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Death of an American Dream Documentaries

‘Salesman’ And ‘Gimme Shelter’ Brilliantly Evoke an Era

From the vantage point of 2012, the 1960s, as seen in the two documentaries Salesman and Gimme Shelter by the Maysles Brothers, look like another planet from the one we live on now. Which is, on consideration, a very good thing.

On the right side of the scale, we have the Willy Lomans of Salesman: four white, middle-aged males from Massachusetts, working for the American Bible Company, who go door-to-door peddling expensive Bibles to families where the women stay at home raising children while the men march off to work in the morning.

On the left hand of the scale, we have the blood and mayhem of Gimme Shelter. The Rolling Stones, masters of mischief led by chief provocateur Mick Jagger, find that their theatrical version of anarchy at a 1969 concert in Altamont, Calif., is so far removed from the real thing that they are inadequate to contain it when it erupts in front of them.

And yet. Are the divisions between the two different societies seen in these two remarkable films, available on DVD, really so alien to Americans? When the press natters on about how this country has never been as “polarized” as it is now, I can only scratch my head. American historical memory is lamentably short. Does the press not remember the 1960s?

Even if some of the pundits are too young to remember the 1960s, which might account for some of the verbiage about a country never more divided, what are we to make of this kind of rhetorical solipsism that also overlooks the Revolution, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, the Red Scare and Palmer Raids of the 1920s, the Depression and the McCarthy era? American life has always been messy, volatile, unpredictable and wrenching, qualities all on display in Salesman and Gimme Shelter.

But the point of watching the unsettling and oddly beautiful Gimme Shelter and Salesman, which might be one of the best American documentaries you’ve probably never seen, is to see what critic Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America” in full throttle.

The hippies, freaks and flower children who thronged to Altamont Speedway outside San Francisco in December 1969 defiantly thought of themselves as a new kind of society, one that operated outside conventional strictures. The more things change, as the saying goes.

What the surging crowd at Altamont reminded me of, strangely, was a 1960s version of the religious communes and utopias of the 19th century: the Shakers’ ecstatic, fervent dancing and singing, and the free love espoused by John Humphrey Noyes at the Oneida Community in New York.

There’s idealism, self-delusion and self-indulgence, but also the tantalizing promise of self-fulfillment that can’t ever really be attained.

The snake in this chaotic Eden materializes in the form of the Hell’s Angels, deputized to provide security for the musicians, among them Jefferson Airplane, Ike and Tina Turner and finally, the Stones. While the Stones ape violence and thuggishness in their music (Street Fighting Man, Gimme Shelter), the Hell’s Angels bring real violence and thuggishness, itching to fight and beating up people who get too close to the stage.

The concert starts and stops, Mick Jagger pleads in vain with the crowd to calm down, the tension escalates, one man shows a gun, one of the Hell’s Angels wields a knife the size of a scimitar, there’s shouting and screaming, and the man with the gun is repeatedly stabbed. It’s confusing and murky who does what when. The cameras on stage turn to the area in front but we see only a tangle of bodies in motion.

It’s in the editing room that the Maysles and the Stones are able to slow down and isolate what happened in a matter of seconds. So what was supposed to be a documentary about one of the world’s great bands turns into a post-mortem of sorts — and not just of the concert, but of an era.

Albert and David Maysles, who hailed from Boston, were part of the documentary movement called Cinema Verite, using lighter, hand-held cameras and sound equipment that allowed them to get as close to their subjects as their subjects would allow.

They were more than technical innovators, though. They had, together, a superb eye for detail and an instinctive sense for how to tell a story.

They also had an accomplished editor, Charlotte Zwerin, who gets full directorial credit with them, and with good reason: like many films, these were made in the editing room.

The violence at Altamont is only part of the whole. In this remastered version, there are gorgeous, color-saturated shots of crowds streaming through the tawny, sunlit hills of northern California, pilgrims on their way to a rock-and-roll Mecca; the whirling dervish gyrations of Mick Jagger, bathed in a bordello-red light, who seems to exude sensuality but is, off-stage, detached and calculated in affect, seemingly impervious to the fact that someone’s been killed; couples fondling in the grass; a nude woman desperately trying to clamber on stage.

Salesman couldn’t look and sound more different. Shot in black and white, the film follows four salesmen from Boston as they try to do one of the hardest things in the world: getting one foot past the front door while homeowners do their utmost to keep them out. The product is a glossy, heavy Bible, illustrated with paintings by, as one of the salesmen reverently (and cannily) puts it, the Old Masters.

Their sales manager, a guy in the requisite white shirt and skinny black tie who looks like a particularly large, chewy piece of beef jerky, lets the aphorisms roll off his tongue like a playwright. “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” he harangues the salesmen with their hangdog expressions. “I’m sick of your alibis and excuses.” Watching this 90-minute film was like watching and reading Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest condensed into one pithy whole. Are the salesmen, who have the weight and richness of literary characters, heroes, dupes or shills, or all three?

The protagonist is a man named Paul Brennan, nicknamed “The Badger.” His colleagues are James “The Rabbit” Baker, Raymond “The Bull” Martos, and Charles “The Gipper” McDevitt. While the Rabbit, Bull and Gipper make their sales, the Badger falls further and further behind. Sardonic, loquacious, moralizing, occasionally hectoring, Brennan tries to close the sale again and again, and fails. In one sequence, he cajoles, bullies and nearly flat-out begs a woman to buy this Bible. It’s an extraordinarily suspenseful scene, as the balance of power shifts from Salesman to customer and back again.

You could mock the Badger, or find his ambitions small and conniving, but I saw in him the pathos of Willy Loman, the stubbornness of Rabbit Angstrom and the desperation of the crew of real estate salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross. For all his blarney, or to use the term du jour, malarkey, the Badger’s a decent, melancholy man, an Aesop from Jamaica Plain who knows he’s on his way out. If you see echoes of the current predicament of a stagnant American middle class here, you should.

And although the salesmen and the crowd at Altamont would appear to have not one single point of commonality, the Badger, the Rabbit, the Bull and the Gipper are outliers in their own way, living life on a margin that is perilously thin. The pursuit of happiness, it turns out, isn’t always so happy.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.