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Gimme Shelter: Blowing Up a Movie to Solve a Murder

Blowing Up a Movie to Solve a Murder

December 25, 1969

SAN FRANCISCO — “Is anybody besides me seriously worried about what the Hell’s Angels might do to us if they find out we’ve got footage of the killing?” Albert Maysles asked. “I mean, when that sequence is blown up, there’ll be a full-face picture of the actual slayer. Look, Stanley, if you were the particular guy in question … ”

“I’d kill your ass,” Stanley Goldstein shot back with a tart grin.

“I was never really sold on the idea of doing a straight tour film of the Stones,” David Maysles said. “What we actually have is a mystery story, you realize. A detective story, sort of.”

Last Thursday, I was awakened early by a phone call from David Maysles in New York. He explained that he and brother Albert, who had been authorized to film the gigantic free Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, had just viewed a portion of their color footage showing the fatal encounter between Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old black youth who was shown to be armed with a revolver, and a stocky, knife-wielding man dressed in a Hell’s Angels tunic. The two Maysles Brothers, along with a small technical crew, David said, planned to fly here that evening to resume filming and to confer with officials of Young American Enterprises, Inc., the company that claimed to represent the Stones during their American tour. Could I rent a limousine and hire somebody to handle their luggage, and meet them at the airport for a talk?

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I could, and I did. A jump-seated black Cadillac was secured from Gray Line Tours, and I engaged Greg Curtis, a young writer from Texas, to serve as chief baggage grip.

The TWA flight that night was late, and Greg and I were both a little antsy; in the course of our phone conversation, David had mentioned that his party would be traveling, at the insistence of the Stones’ management, under the protection of two armed bodyguards.

“The Stones’ mafia,” David had explained with a nervous laugh, and the pair of bodyguards lived up to the advance billing as they preceded the film crew off the plane; they were both big, tough-looking, taciturn men with coldly staring eyes and unmistakable bulges under their jackets.

The Maysles Brothers came out shooting,” with Albert, who resembles a kind of Mr. Peepers with character, manning a mammoth, shoulder-rig camera, and David, wearing head phones and a purple shirt with epaulettes, picking up the sound with a shotgun mike. David made the round of introductions. Others in his party included cameraman Ron Dorfman, all-around trouble-shooter Stanley Goldstein (one of the prime movers and shakers at the Woodstock Festival), and a freelance still photographer named Michael Alexander.

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After a series of stop-and-go camera takes, we all headed for the limousine. David, Albert, Stanley, and I rode in the lead Cadillac to the Hotel Mark Hopkins. A second car was hired to accommodate the bodyguards and the rest of the crew. Greg stayed behind to collect the luggage, most of which was scheduled to arrive on a later flight.

All the way to the Mark, which is located near the crest of Nob Hill, David and Albert plied me with questions about the after-effects of the Altamont debacle. I found the process of being “interviewed” somewhat bizarre and not a little bit disorienting; in the end, I felt something like a human out-take from “Medium Cool.”

Our appearance en masse in the sumptuous lobby of the ultra-staid Mark caused the night clerk to blanch. “I don’t think that cat appreciates us using his hotel as a movie set,” Ron Dorfman said, grinning lopsidedly and continuing to shoot away. Since there’d been no hostile welcome by the Angels, as had halfway been expected, the mood of the party quickly turned high carnival.

Somebody in the Young American organization — John James, Ronnie Schneider, or Michael Scotti — was supposed to have made reservations for the Maysles crew under the name “A. Hitchcock.” No reservations had been made. A doddering bellman let us into John James’s small apartment while the decision was made about what to do next. Albert wandered into the bedroom and came back out, laughing aloud: “Know what’s sitting on the table beside ole John’s beddy-poo? A can of Sof-Stroke. Do you suppose he’s trying to tell us something?” A call to the desk disclosed that Ronnie Schneider had turned in for the night: the desk clerk didn’t know where either James or Scotti were. Stanley — “Stanley G. Logistics,” as David called him — was dispatched downstairs to arrange for a suite. “Charge it to A. Hitchcock,” David called after him. “No, seriously, charge it to James — we’ve already sprung for the air fare out here.”

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Three stewardesses who had been on the TWA flight from New York knocked for admittance. “Let’s have a party,” they pealed in unison. The group crowded into the small room now numbered 10 people; there weren’t enough chairs to go around. After talking to somebody on the phone, Mike Alexander told David the crew had been invited to view some films the following evening. David frowned: “Well, thanks, but no thanks. I don’t like to watch films much any more, except what we’re actually working on. I don’t have any sense of the history of films, I guess.”

Everyone prepared to move to the suite Stanley had rented, two flights down on the 10th floor. “Oh, shit, man, what’re you doing?” Stanley roared at the bellman, who had removed all of John James’s clothes from the closet along with our coats. After the damage had been undone, we descended to the new quarters by the fire stairs to avoid waiting for the single elevator in operation.

“Yeah, this is much more like it,” David said, yawning and stretching out on the living room carpet. “Hey, I’m starving, though. Can we get a meal for everybody from room service?” ”It’s almost 2 o’clock, David — they’ll be closed up for the night,” Stanley said, shaking his shaggy head no. “Well, Christ, we can’t fast for the next six hours,” Albert complained. Mike Alexander volunteered to put together a movable feast at David’s Delicatessen. Stanley handed Mike $80 in bills: “Get enough food, beer, and soft drinks for 15, 16 people, okay?”

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Greg Curtis came in to report that 11 pieces of luggage had failed to arrive. “It may have been dropped off over in Oakland,” he suggested hopefully. “Shit, shit, shit,” Stanley raged, racing for the phone. “That’s most of our raw stock and equipment. We can’t function without that stuff.” Somebody began passing a small, elegant pipe around. “You may wonder why I’ve assembled you here at this unseemly hour,” David quipped, imitating Richard Burton. He followed up with an impression of Mick Jagger at Madison Square Garden: “Well, all rot. New Yock Citeh. Far aht?” Somebody flipped on the color tv set; frequency patterns blipped up, up, and away.

Across the room, Stanley was attempting to place two long-distance calls at once. “Stan’s about to levitate,” Albert said, winking and grinning. Mike Alexander returned with two carts of food and $35 change. “Now just listen to me, man,” Stanley bawled into the phone, “If you don’t connect me with the flight operations officer in one minute, I’m going to call the fucking FAA.”

By now, it was early morning. Ron Dorfman was sprawled out asleep on the carpet, and one of the stewardesses periodically dozed off and snapped awake on the couch. After eating, I phoned for a cab. David suggested that I return to the hotel “around 9-ish” for the meeting with the Young American people. By the time I arrived home, that left me two hours to sleep.

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***

Nine-ish on Friday morning. Mike Alexander peered morosely out the window at the rain below. “It’s going to be a great day for shooting exteriors, Albert,” he muttered, scratching his bare belly. “All you’ll need to do is bounce your lights off of the sky and punch a hole in the reflector to let the rain pour through.”

Albert Maysles looked tousled and still half-asleep: “Has anybody seen my shoes? I can’t seem to find my shoes. Oh, well, I guess they’ll turn up. Listen Ron, maybe you’d better rouse Stanley, right? He’s going to have to get a move on after that lost luggage.”

Stanley was asleep on the couch. Gently, Ron tapped him on the shoulder: “Uh, Stanley old chap, could I talk to you about something? Could I talk to  you about getting your ass up?” Irritably, Stanley rolled over onto his stomach and growled, “Fuck off.” A couple of minutes later, groaning piteously, he sat up and began to dress.

“Listen, we’re going to have to hire a public stenographer sometime today,” David announced to the room at large. “Yeah, to prepare that contract,” Stanley answered. “Have we retained Mel Belli to represent us yet, by the way?” “Public stenos cost $75 a minute,” Ron joked. David grimaced: “By the way, what’re we paying for this suite a day? A hundred dollars, you think?” He turned to me, spreading his hands: “Christ, we’re doing all of this on spec, you know. It was the same thing with ‘Salesman’ — we put all our own bread into that film, too.”

After various delays, Stanley hustled off to the airport to check on the errant luggage and the rest of us trooped up to Ronnie Schneider’s suite on the 14th floor. Also present at the meeting were John James, a cheerful balloon of a man, Michael Scotti, who resembles the young George Raft, and the two bodyguards who had escorted the Maysles crew from New York. One of the men carried his pistol in his hip pocket, and both took pains to stay out of camera range. Two tables littered with a dozen plates of coagulating breakfast remains gave the room an eerie, beggar’s banquet flavor. The ambience of power present was as strong as an odor; you knew that these men had only to lift the phone and whatever was asked would be delivered by someone with his hand stretched out for a crinkly tip. But the Stones promoters also exuded another air, sadder, wearier, as if they existed nowhere except in the airless anonymity of hotel rooms. I was suddenly glad that I lived out in the section of the city a friend bad once derisively dubbed “the Queens of San Francisco.”

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John James started the conversation by announcing that his organization had settled property claims with “perhaps 90 per cent” of the Alameda County ranchers who had complained of damages in the wake of the concert. The sum paid out, he said, represented “about a tenth” of the $500,000 originally sought. “Those damn idiot farmers, some of them were complaining that their cows had swallowed beer bottles,” one of the bodyguards sneered. “Cows with beer bottles in their stomaches. Sheeit.”

Ronnie Schneider was asked what the Stones’ reaction to the slaying had been. Speaking in a hoarse, basso rasp, he said, carefully: “Grief, disgust … the Stones didn’t really know what had happened at first, couldn’t grasp what’d occurred.”

“What happened, just happened,” James interjected. “There’s simply no infallible way to bring together 300,000 people without the possibility of violence arising. The Stones only wanted to thank their American friends for making their tour so successful. Every possible precaution was taken, given the hurry-up circumstances of having to move from the Sears Point raceway to the Altamont site at the last possible minute. I blame that development squarely on Filmways, Inc., which owns the Sears Point track. At the last minute, Filmways made exorbitant demands on the Stones for the use of the grounds, demands that were so outrageous they couldn’t be met. We did the best we could under the circumstances. Richard Carter, who owns the Altamont track, hired 100 uniformed security guards. We hired 100 more.”

What about Sonny Barger’s claim that the Angels had been hired as security guards for $500 worth of beer?

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“Nobody from any of the three organizations promoting the concert paid the Angels anything,” James snapped testily. “Maybe the Angels brought their own beer, who knows? But Sam Cutler, the Stones’ road manager, tried to get the whole bunch of them off the stage repeatedly throughout the day.”

“Look,” Schneider put in, “one lone guy pulled a gun, and in the ensuing confusion, he got himself killed. What if there had been regular city cops up on the bandstand? Five people might’ve been killed, see what I mean? The Stones paid out a quarter of a million dollars to put on an event for everybody to enjoy. Why shouldn’t the Stones get a film out of it to help repay some of their expenses?”

As the interview continued, a streak of stunning-looking girls paraded in and out of the room. “Our groupies in residence,” James snorted with a wry laugh. One of the bodyguards was clowning around with a woman’s red wig. “Let me know before you begin to shoot again,” he ordered Ron Dorfman, “so I can go and hide in the john or someplace. I mean it, I ain’t shittin’ you, kid.”

“You guys in the press,” Schneider said to me with a hint of metal in his voice, “you all say pretty much what you please, whatever we do or say. That’s why I — why all of us — rarely if ever give interviews. Hell, 17 or 18 different guys have tried to get through to us since we’ve been here, and we wouldn’t talk to any of them. You’re the first reporter we’ve seen, so I hope you’ll be fair and accurate about what’s being said here ”

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Scotti, who had remained silent until this point, asked to go off the record so he could freely discuss the legal and security problems the Maysles Brothers faced. After I agreed, David described the footage showing the slaying. James groaned: “Jesus, just having that sequence is like sitting on a powder keg.” David nodded: “Yes, I know. Death, we found out, is very quick.” “I saw the killing take place,” Albert mused moodily, “but I didn’t personally shoot it. It was so ugly, I just didn’t want to. The truth is, at this point, we don’t know precisely who did shoot the sequence. We had about 18 freelance cameramen working for us on the day of the concert.”

The off-the-record discussion followed. Concluding that simple possession of the film implicated the Maysles Brothers as material witnesses to a homicide, Scotti, looking pale and grim, called the Alameda County sheriff’s department, and within minutes two plainclothes detectives, Robert Donovan and J. N. Chisholm, arrived at the suite. Scotti described the footage to the officers in general terms, and then whisked his entire entourage, bodyguards and all, back to New York by plane. David made arrangements for his associate, Porter Bibb, to ship a copy of the sequence here from New York via air express.

“Wow — the old crud just hit the fan, didn’t it,” somebody murmured softly after the plainclothesmen had left.

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On Saturday afternoon, the footage was screened for the two officers and an Alameda County assistant district attorney at Francis Ford Coppola’s ultra-sophisticated new film facility, American Zoetrope. The sequence was shown repeatedly, frame by frame; it proved to be grisly, explicit, and harrowing to watch.

Afterward, David asked the detectives, “Can we film the grand jury, do you suppose? No? Damn, maybe we can get the foreman to talk outside the jury room, what do you think?”

Late in the afternoon, the officers left to take the film print to the Alameda County police lab for enlargement. When it was feasible, they said, the blown-up photos would be presented, along with any other evidence that had developed, to the grand jury in order to secure an indictment.

For the slayer of Meredith Hunter, the crud had indeed hit the fan.

Maysles Brothers Gimme Shelter filming

Maysles Brothers Gimme Shelter filming 2

Maysles Brothers Gimme Shelter filming controversy

 

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Altamont, the Rolling Stones, and the Death of the Sixties Dream

In the nearly fifty years since the Rolling Stones played a free outdoor concert at a racetrack in Alameda County, California, the word “Altamont” has become synonymous with the end of the 1960s, and the death of the hippie dream. On December 6, 1969, the Stones played for a crowd of over 300,000 people, with the Hells Angels serving as an ad hoc security team at the suggestion of the Grateful Dead — who would end up so cowed by the bikers’ overzealous tactics that they left the grounds without playing. The concert had been hastily arranged, and the location chosen at the very last minute; the lack of planning or foresight, combined with a deeply misguided trust in the Angels as counterculture allies, resulted in an infamously disastrous show that culminated in the death of eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter, an African American concertgoer who had traveled to Altamont from the Bay Area with his girlfriend and a couple of friends. He would never make it back.

The chaotic day was recorded by a camera crew led by brothers Albert and David Maysles, and the footage edited by Charlotte Zwerin, for what would become the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter. Now, Brooklyn author Saul Austerlitz revisits Altamont, and pays tribute not just to Hunter’s death, but his short life, in Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont. The Voice spoke to Austerlitz about researching the events of the day, placing Hunter and his family at the center of the story of Altamont, and bursting the romanticized bubble of the 1960s.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969

I don’t want to go to Coachella, let alone Altamont, so a lot of what you describe in this book sounds like a nightmare to me. How did you set about re-creating the scene?

I ended up talking to about 75 people. There were some challenges in asking people about one day of their lives that was almost fifty years ago. Above and beyond that, a lot of the people are drinking or doing drugs that day, so their memories, which would be hazy no matter what, are even hazier.

I spoke to a filmmaker named Joan Churchill, who was one of the cinematographers there and has gone on to bigger and better things. Her account of being at the site the night before and dealing with the cold and misery of not being able to sleep and having nowhere to go, and then ending up getting dosed with LSD basically the second the event started, was really intense. It helped me understand what it might have felt like to be a part of it, and also to be, not a victim of it, but someone who endured it.

The book is not just about the festival itself, but the shaping of the story of Altamont as this cultural touchstone.

I was really interested in how it was covered journalistically, and one of the things that was striking to me was how misguided some of the early coverage was. One of the things I talk about in the book is that the guy who ended up writing what served as the early account that went out over the AP wire, he could only stay at the concert until about noon that day, because of deadlines. He did the best he could, obviously, but he was only present for two or three hours. The early report that went out across the country was like, “This concert was great, just like Woodstock, maybe even better. There were a few minor kerfuffles at the beginning but then everything got ironed out.” It ended up being Rolling Stone that did the major work of pushing back against that narrative, and telling a counterculture audience — an audience that wouldn’t instinctively trust the AP’s account of what happened — actually, it was totally different from what you’ve heard.

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The whole hippie idea of “personal bliss,” as you write at one point, feels to me like the inverse of the right-wing obsession with “personal responsibility” over collective action. I wonder if you saw this concert as a particularly damning event for the way that the left has romanticized its role in the Sixties.

I think so, yeah. A bunch of people that I spoke to who are among the more politically oriented, there was this sense that things were just going to keep getting bigger and better. We’ve had these anti-Vietnam protests, we’ve had these big gatherings like the Human Be-In, or Woodstock, which was earlier that summer, and all of them were great. This was sort of the party line — all of them were these amazing moments where we gathered together and it was wonderful, and the war was going to stop, and the youth were going to take over the country, and things would be permanently better. And concomitant with that was this sense of, we’re all on the same page. We all agree that we want to have a nice time and a nice event; we don’t really need to worry about anything. Woodstock went fine, this will also be fine. We don’t need to have plans for boring shit like, where am I going to go to the bathroom, how am I going to eat lunch while I’m there, who’s going to protect me in case anything goes wrong? Altamont was a kind of wake-up call in that fashion, to say, there are ways in which the adult world that you’re rejecting has notions that are still valuable, like planning ahead.

The counterculture understood itself to be this gathering force that was going to oppose and eventually undo the establishment. In coming to that conclusion, they ended up seeing themselves allied with people whom they very much were not allied with. It was interesting to me to learn about the ways that the counterculture had thought of the Hells Angels. The counterculture looked at them and said, “Hey, we don’t like the police, you don’t like the police, let’s be friends.” The counterculture liked to think of the Hells Angels as hippies, but they ride motorcycles. And the Hells Angels said, “Well, we like the bands, we like the drugs, we like the general lifestyle that you guys live, so we can get along.”

A still from the documentary film “Gimme Shelter” showing Hells Angels beating an audience member

It strikes me that the people making those decisions, and later, telling the story of that era, were almost all white men — not women or minorities, who probably weren’t having as much of a blast during the concert, or the Sixties in general.

It was helpful for me to understand how small the circle of pleasure was, in a way — how many people were having a really fun time, and how many people weren’t.

Reading the book, it was hard not to notice all the parallels between then and now — even your description of this feeling like, “What could go wrong,” sounds a lot like the attitude on the left in the year or two leading up to the 2016 election.

Most of the work on this book happened in early-to-mid-2016. I’d be working on the book and switch over to nytimes.com to see what was happening in the world, and the parallels between Altamont and Trump rallies were kind of overwhelming — this sense of, we’re going to unleash chaos in a mass gathering, and it’s going to feel really cathartic. That was one aspect of it. In retrospect, after the election, I’ve come to realize the ways in which, for myself and for a lot of people I know, we’re kind of the outdated version of the Sixties hippie radical. I also had a mistaken belief that things would keep getting better, we’re going to keep winning, don’t need to worry about what’s going on elsewhere, and getting blindsided by reality. That feels, unfortunately, very resonant right now.

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It’s kind of amazing that Altamont didn’t ruin the Stones’ reputation forever. This episode probably even worked in their favor; like the residual darkness of that day only added to their mystique. Did writing and researching this book change your feelings toward the band?

One of the interesting aspects for me was how much even the darkest aspects of that mythologizing worked to benefit the groups involved. The Hells Angels would only see themselves as having benefited from being at Altamont; it established their bona fides. There was a sense that the Rolling Stones had this dark majesty — that they were actually summoning some sort of malign influences. Which is so strange to my ears, but it came up multiple times [while researching the book]. I thought it was really telling that people kept misremembering what song had been playing when Meredith Hunter was killed. People kept thinking it was “Sympathy for the Devil,” and at the time there was this sense that “Sympathy for the Devil” was somehow the devil’s song. That was kind of telling, and speaks to what you’re saying — it benefited the Stones in some ways. That was the band that was playing when someone got killed.

I don’t have anything good to say about the Stones’ behavior in the aftermath of the concert. In terms of the concert itself, they went out onstage and they tried to cool things down, which I give them credit for, because the Grateful Dead didn’t do it. While it’s understandable, it was probably not the right decision. In the aftermath it’s just puzzling to me, and unacceptable to me, that the Stones never apologize. They don’t apologize to Meredith Hunter’s family, and they also don’t apologize to any of the fans. Even if, for some convoluted reason, they decided they couldn’t get involved with Meredith Hunter and his family, there were hundreds of other fans who were assaulted or manhandled or mistreated at the concert. The idea that they didn’t say anything about that is puzzling. Even if you feel like Meredith Hunter’s death is ultimately not your fault, how do you not say something, at some point, about it?

Did you try to get an interview with any of the band members?

I did, yeah. They were not interested. It’s telling if you look at Keith Richards’ memoir, which is a very enjoyable book — it’s seven hundred pages long and there’s I think three pages devoted to Altamont. He knew that he had to cover it, but it’s also the absolute bare minimum of what he could possibly say.

Meredith Hunter

You had the challenge of writing about an event that’s been written about over and over in the years since it happened. Was there anything you discovered in researching this book that really surprised you?

A lot of it surprised me. The Sixties have been combed over ad nauseam, and yet it was interesting for me to understand what people were thinking at the time. It helped me to understand how everyone got to this place where this specific event could happen.

The most surprising thing for me was talking to Meredith Hunter’s family and learning more about his family history. One of the things I tried to do in the book was to sort of reorient some of the story, which I think is always about fans and rock music and hippies and Sixties culture, and had to be more of a story about race and racism and how that impacts a person and a family. I entered into this project wanting to tell Meredith Hunter’s story, because I felt like he was kind of the absence at the center of the story, but I don’t think I fully understood the ways in which his story and his family’s story tie into this larger picture of this still very unfortunate relationship with race in America.

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Was it hard to get his family to talk to you?

It required some convincing to agree to speak with me, and understandably so. [Hunter’s sister] Dixie and her daughter Taammi Parker both very graciously agreed to talk to me, and talk about some really difficult things. But I got the sense that they definitely were concerned that their story would again not be told properly.

Have they read the book?

I’ve sent them the book. I believe they’ve read some of it. I don’t know much more about their response.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

For the people who feel like they know the story already, I’d like for them to take away the part of the story that’s about Meredith Hunter and his family, and incorporate that into their mental framework of what this concert was about and what the late Sixties were about. And in a larger sense, just to think about some of the resonances that this moment that I’m writing about, and this moment that we’re living through, seem to have with each other. Which is definitely a source of pessimism but is potentially a source of optimism as well. All this energy, which sometimes is misplaced or misguided, can also be hopefully funneled towards something powerful.

Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont
By Saul Austerlitz
Thomas Dunne Books
336 pp.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

The Maysles’ “Salesman” Remains a Masterpiece of American B.S.

A vérité masterpiece of the bullshit that America sells itself, Albert and David Maysles’ Salesman, from 1968, documents a way of life that was dying even then — the soiling grind of getting by as a door-to-door salesman, talking people who don’t want you there into buying junk they don’t need with money they’re almost certainly short on. Salesman’s milieu of motels and pork-pie hats may have passed, but its broader diagnosis has lost none of its truth. In this huckster America, everyone’s a mark — especially the schnooks who think they’re the sharks. (The film is screening in a new 2K digital restoration on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.)

The Maysles and co-director Charlotte Zwerin capture two different sorts of on-the-level cons. First is the doc’s main event, the peddling of Bibles to families on the outskirts of Boston and in Opa-locka, Florida. The filmmakers follow a quartet of not-especially-religious sharpies and wannabes as they work what they call “the territory,” just like the fast-talkers in The Music Man. Some seem born to the life; others, like Paul “The Badger” Brennan, seem to be trying to look like they’re born to it, talking the talk and selling the idea of themselves as salesmen. (He sings, “I wish I were a rich man,” while driving from the home of one lead to another.) They’ve given each other nicknames, mostly derived from animals: the Badger, the Bull, the Rabbit, and the Gipper, that last one irresistible foreshadowing the coming age of Ronald Reagan.

Working on behalf of the Mid-American Bible Company, and always blessed with the imprimatur of a local church, this crew turns up at the homes of parishioners with an offer that would strike most of us as patently refusable: “The Bible runs as little as $49.95,” the heart of the pitch goes, “and we have three plans on it.” Fifty years on, scenes of the men in the kitchens and living rooms of believers still sting and discomfit. “You can see how this would be an inspiration in the home,” Brennan muses to a mother who’s clearly not interested in buying but also seems torn up at the thought of disappointing the salesman — or the divine future he insists this Bible represents. Then Brennan turns to flattery, pointing to the woman’s young daughter: “She’s bright — she’s pretty like her mother!”

This is all shot in crisp black and white with the participants exhibiting no awareness of the cameras. The technique is transparent, in its way, which makes it doubly important to consider it as the film unfolds. When a woman opens the door and refuses to let in the salesmen, is she reacting to the film crew — is this her first inclination? When another does admit him, and the filmmakers, too, has the moment already been worked out in advance? The framing is too precise to have been arrived at haphazardly, so moments of tense real life that we witness here are perhaps made more so by the fact that we’re able to witness them, that the filmmakers have entered these homes and fussed with their equipment and made the participants in each scene only more self-conscious. It’s a fruitful challenge to try to tease out the layers of performance in the standoffs between salesmen and customers, to mull over the put-on regretfulness of the people not buying. Is it for our benefit that they’re so broken up over not wasting their money? Is it to let us know that they really are the kind of people who would treasure a Bible?

When a mark flat-out refuses, the salesmen keep pushing. One woman says, quietly, that she’d have to consult with her husband about such an investment. The salesman asks if maybe he has a birthday coming up — wouldn’t this Bible be good for that? One chipper woman who actually buys the book chirps, after the sale is complete, “Thank you! I just hope I get around to reading it!” That’s the genius of this not-quite-a-con: Since faith is involved, many of the marks believe that not to buy, not to relish and study this lavish tome, is to be a disappointment. Brennan wishes he was a rich man, and his hope of getting there is the exploitation of believers’ own wish — not to be impoverished of spirit.

But it’s not just the targets who worry over their own inner worth. The salesmen, too, are being sold. The difference is that the belief system they’re buying is the one that has come fully to rule American life in the decades since. At a sales meeting with other Bible pushers, they’re lectured by a muckety-muck from the Bible company: “All I can say to people who aren’t making the money — ‘It’s their fault.’” The salesmen then have to stand up and declare how much money they each vow to make in the next year. It’s the implicit promise these guys would have picked up from Dale Carnegie, Horatio Alger, and Amway: If you’re not rich, you didn’t try hard enough. Never mind that even the world’s bestselling book doesn’t sell itself, that the life is hard, the people broke, the yeses and the deposits slow to come. If you can’t move the product, it’s on you.

Later, at a conference in Chicago, the company’s founder makes even more explicit the link between success as a salesman and success as citizen and soul: “Some of you at one time or another may or may not have held a higher income, but you’ve never held a higher position of esteem in the minds of the world or in your own satisfaction.”

That’s absurd, of course. Guilt-goading Christians into wasting their money on a scriptural tchotchke is the key to the world and the self’s esteem? Such claims might have jolted audiences in ’68 but today — in the era of the prosperity gospel and the president who’s qualified simply because of his public performance of business success — they’re just something like the headwaters of the contemporary American mind. Success is its own virtue, and the lack of it, even in a gilded age of rapidly increasing income inequality, just means you’ve failed yourself, your family, your country and your God. Salesman finds early adopters of this nation’s new creed selling a gaudy parody of the old one.

Salesman
Directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
Janus Films
Opens January 26, Metrograph

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FREE LOVE

For many of us who didn’t get a chance to experience the true spirit of the free-love movement, the hippie era, and the experimental sounds of the ’60s—Woodstock, the Michael Wadleigh–directed documentary—is as close as we’ll ever get. Just like the 1969 concert itself, the film, which screens tonight as a part of Oscar’s Docs series at MOMA, was plagued by several difficulties (such as the last-minute departure of the original directors, Albert and David Maysles) and was almost never made. Remarkably, many filmmakers and editors on the film were first-timers, including some young kid named Martin Scorsese. But, of course, what we’ll always remember when we think of Woodstock are those three summer days and nights of amazing performances by rock legends such as the Who, Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, and Janis Joplin. Wear a peace sign.

Fri., Feb. 3, 6 p.m.; Wed., Feb. 8, 6 p.m., 2012

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Candid Camera

An instructor in psychology at Boston University in the early 1950’s, Albert Maysles saw his life changed with the invention in 1960 of handheld sync sound cameras, which reduced the size of a documentary crew to two, enabling unprecedented intimacy. He and his brother David Maysles created classics such as 1968 Salesman, the first feature documentary. 1976’s Grey Gardens, now the basis for a musical at Playwrights Horizons, will be re-released this year on DVD with an hour and a half of previously unseen outtakes. Maysles is currently at work on several projects, including a new Maysles Films Institute in Harlem.

How was your experience as a salesman? The first house that I came to the first day that I was selling the Encyclopedia Americana, I completely forgot my whole pitch. The woman said, “Do you have it with you?” and I said, “Oh yeah.” She said, “Why don’t you read it?” So I read it and she bought it. That’s a model for my relationship with people when I make a documentary. People let you into their lives the way this woman let me into her house and they’re so kind to me.

Do you ever think about taboos? In our culture, we fear getting too close.

I’ve been thinking especially lately of where I go from here? What have I yet to film that I should be getting? I go back to my childhood and think of the 1930s when it was most common for a father to hit the child with a strap if the child misbehaved. One day I must have done something terribly bad; [my father] did hit me with the strap. It didn’t bother me, it didn’t hurt me. Later I happened to walk past his bedroom and there he was with his head against the wall crying, and I stood there in amazement, but really understanding how much my father loved me. That’s the kind of thing I want to get.

The common argument is that good news lacks teeth. The opening of lines of Tolstoy’s book Anna Karenina start with, ”All unhappy families are different from one another. The happy families are all the same.” This is the journalistic prejudice that we have. If all happy families are the same, then when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Let’s just forget about it and go for the dysfunctional.

My daughter, when she was four years old, we used to go pick up < i>The New York Times the night before at the newsstand. One day we got to the newsstand and the paper hadn’t arrived yet. I was getting a little fidgety and she said, “Daddy, the paper’s not ready yet because the people haven’t been killed yet.”

What did [Time/Life Pictures Editor] Bob Drew envision in order to justify the expense of developing new camera technology? It would be a kind of journalism where the camera would be behind the scenes and not have to rely on a narrator to tell the story. That precipitated a whole revolution in making documentaries. It still hasn’t filtered down to news reporting, which is still an illustrated lecture. The advance was to get to life in such a direct way that when you saw the film you could judge for yourself.

The first thing we did was to get behind the scenes of the election campaign between Kennedy and Humphrey and when you see that film [Primary], you think, “Oh my gosh, were they making film like that way back in 1960? Whoo!” Television people still haven’t caught up.

What’s going on with the Maysles Institute in Harlem? We’re putting the building together. We are going to have 75 seats. We are going to show movies of interest to people. Films on the civil rights movement for example, all kinds of films. We’re also going to, hopefully with funds from private and foundation sources, have a whole program where we’ll be able to give video cameras to local kids and show their films.

A lot of artists enjoy complete control over what they’re creating. With me the basic thing is not having that control, in a random fashion. The control consists in noticing what other people don’t notice.