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Albert Maysles (#110 of 10)

If I Were a Rich Man: Salesman

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If I Were a Rich Man: Salesman

Janus Films

If I Were a Rich Man: Salesman

“If a man’s not a success, he’s got no one to blame but himself.”

Variations on that sentiment recur throughout 1968’s Salesman. It’s the myth of American self-determination boiled down to 14 words. Each time it’s repeated, it becomes funnier and more ominous. Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin subtly contradict it simply by depicting the title profession, which was already in decline when the film was shot, and which consisted mainly of secularists or nonpracticing believers trying to sell middle- and working-class Americans religious texts they didn’t want and probably couldn’t afford anyway. Without narration—and with only a handful of onscreen titles, most of them terse and dryly factual—the filmmakers show just how casually materialistic postwar America had become.

Tribeca Review: In Transit

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Tribeca Review: <em>In Transit</em>
Tribeca Review: <em>In Transit</em>

In Transit’s first scene features a young man telling a fellow passenger about a major life change toward which he’s heading on the train they’re both riding: He found himself unhappy with his current lifestyle and decided to take an opportunity offered by a relative to start afresh elsewhere. When he ecstatically rhapsodizes about how he’s seizing this “opportunity to change,” one might initially assume that the film is essentially offering its statement of intent; certainly, a subsequent anecdote from a Chinese woman who recently fled her home country to come see the U.S. buttresses an impression that this film will be a paean to the freedom and possibility of human connection that train travel represents. But as ever with the late documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, who co-directs here with Lynn True, Nelson Walker, David Usui, and Benjamin Wu, things aren’t quite so simple.

BFI London Film Festival 2012: Tomorrow

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BFI London Film Festival 2012: <em>Tomorrow</em>
BFI London Film Festival 2012: <em>Tomorrow</em>

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a complex place. Spanning 16 regions and across eight time zones, Russia is a country of dichotomy. It’s at once home to multi-billionaire oligarchs (whose wealth has been accumulated only since the fall of communism) and secret tribes practicing their own laws based on religious sectarianism. It was only in August that an Islamist sect of over 70 people, including 27 children, was discovered having been living in an underground catacomb for over a decade. Russia, as a country, is definable only by its contradictions. It’s a nation of massive cultural, economic, ethnic, political, and religious disparities—a modern-day feudalist state built of communities that are small, insular, and proud.

A pre-title card to Andrey Gryazev’s Tomorrow states that the events that follow may or may not have actually occurred in reality. Such an inherent and overt contradiction undermines the documentary’s claims to factual accuracy. Gryazev captures the intensely personal lives of his anarcho-libertarian subjects as they roam the streets of Moscow shoplifting, gleaning from trashcans, and attempting to overturn parked cars. This small group of civic revolutionaries reject money, ownership of property, the established governmental regime, and the hypocrisies of law enforcement. Co-founders and de facto leaders Oleg and Koza call their son Kasper “Russia’s youngest political prisoner.”

Documentary Comes to Harlem: The Maysles Cinema

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Documentary Comes to Harlem: The Maysles Cinema
Documentary Comes to Harlem: The Maysles Cinema

Gentrification puts its best foot forward in a storefront just north of 125th Street in Harlem. The welcoming space houses a three-part business headed by documentary pioneer Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Salesman, Gimme Shelter.)

At Maysles Films, the film production arm, Maysles, his directing partner Bradley Kaplan, and their production team make documentaries as well as ads and other commissioned projects to help pay the bills. (Their latest doc, Muhammad and Larry, was part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.) The educational branch of the operation, which includes after-school programs, a summer intensive, and a new class for adults, teaches people from the neighborhood—mostly middle school and high school students from Harlem and the Bronx—how to make their own films. And the Maysles Cinema screens a rich lineup of documentaries and a smattering of realistic narrative features, many of them tied directly to the life or history of the neighborhood. The cinema’s screenings illustrate what its mission statement describes as “the Maysles Brothers’ principle that the lives of ordinary people not only deserve, but demand, our attention.” Each is followed by a discussion between the audience and people who were somehow involved with the film, usually as filmmakers or subjects.

The business was started when Al Mayles and his wife, Gillian, moved from the Upper West Side to Harlem five years ago. “After seeing a screening at the old Pioneer theater, they thought they’d contribute to their new neighborhood. It was really my mother who came up with the idea of starting a small movie theater,” says their son Philip, now the co-programmer of the cinema in collaboration with Jessica Green, the former editor of Stress magazine.

Two of the couple’s three daughters also work there, both as volunteers. Facilities Manager Rebekah Maysles manages the space; Sara is new media director. The small staff also includes Development Director Jason Fox and Education Director Vee Bravo.

True to the collaborative spirit that animates the cinema, the staff take turns fielding interview requests. I talked to Philip Maysles and Bravo at the cinema on a recent Friday afternoon.

Docu Vague: Antonio Ferrera & Albert Maysles’s The Gates

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Docu Vague: Antonio Ferrera & Albert Maysles’s <em>The Gates</em>
Docu Vague: Antonio Ferrera & Albert Maysles’s <em>The Gates</em>

As regards the Tribeca Film Festival’s closing night offering, The Gates, I can only say that it reinforces my ambivalence toward the vérité stylings of co-director Albert Maysles. With his late brother David, Maysles pioneered a house style of documentary filmmaking that took fly-on-the-wall observation to an often troublesome extreme. Admittedly, my Maysles experience is severely limited: I’ve yet to see Salesman, which frequent readers of this site will know is held in high regard by my co-editor; Gimme Shelter made little impression in the moment, and has since been colored by the disapproving insights of several friends and colleagues; and I’ve only seen snippets of Grey Gardens, though enough that I feel a severe discomfort at what appears to be a prod-on-the-freaks sideshow.

The Bear Necessities An Interview with Alonso Duralde, Part Two

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The Bear Necessities: An Interview with Alonso Duralde, Part Two
The Bear Necessities: An Interview with Alonso Duralde, Part Two

In Part 1 of our interview with Alonso Duralde, arts and entertainment editor for The Advocate and author of 101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men, Alonso analyzed the gay subtext of Carrie, conceded that he might consider jumping the fence for Gina Gershon and said Brokeback Mountain had the potential to be the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of homophobia. In Part 2, he praises The Apple, defends Kevin Smith and Chasing Amy, and explains why Top Gun isn’t in his book.

Purely on a synopsis level, I’d imagine there was no way you could have excluded Gods and Monsters. But that movie was troublesome for some viewers, particularly young gay men who came of age in the era of AIDS activism. I personally know two gay film critics who despised that film because to them, James Whale represented sort of a worst-case-scenario gay artist, the broken down old queen lusting after the hunky young straight handyman. For all the film’s intelligence and period sophistication, doesn’t Whale’s character seem like a gay white equivalent of Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy? By which I mean, a representative of a particular type of man who irrefutably existed, and continues to exist, but who makes the supposedly “enlightened” world more uncomfortable by the year?