The Maysles Brothers
The Maysles brothers' cinema verite documentaries flow over with memorable personages, from Jackie Kennedy's Warholian relatives tottering about in semi-lunacy in Grey Gardens to cocky Mick Jagger suddenly subdued by a death at Altamont in Gimme Shelter. But, borrowing from Arthur Miller, attention must be made to such a man as Salesman's real-life protagonist, Paul Brennan. Searching for him last July, I drove down Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan, Massachusetts, and arrived at a Gothic brick bulding of gargantuan proportions, a primal setting for something like Kubrick's The Shining.
"Most of out patients come here with three strikes against them," said Kathleen Barry, nursing supervisor of Mattapan Chronic Disease Hospital, where the sick are wards of the city of Boston and its surroundings. In the case of Jamaica Plains's Paul Brennan bedridden, tortured by rheumatoid arthritis-the count is more like four or five strikes.
And yet this forlorn, barely-speaking septuagenarian was once the center of the heralded 1969 film-and this summer Salesman played on television for the first time ever, as a special broadcast of PBS's "P.O.V." series. When the Maysles, Albert and David, researched Salesman, they came upon Brennan, a Willy Loman-as-Barry Fitzgerald peddling illustrated Bibles door-to-door via tuneful blasts of Irish-American oratory and blarney. With 16mm camera and tape recorder, the Maysles followed after.
The cinema verite classic is considered by historians to be the first non-fiction theatrical feature to chronicle "regular" people going about their ordinary lives. The Maysles filmed Brennan and three co-employees of the marginally reputable Mid-American Bible Company ringing doorbells house to house through Catholic and blue-collar Boston, and still non-Hispanic Miami.
"The whole film hangs on Paul," says Albert Maysles. Until the P.O.V. showing, however, nobody at the hospital knew about Brennan's past.
"This is fascinating!" nurse Barry exclaimed. "We don't exactly have many celebrities at Mattapan Chronic."
"Did you know Ray Bolger? Frank Fontaine?" two excited volunteers, Anna and Marie, tried to pump Brennan for Irish-Cathlic show-biz stories.
Mark Jacobson, a medical social worker, interjected that "Paul said a documentary had been made but we weren't able to confirm it. Paul is so very quiet and laid back. When he'd discuss it, it wasn't like bragging."
The time of the interview, bragging wasn't an issue. Talking was. Even one-word answers came hard for Brennan who, hazy in his bed, faded in and then faded away. Seemingly, he was an actor once in a theatrical production of Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, the staging of which might have been in Boston, or New York. Other plays? "I don't remember." Why recall that one? "Peculiar title."
"The last time I really spent time with Paul was four years ago, when my brother David was alive," says ex-Bostonian Albert Maysles, in a telephone talk. "We took him out to dinner at a pretty fancy dinner near the John Hancock Building." Recently, the New York-based director wrote a letter to Brennan in the hospital "saying how much I miss him."
Maysles says, "Our father grew up in Dorchester as the only Jewish guy in an Irish neighborhood, and he always thought he didn't succeed because jobs were very political and he wasn't Irish. As a post office clerk in the Federal Building for twenty-nine years, he never made more than $50 a week. Like our father, Paul was not made for the job he ended up with. He was too soulful a character to be on the road pushing a product, even if the product he was pushing is the Bible."
"To me, Salesman is a movie about failure," says Lilian Brennan, a retired Arlington, Massachusetts, secretary who divorced Paul Brennan decades ago because then he was an alcoholic. "Paul had a very good personality. He was intelligent. But it was one job after another. At the end of the movie, he gives up on his selling. That's the story of his life."
The Brennans were already separated by the time of Salesman. Lilian Brennan says she found out about the film only when her estranged husband showed up unannounced with a movie crew at their daughter's marriage. She refused to sign a release for shooting the wedding, so none of that day ended up in the Maysles' documentary.
"I wouldn't marry Paul again, or live with him again," she says now, "but I have a lot of sympathy for him." A note from Lilian Brennan about Salesman on TV was taped up in her ex-husband's hopsital ward saying, "Paul would like to watch the film. Please turn it on for him."
(The Boston Review - October 1990)
The Boston Phoenix, May 2003
Though Albert Maysles' solipsist tales of making documentaries have grown stale through countless repeatings (I've heard them on three occasions), he himself, to his credit, never gets tired. At 75, there he was with a digital camera last year in the pits of Boston club, shooting up to the stage where Mission to Burma rocked out. Also, his world-acclaimed 16mm cinema verite films, co-directed by his late brother, David, never fade away: Salesman (1969), Grey Gardens (1975), Gimme Shelter (1970).
The Maysles' less famous works are immensely interesting also, and Cambridge's Brattle offers four of these, paired into double features, as part of the theatre's "Real to Reel" Tuesday documentary series. On May 27, you get Running Fence (1978) with Christo in Paris (1978), films in which the Maysles Brothers follow Christo, the Bulgarian-born artist, and Jeanne-Claude, his French-born wife, as they embark on highly problematic public art projects. On June 10, the Maysles return with cinema verite biographies, With Love from Truman (1968), profiling writer Truman Capote, and Showman (1963), about Boston's once-renowned movie mogul, Joe E. Levine.
Christo in Paris was unavailable for viewing. It concerns, says the Brattle program, "Christo's first large urban project (the wrapping of the Pont Neuf, Paris's oldest bridge) but also his relationship with his partner, Jeanne-Claude." Do they squabble by the Seine? I wonder. Usually (they were born on the same day in 1935), they are the most synchronized of couples, as is seen vividly in Running Fence. Arrived in rural California, Christo and Jeanne-Claude plot in tandem to persuade locals to allow them to put up a 24-mile, 18-foot high fence of white nylon fabric supported by cables and steel poles. The fence, starting in Sonoma County, would run through private properties, then along a hill above a state highway then, going into Marin County, dip to the beach and into the wet Pacific.
The Maysles are at the town meetings where permissions must be secured. That's a part of every Christo project: the fostering of public debate. Inevitably, some people extend their aesthetic appreciation, while others balk at Christo's grandiose out-of-museum constructions. "That's not art," one irate Californian snorts, "a piece of rag for fifty miles. I bet he [Christo] can't even paint a picture!" A waitress on her shift is more sympathetic, describing the curtain as "Nifty...Nature-pretty."
I agree with the waitress. When Christo's glorious curtain is finally up, it's like God's laundry out to dry.
With Love for Truman features an upbeat Capote riding high on the success of In Cold Blood, his true-life saga of brutal murders in Kansas. The Maysles film a softball interview with Capote by a Newsweek reporter, who relishes his talents. The author brags about inventing for his book a new form of "non-fiction novel." Deftly mixing a Bloody Mary, he soliloquizes: "I think style applies to everything. Music, literature, art, good oysters. Style is oneself. It's something you can't learn. It's simply there, like the color of your eyes."
Showman was a pioneering documentary for being nothing more than an extended sketch of its subject (there's little narrative thrust) and for being open-ended about how its subject should be regarded. Is Joe E. Levine a barbarian, philistine jerk? Or is he a shrewd, all-American entrepeneur? The audience decides.
Levine was a poor Jewish boy from Boston's West End who made it huge in New England film exhibition, then became an international legend for buying a cheap Italian spectacle, the Steve Reeves-starring Hercules (1959), and releasing it in the USA. It made millions. Levine is also the model for Jack Palance's bullying, sex-crazy, anti-intellectual producer in Jean-Luc Godard's classic, Contempt (1963). In Showman, we watch the overweight, crude Levine run his New York-based independent film company, Embassy Pictures (a prefigurement of Harvey Weinstein at Miramax?). We watch him challenged by art movies he has purchased, such as Vittorio DeSica's Two Women, about how to package them into commercial "products."
The Boston part: Levine comes home to a rousing testimonial dinner of people from the old neighborhood, a fascinating The Last Hurrah kind of scene. To his credit, he's not impressed with the flattery and sycophancy. Many of the gathered snubbed him when he was less famous. And he refuses to get nostalgic about his Beantown childhood. He loathed it, and his poverty. How much dandier, the Maysles show us, when millionaire Levine hangs out with Sophia Loren at Cannes.