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door pedlars as they attempt to flog a garishly illustrated family
Bible to wary Catholic households, the film depicts an America
in december 1969, the rolling stones – a band whose almost unaltered by the cultural tremors of the decade. At the
accommodation to the placid collectivism of the late-1960s ideal centre of Salesman is a deeply unsettling hole: the complete
had always been ambiguous, if not openly opportunistic and emotional collapse of one of the men, Paul ‘Badger’ Brennan.
ironic – played at the Altamont Speedway, Northern California, His sales patter turning wheedling and desperate, then outright
and saw the decade’s optimism symbolically crushed just a few caustic before housewifely indifference, Brennan retreats to
feet from the stage. A young black man, Meredith Hunter, was his hotel room, stares emptily into the middle distance and
beaten and stabbed to death after apparently pulling a gun in overcompensates manically with dismal, self-lacerating jokes
front of some Hell’s Angels. The killing was captured on film by at the expense of reluctant Irish-American punters. A Maysles
Albert and David Maysles, whose subsequent documentary, Scrapbook shows him mustering sufficient self-possession to
Gimme Shelter (1970), shows an ashen-faced Mick Jagger attend the film’s premiere, while a letter to the Maysleses from
watching the incident on a Steenbeck editing machine in the the Mid-American Bible Company quite misses the point, and
company of the directors. ‘How horrible’, he mutters – but it’s congratulates them for showing ‘what a man should not feel or
unclear whether Jagger is more shocked at the violence itself think in his attempt to become successful’.
or at the sudden assault by reality on the Stones’s increasingly If Salesman is a film about the shredding of a personality,
detached milieu. Keith Richards is less hard to read; looking Grey Gardens (1975), which is arguably the Maysleses’s greatest
at footage of the audience, he concludes: ‘They all had those achievement, is a record of the obdurate persistence of
victims’ faces’. character in the face of total disarray. During the early 1970s, the
Of the 20 films that the Maysleses made together Maysleses were slated to make a film based on autobiographical
(before younger brother David’s death, in 1987), a surprising reminiscences by Lee Radziwill, sister of Jacqueline Kennedy.
number seem to be about this shuttling between anxiety and The film went unfinished, but in the process the brothers
bravura in a public persona: more precisely, the performer’s discovered Jackie’s elderly aunt, Edith Bouvier Beale, and her
fear of revealing a victim’s face. The brothers seem to have middle-aged daughter, ‘Little Edie’. Ensconced in a decayed
possessed an unsentimental (though never cynical) proficiency and filthy mansion in East Hampton, New York, the women eked
for uncovering their subjects at exactly the moment their out their dwindled fortune on ice cream and liver paté, bickering
puffed and purified self-images were about to curdle. And the constantly over chances at happiness that were long since lost
film frames, stills, scripts and production notes collected in a and talents (dancing and singing, respectively) squandered
new volume, A Maysles Scrapbook, confirm that their intimate decades ago. Grey Gardens was filmed not long after the local
shooting style was as much about finding the anxious performer authorities (at the behest of scandalised neighbours) had forced
in the ‘real’ person as it was about the more conventional the mother and daughter to perform a traumatic cleanup of the
stripping away of a celebrity persona to reveal the ‘truth’. rambling estate and fetid house.
Consider, for instance, the photographs taken during Inevitably, and somewhat unimaginatively, Grey Gardens
their filming of Truman Capote for a television documentary, has come to be seen as a mere catalogue of camp grotesquerie:
With Love from Truman, in 1966. The writer, clutching copies of the once ravishing Edie hiding her bare scalp, flirting with the
In Cold Blood (then newly published), is apparently unassailable, directors and wrapping herself in tattered remnants of her lost
the angelic young author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) having glamour; Edith wavering through a rendition of ‘Tea for Two’ in a
diverted his talent from glittering fiction to grimly engaging bed strewn with food, cats and old photographs. But A Maysles
reportage. But the Maysleses’s Capote looks lubricious and Scrapbook reminds us of the amazing vitality and invention
uneasy, already half-immured in the celebrity and soul-numbing of these two women in extremis. The brothers’ location
creative slump (not to mention florid physical decline) of the photographs show just how deeply into the Beales’s story they
decade to come. A year before, the brothers had filmed Marlon succeeded in taking the viewer, often by the simplest means: a
Brando as he submitted to a round of television interviews. mirror handed from one bed to the other, a ripple of wind across
On the evidence of the transcripts and stills reproduced in the encroaching foliage outside. As Little Edie drawls, in the
the book, he too appears to be on the cusp of some career- film’s most memorable moment, ‘It’s very difficult to keep the
juddering psychic shift. He is so charmingly, hilariously impatient line between the past and the present. You know what I mean?
with the entire interview setup that you know a swerve towards It’s awfully difficult.’
resentment and reclusion is just around the corner.
By the late 1960s, the Maysleses had trained their tape Albert Maysles, A Maysles Scrapbook, edited by Michael
machine and custom-built lightweight camera on some of the Chaiken, Steven Kasher and Sara Maysles (Steidl, 2007). Edith
brittlest self-images of the era: JFK on the primary trail in 1960, Bouvier Beale of Grey Gardens: A Life in Pictures, edited by
the Beatles’s first US tour in 1964, a furiously mugging Salvador Anne Verlhac (Verlhac Editions, 2007)
Dalí on the streets of New York in 1966. But their most sustained
report on what America could do to the private ‘I’ on public
display came in 1968, with Salesman. Tracking four door-to-
Stills from Salesman, 1968,
dir Albert and David Maysles.
Courtesy Steidl
125 Artreview
Mixed Media_Photography.indd 125 5/2/08 13:16:48
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