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Posts Tagged ‘Albert Maysles’

Frame by Frame Video: Documentary Films

Friday, November 9th, 2012

I have a new Frame by Frame video episode out today, directed by Curt Bright, on documentary films.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the video.

Curt and I have done a lot of Frame by Frame videos, but we’ve never really delved into the world of non-fiction filmmaking, until now. In this video, I very briefly highlight some of the key documentary filmmakers in the history of the medium, along with some of their most important works, so this should be a handy guide for further viewing for those who aren’t familiar with this area of cinema. You’ll notice that I jump around in time a lot in the video, highlighting documentarians of both the past and present, roughly arranged according to the themes they were attracted to.

For the record, in the image above, David (left) and Albert (far right) Maysles, two of the most prominent filmmakers of the 1960s in this area, are working on a film about Truman Capote (center), who had just published his groundbreaking “non fiction novel,” In Cold Blood. This video is just an introduction to the documentary presence in cinema, and lists only the major players — with some left out for reasons of space — but the still runs a full 7 minutes. Enjoy, and thanks to Curt Bright for doing such a superb job of editing the piece.

Documentary films hold up a mirror to life that we simply can’t ignore.

Guest Blogger: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on The Maysles Brothers’ Salesman

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, the film theorist and historian, has graciously agreed to do four short essays on some of her favorite films for this site.

Salesman

Salesman (1968) is one of the pioneering works of American documentary filmmaking, created by Albert and David Maysles, with Charlotte Zwerin serving as the editor who co-created the film in the cutting room. The Maysles brothers were some of the first filmmakers to use hand held sync-sound 16mm filmmaking equipment; indeed, they helped to create the equipment, along with other filmmakers, to document the world around them in a more immediate style than contemporary technology would then allow.

The structure of the film is simple; Salesman follows four door-to-door salesmen for a New England Bible company. We are introduced to them, one by one, in the beginning moments of the film, and then follow them on their rounds as they try to sell ornate Bibles to relatively poor people who clearly can’t afford the then-steep $50 price tag for each volume.

Joking, cajoling, shaming and wheedling their customers into purchasing the Bibles, sometimes on a monthly payment plan, the salesmen start their work in Boston, then move to Chicago, and finally to Miami, in search of new customers, and virgin territory.

When Salesman was made, The Maysles brothers were the “go-to” men for documentary filmmaking assignments, often at short notice; such earlier works as Showman (1963), documenting a day in the life of film producer Joseph E. Levine, and What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. (1964), focusing on the Beatles’ first visit to America, in addition to filmic portraits Meet Marlon Brando and A Visit with Truman Capote (both 1966), consolidated their reputations as the key documentarians of the pop culture of their era. Salesman was their biggest commercial success up that point, and paved the way for Gimme Shelter (1970), which covered the disastrous concert by The Rolling Stones at Altamont, California.

Shot in gritty black and white, Salesman is at pains to show that what the four man do is brutal, unrelenting, and lonely, consisting of seemingly endless hours of driving, pitching to potential customers, nights spent in cheap motels (in one of the happier moments in the film, the four men are seen doing “cannonballs” in a hotel swimming pool to relieve their stress), and the constant pressure to sell, sell, sell.

Like their contemporary Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles’ documentary style strives to be as unobtrusive as possible, with no narration, minimal editing, shooting hundreds of hours of film to capture the essential moments that depict the tragically nomadic life of these men of the road.

The Maysles split the duties of filmmaking, co-producing and directing their films; Albert, however, emerged as the cinematographer of the duo, while David handled the sound. Working with primitive equipment that would only allow 400 ft. of 16mm film to be shot at one burst, or less than 12 minutes of running time, Salesman stands as a bleak, compelling time-capsule of a lost era that would, like the phenomenon of the door-to-door salesman, vanish into obsolescence with the advent of the new digital society.”

You can access Professor Foster’s website directly by clicking on this link.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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