima Mon Amour, covered one of these, the writer Marguerite Duras, whose full command of the script placed her on par with director Alain Resnais. This week’s screening covers the second key figure, Agnes Varda, director of 1962’s Cléo from 5 to 7.

Varda started her career as a photojournalist before shifting into filmmaking in 1954, with the important work La Pointe courte–an odd hybrid of ascetic romance and fishing village documentary–which today many non-French scholars cite as the origins of the New Wave. Varda admits that she is often more concerned with the objectivist, documentary elements of her work and even went so far as to say that Cléo from 5 to 7 was a documentary on early-1960s Paris with a story about a sick girl overlain onto it. While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, Varda was clearly influenced by the nascent cinéma vérité movement then taking off in France, best exemplified in the works of anthropologists/filmmakers like Jean Rouch, with Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer) from 1960, and Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx’s Les raquetteurs from 1958. She was most closely affiliated with what came to be known as the Left Banke movement of filmmakers, whose tastes leaned towards leftist and literary; this group also included her husband Jacques Demy (Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour).

Cléo from 5 to 7 is unique in several aspects. At the most obvious level, it is the first New Wave narrative to be both directed by a woman and to have a woman as the lead protagonist. These two components together are key, as all New Wave representations of femininity on screen up to this point had been masculine stereotypes of women, e.g. the doomed, 19th-century-romantic man unable to find his true inner artistic self due to a relationship with a woman who will eventually destroy him. Conversely, Cléo from 5 to 7 has at its core two transformative hours (90 minutes technically) in the life of a woman who is sick and awaiting a diagnosis. We follow her from location to location, from cafes to rehearsal sessions, to meetings with strangers to mini-breakdowns. She wanders. She meets random people for conversations, listens to herself on a jukebox. In a brilliant twist, Varda cleverly paints her as a somewhat vain petit-bourgeoisie minor celebrity ye-ye singer, which prevents over-sentimentalizing her subject and thus avoids slipping into a maudlin vibe. It is a clever move which gives the viewer the perfect amount of distance from the subject, being able to sympathize with both her fear of mortality and the rolled eyes of friends that accuse her of being an insufferable drama queen.

Apart from Cléo and Hiroshima, the only comparable New Wave film to feature a strong female lead that avoids some level of patriarchal spin is Louis Malle’s 1960 adaptation of Zazie in the Metro, which contemporary scholars have refreshingly reanalyzed as a sort of anarchic, riot-grrrl manifesto against the suffocation of a sterile, postwar, male-dominated Paris. That many New Wave directors hated this film and others that failed to conform to their strict worldview does speak volumes about the accusations later leveled against them as “masculine-singular” sexists, as they replaced the cinema of their fathers with one just as ideologically suspect.

Hiroshima Mon Amour

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“You can describe Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour as Faulkner plus Stravinsky.” — Jean-Luc Godard, 1959

Given the rise of the documentary form in the second half of the 20th century, it seems somehow fitting that the film that would come to define modernism in narrative cinema began its life as one. It was to be called Picadon–“The Flash”–and was to be the first French/Japanese collaboration on Hiroshima’s devastation by the A-bomb. It was a risky proposition. Impossible to imagine today given its cultural ubiquity, but in 1959, the last thing anyone wanted to talk about was World War 2. Even the Holocaust itself was taboo and beyond the realm of popular discussion until a film by Alain Resnais called Night and Fog premiered in 1955, a stark, harrowing documentary that has lost none of its punch in the last sixty years. It was this work that caused the project’s producers to approach Resnais, convinced that he could give the same treatment to the catastrophic event that helped launch the Cold War. What they got, however, was something different and entirely unexpected. What they got was the first modernist narrative masterpiece of postwar cinema, Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Why Resnais decided to abandon a form, the documentary, in which he had just experienced such a resounding success is a bit of a mystery, especially since he had never directed a fictional feature film before. It is clear from his own reflections that he had grave doubts going into the project, right up to the flight to Japan with cast and crew, wondering if the entire undertaking would end up a colossal failure. Given the script with which he was working, and the fact that he was determined to alter very little of it to suit conventional narrative form, it is easy to understand his anxiety. After all, this was not a love story that embraced the viewer, quickly provided familiar stereotypes, and proceeded into a three-act, run-of-the mill plot of conflict with tidy resolution. No, this was something weird, something that made up its own rules, something that pushed the audience to places it had never been before. Hiroshima Mon Amour would be the first of his many collaborations with great writers, this time with Marguerite Duras. Having made an impression in French literary circles with her novel Moderato Cantabile, with its odd shifts of time and space, Resnais contacted Duras and asked if she would be interested in writing a script. Following a few brief conversations, Resnais gave Duras complete authorial control over the finished screenplay, even in light of the fact that she had never written for film before. They decided the film would be about the bombing, yes, but more importantly, about a 36-hour love affair between a French woman and a Japanese man, about the conflicts between memory and present, about the trauma of the past and its ongoing influence over one’s life. Duras herself, as it would come to be known in her later works, such as 1984’s The Lover, had been deeply affected by a teenage affair with a 30-year-old Chinese man in French-Indochina, and it is almost impossible not to spot the emotional debris of that experience in the female lead, played by Emmanuelle Riva. Although one of many films derived from the works of Duras in the 1950s-60s, it is the only one imprinted deeply with her sense of self, where her ideas are embedded and crafted carefully within the script and not a watered-down attempt at transferring her complex literary rhythms into a conventional and linear film narrative. Later, when she would try her own hand at directing, her scripts suffered from a slowness and lack of action that is absent in Hiroshima Mon Amour, which speaks to the pair’s respective strengths as artists: Duras handling the big philosophical ideas; Resnais and his editor skillfully tying the disconnected bits together.

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M. Duras

The narrative itself is broken down into five distinct sections. The first, running 15 minutes into the film, is the most abstract and disorienting, a brilliant montage of image and sound: intimate shots of hands caressing skin; historical images of bomb-burned flesh; a series of tracking shots through a Hiroshima memorial museum; a B-grade Japanese re-enactment film from the late 1940s; all overlain with two voices, whose identities are withheld for the entirety of the sequence. It is a testament to his faith in Duras’s craft that Resnais did not attempt to move this section elsewhere within the story. Few films in the history of cinema had ever demanded so much of an audience, denying them framework or foundations for a quarter of an hour, without any anchor apart from the fragmented sentences and how these comments relate to the action shown on screen. As this section ends, a more linear narrative begins, but one which is constantly shifting between past (the woman’s traumatic remembrances of occupied France and her German lover in Nevers) and present (the 36-hour affair with a stranger in Hiroshima, played by Eiji Okada.) One of Duras’s greatest gifts as a novelist is that of dialogue, and Resnais wisely allows her the freedom to toy with language and meaning in much the same way as she does in her fiction. Contemporary filmmakers, such as Wong Kar-Wai with In The Mood For Love, borrow heavily from the look and feel of Hiroshima, particularly the tendency for private moments to reveal themselves in public spaces, albeit public spaces that are vast, isolated, and devoid of a public. A peculiar and elusive sense of dread permeates the film, perhaps reflecting the fact that, at any given second throughout the late 1950s, hundreds of bombers were circling the globe 24-7, all filled with nuclear payloads that could be dropped on a moment’s notice. Today, this fact would strike many as nostalgic and darkly comical, but given the Strangelove-esque revelations of close-calls and technical snafus that have come to light in recent years in both American and Russian archives–from bombers breaking apart in midair over the Carolinas, to malfunctioning Soviet first-alert systems in Eastern Europe–this dread was more than justified.

Interestingly, although it makes no bold political statement, Hiroshima Mon Amour was kept from the main competition at Cannes in 1959 due to its content. Those running the festival were concerned about upsetting the United States and gave the film a separate slot, where it garnered accolades and eventually earned the International Critics’ Prize. It ended up being the runaway hit of the festival, along with Truffaut’s first film, 400 Blows. Resnais was older and not part of the French New Wave clique, and yet, Truffaut, Godard, Roehmer, and other directors hailed Hiroshima as a masterpiece of modernism, proclaiming it the most important film yet of the postwar period. They predicted that it would still be watched and discussed in thirty or forty years time, a conservative prediction that has fallen short now by several decades.

 

400 Blows

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“In 1959, we were living a dream.  Everything was happening in ways that would have been inconceivable two years earlier.” — Francois Truffaut

Today it would be difficult to imagine anyone arguing that film is not art, that directors like Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford are not artists on par with an Ibsen or a Chekhov, but these are relatively recent concepts in cultural studies. In terms of cultural cache, film had always been the red-headed stepchild of the stage, a prejudice held over from the silent film era. Films considered grand critical successes were often based on dramas or novels. After all, what was a movie besides a filmed stage performance? What was the camera besides an obstacle to be overcome between actors and audience? And what was a director besides a hired technician whose job it was to massage another’s work into something commercially viable?

Film had been analyzed before. Throughout the 1930s, German intellectuals of what came to be known as the Frankfurt School (mainly Sigfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno) had written about the “distraction industries” from a sociological perspective in the newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung. But there were no critical journals dedicated to film studies, just industry magazines like Variety that concentrated on movie reviews, gross earnings, who was wearing what, etc. That’s why Cahiers Du Cinema was a game changer. The journal, founded in 1951 by a small clique of fanatical French film enthusiasts, would go down as one of the most important developments in the history of film, not only modernizing the form, but also altering the very foundation of how we talked about it. In fact, so deeply embedded are the French New Wave’s core tenets to contemporary film discourse–the auteur theory, shot-for-shot mise-en-scene, the concept of caméra-stylo, or “camera-as-pen”–they are simply givens of our critical nomenclature.

Truffaut’s 400 Blows was the breakout New Wave film at Cannes in 1959, along with Resnais’s and Duras’s Hiroshima Mon Amour. But while the latter belied Resnais’s slick professionalism and Duras’s gifts at complex narrative, 400 Blows was a different type of New Wave experience. Truffaut’s childhood parallels that of his child lead, and it was one of the first times in the history of cinema where a director drew upon the mundane and painful aspects of youth, not in an empathetic, reformatory manner, but simply to show childhood as it really is through the eyes of someone living it: a panache of escapism, confusion, complacency, boredom, occasionally run-ins with the authorities. Like his protagonist, Truffaut was a lower-class kid, bouncing within a system of reformists, with a father he never knew and a mother who was indifferent at best. He found refuge and escape in the cinema, thus beginning a lifelong obsession with American film that he shared with his peers at Cahiers Du Cinema, many of whom would be at the cutting-edge of European filmmaking before the decade was out. But it was Truffaut who first kicked that door open, allowing him the financial means to fund other projects, which he generously did, such as Godard’s Breathless the following year. Somewhat gun-shy politically, he was never the militant activist that Godard later became, a split which eventually led to their falling out with one another and never reconciling before Truffaut’s untimely death from cancer in 1984.

In many ways, the naturalism of 400 Blows is now the norm. But in 1959, it was unheard of for most directors to improvise in the ways that Truffaut did, to give any actor, much less a child, the ability to go off script and just be themselves. The interrogation session where Atonie is being questioned, with Jean-Pierre Léaud running with lines of dialogue that seemed fitting to him, is one of the most melancholic and impressive scenes in all of the New Wave. Indeed, Truffaut seemed psychologically intertwined with his Antoine Doinel doppelgänger, as Jean-Pierre Léaud would return three times to play the same character again over the next twenty years: Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970) and Love on the Run (1979).

Elevator to the Gallows

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“I showed a Paris not of the future but at least a modern city, a world already dehumanized.” — Louis Malle

The question of where to start a retrospective of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) is problematic. All would agree that 1959 was the explosive year, the year that Truffaut’s 400 Blows and Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour galvanized the movement and brought French filmmakers into the vanguard of European cinema. But like all cultural movements, stirrings were happening earlier, the best example of which is the film that I’ve selected to kick off the fall lineup: Louis Malle’s  Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud), from 1958.

Stylistically, Louis Malle is a notoriously difficult director to pin down. His career from the very beginning–which starts here incidentally, in 1958, at 25–has been filled with idiosyncrasies and an aversion to easy pigeonholing. It would have been simple to stick with a formula that worked and keep producing slight variations on a theme; after all, more complacent directors have spent entire financially-lucrative careers doing just that. But remarkably Elevator to the Gallows is Malle’s only thriller in a career that lasted 30 years. Soon he would be on to projects as diverse as The Fire Within, the story of a man’s last day before suicide, and Zazie in the Metro, his outlandishly anarchistic adaptation of the modernist French novel by Raymond Queneau. Malle was not a member of the clique of critics-turned-directors whose names are now synonymous with French New Wave: Truffaut, Charbol, Rohmer, and Godard. Malle came from a prosperous family of French industrialists and grew up in a world quite unlike that of Truffaut and his boy alter-ego, Antoine Doniel, in 400 Blows. But like Malle, they all shared an obsession for the grittier elements of classical Hollywood cinema: the film noirs of Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder; the dark domestic weirdness of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray; and the tight narrative meticulousness of Alfred Hitchcock.

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Miles Davis and Jeanne Moreau

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Elevator to the Gallows is, in a sense, the first New Wave thriller, or perhaps the first New Noir. This is even more noteworthy given its screenplay’s origins in a rather bland boilerplate novel that caught Malle’s eye. After cutting his teeth as an assistant cameraman to Jacques Costeau and Robert Bresson, Malle took the work to a writer he admired, Roger Nimier, and suggested a collaboration. Nimier thought the story ridiculous but agreed on the condition that they rethink things, keeping the good bits, tossing the bad, and expanding when necessary. One key change in their adaptation is the emphasis given to the female character, who goes from prop to protagonist. For this important role, Malle cast Jeanne Moreau, a stage actress then primarily known for parts in B-films. Her melancholic performance was precisely what the film required: it becomes a film not about murder, but about loss and frailty, propelled forward by Miles Davis’s jazz score and the slow tracking shots that follow Moreau through the rainy Parisian streets. Gone are the voice-overs of noir past, with their clichés and canned fatalism. Instead, Moreau’s internal monologue reflects an existential ennui about the modern world, a world debased and morally askew, “already dehumanized” as Malle notes above. In what would go down as one of the most well-regarded jazz soundtracks of all time, Miles Davis famously played the score live, watching the film on a screen in the studio while his quartet improvised, adding, as spectators and participants, new layers of emotional complexity. Throughout these drifting street night shots, the presence of Davis and his trumpet becomes an essential component just as key as Moreau to achieving Malle’s narrative goals. In doing so, they created something entirely modernist and new, a thriller not afraid of large silent spaces, contemplative, and even romantic.

The symbol of the road is important here, a metaphor for transition and lack of permanence. Like his peers, Malle shared an obsession with the street, for the stark naturalism of the postwar Italian “Neo-Realist” movement best exemplified in Rosselini’s Paisan and Rome Open City (of their European contemporaries, it is probably he, along with Bresson, who exerted the most influence on the early aesthetic of the New Wave, particularly cinematography and sound.) The release of Tri-X black-and-white film in 1954 is an often overlooked moment in the history of film. For the first time, it allowed for naturalistic lighting, for actors to look grainy and devoid of the Hollywood gloss, for crews to load into a pram with nothing but a camera and a mic and film quickly on location. The film’s technicians were aghast at the early takes. Jeanne Moreau should only appear beautiful, they said. Why would Malle put her in the rain and make her look miserable? Such was the state of French film, with upbeat picturesque motifs on Parisian romance the norm in those days.

Also of note are the script elements critical of French foreign policy and its colonial militancy abroad. Although not known as a particularly political director, Elevator does project a general war weariness creeping into French culture, with snide dialogue jabs at war profiteering in Algeria and Indochina, as well as the worthy plot point of a military industrialist being killed with his own gun.

So Elevator to the Gallows holds a unique spot, being neither the opening salvo in the New Wave’s assault, nor championing and upholding the outdated “cinéma de papa” (“Dad’s cinema”), as the young turks arrogantly referred to the French film establishment. It stands as a remarkably polished and competent first film from a director who would go on to create a body of work as diverse as Lacombe, Lucien (1974), Atlantic City (1980), My Dinner with Andre (1981), and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994).

American Dream

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One of the most devastating and shameful developments of postwar American society was the war waged on organized labor by corporations, in collusion with the Reagan Administration, from 1980-88. To assign an end date is deceptive, of course, since we continue to feel the waves to this day. The era began appropriately enough, with Reagan acting as a “mediator” in the air traffic controllers’ strike, where he “permanently replaced” 1,400 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controller’s Organization. This sent a clear and unmistakable message to companies from coast to coast: “Clean house, we’ve got your back.” They took it to heart too: Phelps Dodge in Arizona in 1983; Chicago Tribune in 1987; Caterpillar in 1989; and perhaps the most famous of all, Hormel in 1985, the subject of Baraba Kopple’s Academy-Award winning documentary American Dream.

After the stagnation of the 1970s economy, the horrible recession that hit in 1982 provided corporations with the perfect pretext to crush labor, an opportunity that had not presented itself since the 1930s. This was the beginning of what would later be codified as globalization, and economists Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison outline the situation quite clearly in their 1982 book The Deindustrialization of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment, and the Dismantling of Basic Industry. In the quest to remain “globally competitive,” companies were willing to do whatever it took, even destroying the very social fabric of communities that had devoted their entire working lives to the success of their firms.

It started in what is called the “Frostbelt” of the northeast, first with the steel mills, then spreading to other areas of manufacturing. Reagan’s public relations team were brilliant propagandists, pushing patriotism and national pride, the myth of the “home team” and language designed to foster illusions of equality, community and collective struggle (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s 1989 book Fear of Falling for a good discussion of this). Suddenly “union” became a dirty word. Unions were un-American, greedy, out for themselves. That this view was even embraced by large portions of an increasingly-conservative working class that unions had supported for decades is a testament to the efficacy of the smear campaign. Concurrently, the management consultant industry boomed as corporations looked for ways to increase their profit margins by slashing wages, benefits, and pensions. Factories moved in droves to the south, the “Sunbelt,” where labor was cheap and migrants plenty.

The packinghouse P-9 strike at Hormel in Austin, Minnesota showed how far manufacturing management was willing to go in this new era: they closed the old factory, built a new “hi-tech” one that resembled a prison (where worker injuries reached epidemic proportions), and demanded deep wage cuts. And this was during a string of double-digit record profits for Hormel, which was outstripping its competitors by huge margins. Several years earlier, at the behest of the United Food and Commercial Worker’s (UFCW), P-9 had already reluctantly agreed to a set of concessions that dramatically increased management’s power. So when a clause in this earlier agreement was invoked, demanding a unilateral 23% pay cut across the board, P-9 geared up for a fight. Tired of the UFCW selling them down the river, they brought in Ray Rogers of Corporate Campaign Inc., a consultant firm which specialized in high-profile media assaults on corporations, typically with boycotts and pressure strategies on banks and stakeholders. It galvanizes worker spirit but the impact on Hormel is minimal. As the months wear on, the International and UFCW withdraw all support and striker benefits, even encouraging P-9 members to be scabs and cross their own picket lines. Some choose to do so, burning bridges with their neighbors, their friends, their family members. Others block streets, get hit with teargas and arrested, refuse to give in. The destruction of the social fabric, as predicted.

On the bright side, American Dream highlights a new energy in labor, one that shows how out of touch the national labor leaders had become, with their exorbitant salaries and willingness to negotiate with unfair corporate demands. This new spirit is summed up well by one striker late in the film, when he realizes that the P-9 membership, even after months of pickets and civil disobedience, will ultimately have to pick between unfair concessions or unemployment: “Fuck ’em, we’ll find something else,” he says defiantly, walking away from the union hall mic.

Don’t Look Back

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“If we were someplace else I’d punch you in your goddamn nose.” — Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman to hotel manager

Although documentaries on music and musicians are numerous, most mainstream ones come across as promotional vehicles or linear overviews of careers that seem like 90-minute music videos. It’s unfortunate, because things began quite differently. In fact, the 1960s saw some of the best music documentaries of all time, including Gimme ShelterMonterey Pop, and D. A. Pennebaker’s venerated classic covering Bob Dylan’s 1965 U.K. tour, Dont Look Back (sic).

The intro sequence alone, with “Subterranean Homesick Blues” playing and Bob Dylan dropping cue cards one at a time, has been copied and parodied so many times in popular culture that people have often seen the references before the referenced. It was originally conceived by Dylan as a sort of Scopitone movie, a French invention that was essentially a jukebox that played a 16mm film, the forerunner of the music video. Although by 1967, this song could almost be seen as Dylan nostalgia–so fast was his trajectory into, and through the other side, of the rock scene–at the time of shooting it was likely a sly dig at the folkies, flaunting his new noisy aesthetic that would come to define much of his middle career. The then-recently-released “Subterranean Homesick Blues” hangs heavy in the air throughout the entire film, a harbinger of what was to come. Teenage girls complain to him and Dylan shoots back with “Oh, you’re that type, I get it,” before kindly reframing with “But I like to play with my friends…You don’t mind if my friends play on my record, do you?” Today, it is impossible for us to comprehend what an alien sounding and oddly structured song this was for fans accustomed to “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” Although these were recorded just a couple of years prior and can be heard on car radios throughout the film, promoting his concert appearances, Dylan is so clearly bored with these tunes while performing live that he flies through them at fast tempos. They feel like necessary obligations en route to the new introspection of “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Gates of Eden,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

Dylan is so canonized within American popular culture today, it is important to remember his place in music in 1965, when he continued the process of stepping away from a folk scene that he had outgrown creatively but which still clung to him as their conduit into the semi-mainstream. The first small step can be seen in 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, where he abandoned politics for poetics while keeping the acoustic aesthetic completely intact. At the time of this tour Bringing It All Back Home had just been released, which saw Dylan split literally in half: Side 1, electric; Side 2, acoustic. The next album, Highway 61 Revisited, would see him take the full electric plunge. It was a huge artistic gamble, tossing away an entire folk fanbase that loved and supported him for a rock scene that knew nothing of his music, only that he was some Woody Guthrie wannabe in a train conductor’s hat. It’s worth bearing in mind that Dylan could have very easily fallen on his face and ended up a mockery, rejected by both audiences.

Pennebaker’s grainy, unpolished film captured a musician at work like no one had ever seen before: goading on reporters; playing Hank Williams in his hotel room; looking utterly exhausted. Some of the confrontation scenes themselves are now classics of rock pop culture, referred to in such shorthand as “The Science Student,” “The High Sheriff’s Lady,” and “Who Threw the Glass in the Street?” It is incredible to think that by the time Dont Look Back saw its 1967 theatrical release, Dylan was done. He had conquered electric, inspired countless imitators, cut two more albums–one of them a double, Blonde on Blonde–and toured endlessly against hostile crowds with the Hawks (The Band) in tow. Pennebaker was there to film this too, through Europe in 1966. The final product, never officially released but known as Eat the Document by generations of bootleggers, was dark, depressing, and utterly unwatchable. In it, drastically underweight and strung-out, one sees very clearly the end that was fast approaching; and it’s probably sheer luck that Bob Dylan didn’t end up on the roster along with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Brian Jones. The eventual crash was both chemical and literal: amphetamines; heroin; vitamin-B12 injections; and the infamous (and still debated) July ’66 motorcycle wreck that almost broke his neck. Dylan, barely 27 years old, went into hiding and started fresh, back to acoustics for the subdued John Wesley Harding LP, not touring again for nearly eight years. 

Salesman

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“I forget who the poet is, but a famous English poet said something like, ‘There’s no sound more beautiful, whether it’s in the city or in the country, than the sound of a knocking on the door.’ …. To that I would add, ‘Unless it was a Bible salesman.'” — Albert Maysles on Salesman

If brothers Albert & David Maysles excelled at one point in documentary filmmaking, it was finding the quiet drama in the seeming banality of the everyday. And while their other subjects–the Rolling Stones in Gimme Shelter and the eccentric Beales of Grey Gardens infamy to name but two–are often better known, it is Salesman that has always affected me the most. Maybe it’s the simplicity, or rather, the complexity of something that on the surface seems so simple. After all, documenting Bible salesmen on their day-to-day peddling routes through suburban Boston could have been unbearably dull. But it isn’t. In fact, I would argue that what is captured–and importantly, brilliantly edited together–exemplifies a sort of quintessential Americanism: a fusion of huckster commercialism, quasi-religiousness, human frailty, and a good dose of sales guilt, all stretched over the classic Horatio Alger myth of “working your way up from nothing.”

Of course, this myth works out well for some, not so well for others. So it is here, where four men–all assigned animal names by the Maysles to describe their attitudes: The Rabbit, The Bull, The Badger, and The Gipper–have mixed success peddling overpriced Bibles to families that can ill afford their $50 price tag. Very early on, Paul Brennan, the Badger, is clearly different from the rest. Especially awkward are the scenes where all men are together talking about their day’s work, Paul clearly not cut our for the task. Despite his rationale for why the sales aren’t happening, and the caustic behind-the-scenes tone he takes on with regard to his clients, he seems almost too self-aware of the superfluousness of his job, of the fact that what he is doing is essentially meaningless and manipulative. The Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, their incredible editor, hone in on this pathos as the key to their narrative. They admitted later to developing a deep empathy for Paul and maintained a long relationship with him well beyond the filming. Paul is also Irish, and the Maysles, growing up in an antagonistic, anti-Irish Boston neighborhood and raised with those views themselves, saw this as an important peacemaking moment for them.

Today, Salesman could be seen as the film that introduced the term “cinema verite” to a wider audience. The term originates in the works of Soviet director Dziga Vertov and his idea of the “Kino Eye,” as seen in his radically experimental The Man with the Movie Camera. The lens simply captures life as it unfolds, without any intervention or narrative artifice from the director. Later this was taken up by french filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch, who coined this term for “truthful cinema.” Nevertheless, it came to embody certain aesthetic ideals and little else, philosophically speaking. At this point in the study of film and media theory, no sane person would argue that the “cinema verite” style is any more “truthful” than that given by someone like Michael Moore. Typically, it is now often shorthand for a documentary that lacks narration or any clear framing devices or contexts for the viewer. Today we really take this form for granted, but in the mid-1960s, almost all documentaries used the newsreel approach, with the omnipotent voice over bringing down the narrative like a sledgehammer, not only providing context but also compensating for the fact that often no microphones were present for the subjects being filmed, with most sound done post production. The Maysles’s  “direct cinema” approach (both brothers hated the pomposity of the phrase “cinema verite”) built upon earlier, more subtle traditions, like Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and the African documentaries of Rouch. The Maysles were “embedded” filmmakers–Albert on 16mm handheld camera, David on the mic and portable reel-to-reel–traveling with their subjects or, in the case of Grey Gardens, practically living in their homes. The Maysles’s reasoning for this was at the very core of their artistic vision: gain their trust, and the rest will follow. The philosophy worked remarkably well for their three essential films, SalesmanGimme Shelter, and Grey Gardens.

But in today’s “reality”-obsessed, media-savvy culture, Salesman is amazing for another reason: the lack of self-consciousness of its subjects. Somehow, no one seems to think it strange to have two men filming in their homes, nor do they think it appropriate to get the curlers from their hair, or put on an overshirt, or not smoke at the table with the baby present, or turn down the wobbly, blaring elevator music on the new hi-fi system. Granted, the brothers did work to get the trust of their main subjects, but there was no such trust with the working class families whose homes they entered; just a quick explanation of this being part of a “human interest story.” After all, it’s what the Maysles Brothers loved, getting at the realness of people in the moment, not in a mocking ironic sense, but in a humanistic and sincere way. And there is no film where this sincerity comes through stronger than Salesman.

(FYI, I was informed recently that David’s daughter Celia is a Lewis & Clark graduate and documentary filmmaker.  A great interview with her is available here)