Thursday June 18, 2009

Continuing the festival's honoring of Albert Maysles work is the screening of 2 of his most critically acclaimed docs. The first one, "Salesman" (*** 1/2-91 minutes), was considered a landmark "Direct Cinema" documentary in 1968. The film follows 4 door-to-door bible salesmen (Paul "The Badger" Brennan, Charles "The Gipper" McDevitt, James "The Rabbit" Baker, and Raymond "The Bull" Martos) who, with leads provided by the local church, try to convince their low-income Catholic "targets" to fork over $50 to buy, what they proclaimed, "is still the best seller in the world." No narration is provided-just the voyeuristic images as it follows these 4 on their various rounds in Boston, Chicago, and Miami households. You observe these 4 salesmen trying every means possible to convince these poor soles that their lives wouldn't be the same without it. The sleaziness is emphasized even more as you listen to them in hotel rooms describing the people they encountered. At the same time, you sense their loneliness and despair in doing a job that many have experienced in some form or another-be it the selling end or the receiving end. When I was about 13 years old, my brother-in-law hired me to sell magazines door-to-door with a "free" dictionary" as bait. I did it for a couple of months in the middle of winter and I still remember how depressing it was to walk into a stranger's home and try to do what these guys did for a living year after year. You will be reminded of "Death of a Salesman" or even the great David Mamet's play "Glengarry Glen Ross" as you watch these dudes in action. It is admirable that no judgments are imparted by the Maysles. Their camera merely allows the viewer to make up their mind as to whether this American Dream is really a nightmare. The audience was then treated to a fabulous interview with Albert conducted by Festival Director Skye Sitney followed by a Q & A with the audience. For nearly a half-hour we were treated to an intimate look into the creative process used by the acclaimed filmmaker. Albert revealed that the key to their work is that they really like people and to get very close to their hearts and minds they have to be trusted by their subjects. Also, he likes to think that "it all begins with (their subjects) catching something in our eyes that reveals a kind of fairness and a fondness that is going to develop." Albert also related how they wanted to create the first non-fiction documentary in the vein of Capote's non-fiction novel. The idea for "Salesman" was actually suggested by Truman's editor, Joseph Fox after a lunch meeting with David Maysles. The idea hit home with Albert who had done door-to-door selling Fuller Brushes and encyclopedias while going to college, saying he felt that making a film works best if you have a personal connection to the subject. He recounted that at a screening he noticed an attractive lady crying and he nudged David and said "She's for me". And that was how he met his wife. Also, after 40 years, Albert said he is still friends and is in touch with the 4 Irish bible salesmen, as well as most of his subjects-including filming Yoko's 70th birthday party as a present. Also interesting was that Philip Seymour Hoffman told him that Philip had seen their short "With Love from Truman" many times and told Albert he had a good model on which to follow. During the discussion, he revealed that his latest project involves interviewing pairs of precocious children ages 4-6.

Next it was time to take in one of the 6 short programs, collectively entitled "Lost and Found". The program included the North American premier of the Polish short "Left Behind" (** 1/2-13 minutes). Fabian Daub & Andreas Grafenstein recounted the plight of 2 occupants of a small town in Poland who lost their jobs when the coal mines were closed. In order to survive, they continue to do the only thing they know: surreptitiously mine coal and sell it on the black market. All the while, the local police are continuously trying to stop them. On a much lighter note, the east coast premier of the 3 minute "Pockets" (***) by UK's James Lees, shows Londoners revealing the stuff they have in their, well, pockets. You wouldn't believe what some folks carry around-or, then again, maybe you would. Back to Poland for Academy Award nominated (for 1994's "89 MM FROM EUROPE") Marcel Lozinski's international premier of "Poste Restante" (***-15 minutes) which shows what happens with undeliverable letters such as letters addressed to Santa, God, deceased relatives, etc. Pablo Alvarez-Mesa's U.S. premier of "Presidio Modelo" (***-15 minutes) takes us inside and around the Cuban prison at Isla del Pinos built by Dictator Gerardo Machado in 1926. Famous for housing Fidel Castro, the poetic somber narration overlays the stark visuals of the long-abandoned fortress. UK's Eva Weber's "Steel Homes" (*** 1/2-10 minutes) fixes its gaze upon a cold self-storage facility that contains the warm memories of the stuff belonging to people who rent them. One by one we see those folks open the storage doors and search through boxes of belongings that people "need" to store away and hold on to-items that, in many cases, have no monetary value but are priceless to the people who own them. Finally, the best of the shorts was "Salt" (****-28 minutes) a stunningly beautifully photographed piece that chronicles renowned Australian photo-artist Murray Fredericks (who also directed along with Michael Angus) on his project to photograph the barren salt flats of Lake Eyre in South Australia. Fredericks has been camping out on the lake 5 weeks at a time for the last 6 years photographing the landscape (which is totally flat in all directions). Using time-lapse photography and breathtaking cinematography, you see Murray grapple with the essence of living in solitude and dealing with the elements (& erratic equipment) while recording a video diary of his experience on one of his excursions. The only contact he made were periodic satellite calls to his family in Sydney. The haunting soundtrack by Aajinta perfectly compliments this journey of mind and spirit. This is an absolutely unforgettable short that profoundly reflects on the beauty of the earth in a very minimal setting. Fredericks was present at the screening and told me that he has had an exhibition of his photographs in Australia but not yet in The States. Hopefully, they will make their way across the pond someday soon!

Next is the east coast premier of Laura Gabbert & Justin Schein's humorous, topical "No Impact Man" (*** 1/2-92 minutes), about the family of author Colin Beavan trying an experiment for his next book that few would ever attempt: living in New York for a year without impacting the environment. What does this encompass? How about eliminating these items from your life: electricity, cars, toilet paper, garbage (by creating compost using boxes of worms inside your home)-to name just a few of the things they had to endure in order to make the experiment a success. Beavan's wife Michelle (who is senior writer for "Business Week") and 3 year old daughter are along for the ride (the former a tad reluctant at first, the latter has no choice). And as the experiment gained speed, so did Colin's notoriety as he started appearing on national TV shows to promote his idea to the world. With they succeed? Will his caffeine addicted spouse hold up under the pressure? Will the marriage even survive trying to achieve, what most people will believe is, an insane goal? The movie will answer these and other questions and, in the process, just might have you rethinking your place on the planet and what you can do to protect its fragility. A thoroughly entertaining look at one man's take on simplifying his life to do his part in changing the world. The Q & A was attended by Michelle along with the 2 film makers and, yes, the marriage did survive and, even though it appeared she was going to crack under the pressure of living out her husband's dream, she has actually permanently instituted some of the energy saving techniques after the experiment ended-but not the worms! The film was picked up by Oscilloscope Laboratories and it will open in theaters on September 4th.

Later that evening it was time to honor the great Albert Maysles, the recipient of this year's Guggenheim Symposium Award. A filmmaker who has made over 100 documentaries as director of over 35 and cinematographer on 64 (many with his late brother David), this honor is well deserved. And present to pay homage to him are the great artists Cristo & wife Jeanne-Claude, and the honoree of the 1st Guggenheim Symposium, Academy Award winning director Barbara Kopple. Each took the podium to offer insights as to how the honoree has influenced their life and work. Following these tributes was a terrific conversation between Albert and "Entertainment Weekly" film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum followed by the award ceremony.

Albert Maysles & SIVERDOCS dir. Skye Sitney
after the screening of "Salesman"

Shorts directors (from l to r)
Eva Weber ("Steel Homes"),
Murry Fredericks ("Salt") ,
& Fabian Daub ("Left Behind")

NPR national
Daniel Zwerdling
moderates the
"No Impact Man"
afterfilm discussion

(l to r) "No Impact Man" dirs. Justin Schein &
Laura Gabbert. and Michelle Beavan

Artists Jeanne-Claude & Cristo pay tribute to
Albert Maysles at the Guggenheim Symposium

Academy Award winning dir. Barbara Kopple
introduces Albert Maysles at the Guggenheim

Guggenheim Symposium honoree Abert Maysles
with moderator"Entertainment Weekly"

film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum

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