Thursday, November 24, 2016


My first encounter with Salesman (1968) was in the late 1980s when it was briefly revived for its 20th anniversary.  After more than 25 years, it's still astonishing. Despite the fact that its male characters wear hats and smoke cigarettes, its not a time capsule; its message is still strong today. It is perhaps the best documentary about working stiffs you'll ever see.

In 1968, Albert and David Maysles were at the beginning of their prime years, but already deep into the style they'd show in their more famous documentaries. For Salesman they focused on a quartet of bible salesmen trudging through a bleak New England winter, what one of the men calls "ball-busting territory." When they're lucky enough to have a customer open a door, it's usually a bored housewife who listens a bit before saying she can't do anything until her husband gets home.

It's obvious from the opening scene that this will be a different interpretation of the salesman's lot. It's not as tragic as Death of a Salesman, nor as full of itself as Glengarry Glen Ross. Paul Brennan, the film's lead character and the sort of Godsend prayed for by documentary makers, is stumbling through a sale. We can practically see the beads of sweat on his shiny little forehead. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz called Salesman "one of the great statements on America's can-do culture of capitalism, and how it tends to become a psychological cage that makes people feel like failures." Within 30 seconds we can tell Brennan stuck in that very cage.

Brennan is a feisty, pint-sized Irishman by way of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. He's in his mid-50s; he resembles old-time actors like Red Buttons or Burgess Meredith, and he plays on his elfin appearance. He's a charmer, but he's in a slump. He's mystified that his usual routine - which he refers to as "the Mickey stuff" - isn't working. He tries to discuss his problem with his fellow salesman, but they only offer company bromides. Don't ever blame the territory, they tell him.

The other members of the sales team are known as The Gipper, The Bull, and The Rabbit (Brennan is the Badger), and they wear the same basic uniform: black raincoat, fedora, a slight look of fatigue. But as the movie unfurls we notice their differences. The Rabbit (James Baker), tall and thin, is the youngest, but has already started to copy Brennan's banter (with more success on this trip). The Bull (Raymond Martos) is a friendly guy who appears to never get rattled. The Gipper  (Charles McDevitt) says the least, probably saving his energy for selling. There's a fifth man, but he's a boss of some kind; he smiles the phony, sadistic grin of mid-management types everywhere. He has no nickname.

When the group is sent to Miami, it's telling that The Bull and The Rabbit want to go for a late night splash in the hotel swimming pool, while Brennan and the Gipper stand around,  still wearing their shirts and ties, nervously smoking. They're the oldest, and they probably haven't been swimming in a long time.

Glad to be out of the cold Massachusetts winter, Brennan finds himself enjoying a win streak in Miami. When he returns to the hotel at night, he's a new man; we see a glimpse of the cocksure talker he must've been before. The next day, however, he's unable to move a single bible. It's all as simple as a De Sica plot: he fails, he succeeds, he fails.

Though the Maysles inspired a legion of admirers with their excellent work, few contemporary documentarians have the nerve to let their cameras remain as still as Albert Maysles' camera. He lingers on Brennan until he captures something resembling the soul's stillness. At other times Brennan stares into space, looking like a weathered figure in an Andrew Wyeth painting. At a dinner for the bible company in Chicago, where other sellers make grandiose plans for next year, he only stares at the speakers and says nothing. What's he thinking? Go fuck yourself? How did I end up here listening to this crap?  We don't know. And the Maysles don't intrude, as many new filmmakers would, by asking him how he feels. They let his tired face speak.

Prior to this the Maysles had spent years making celebrity documentaries, profiling the likes of Marlon Brando, Truman Capote, and The Beatles. It makes sense that they would dispense with the pop culture and focus on the tough existence of bible salesmen, and they seem liberated by these earthier subjects. You can almost feel the Maysles' giddiness when Brennan flirts with a cleaning lady at the hotel, or when he breaks into a song from Fiddler on the Roof. And the realness of the customers provides an unexpected poignancy; how broke and bored these people are, so fatigued by their lives that they are almost too weak to fend off the salesmen.

That stillness I'm trying to describe can be found in many Maysles' films. Think of Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones' drummer, looking at the footage of a fan being killed in Gimme Shelter (1970). Think of the long, elegant pauses throughout Grey Gardens (1975), particularly when Little Edie walks tiredly up the stairs near the end of the film, sadly returning to her own sheltered life, or the pause given by Muhammad Ali before admitting that he likes Larry Holmes in Muhammad and Larry 1980).

There's a scene where a young woman tells the salesmen that she admires men who are out on their own, rather than tied to a dull corporate job. The Gipper pauses; he'll play along if it means selling a bible. The scene resonates because it plays into the myth that traveling salesmen are something close to cowboys or conmen, though the men in Salesman are as beaten down as any office clerk.

The style used in Salesman is so singular, so persuasive, that a clip from it is as easy to identify as a clip from The Godfather. A recent episode of IFC's Documentary Now presented a spoof of Salesman that was spot on in tone and detail, as if it were a daffy stepson of the original. That's a testament to the strength of the Maysles' style.

The movie is so expertly cut (by David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, who is given a director's credit) that it has the rhythm and pace of a long  ride down an empty highway in the dead of winter. The Maysles and Zwerin were also smart to give coverage to the customers. As the sellers grind away, the camera cuts to the targets, mostly housewives, who seem to be going through some sort of secret agony. They don't want the bible, but they don't want to be rude. When a sale agreement is signed, it's done solemnly, as if government secrets are being shared. (My favorite customer is the guy who puts on an album of orchestrated Beatles music, the only nod to the pop culture found in the entire movie.)

In a late scene, Brennan is relegated to sitting by while Gipper makes a sale. Then, the Gipper tells the customers that Brennan is hoping for some inspiration. Brennan shrugs, now so low on the totem poll that he willingly shleps along behind Gipper. Again, we don't know exactly what he's thinking. My guess is that he'd had enough and wants out.

There's a clip on YouTube of Albert Maysles talking about Brennan. He expresses a fondness for him, and said they remained friends after the project was completed. Maysles also described Brennan sitting at an early screening of Salesman, weeping and laughing. According to Maysles, Brennan soon quit selling bibles and moved on to selling aluminum siding. Brennan died in 1990, at age 77. The cause of death is listed as "severe rheumatoid arthritis." There are scenes in Salesman where Brennan flexes his fingers, which look slightly gnarled. It's strange; it's as if we're watching the grim reaper sidling next to Brennan, taking him by the hand.

Monday, November 14, 2016


Victorian England's most famous murder case gets a good workout
by Don Stradley

Despite Bruce Robinson's boast that he's busted Jack the Ripper, a few other authors have crowed about having done exactly that. Stephen Knight's The Final Solution pinned the Ripper crimes on a trio of men, including the artist Walter Sickert.  In 2002, Patricia Cornwell's Portrait of a Killer - Jack The Ripper: Case Closed, swung for the fences and put the whole thing on Sickert. Then there was the alleged "Ripper diary" that came along in the 1990s, which pointed to James Maybrick as the Ripper, the very Maybrick who was murdered by his wife in a rather sensational London case of 1889. Robinson leapfrogs over the others, and makes a strong case that England's Ripper was none other than Maybrick's brother Michael, a famous singer and song writer of the period. Like most Ripper suspects, there's a big pile of arrows pointing at this fellow; he deserves a look.

According to Robinson's They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper,  Michael Maybrick was as diabolical as a Batman villain, and filled with such red raging hatred for his sister-in-law that he murdered a bunch of prostitutes - more than the five usually attributed to Jack - plus some children; then he poisoned his own brother, framed his sister-in-law for the death of James, and then forged the diary that would come to light more than a century later. It's a bit much to swallow, but it's compelling. I can't say if Robinson is any closer to solving the Ripper case than anyone else, and I'm not even certain that anyone really wants to know the Ripper's true identity. The Ripper is better off as a shadow man, a black hole of evil and cruelty. We can project whatever we want onto him.

In an early chapter of They All Love Jack, we're told that the Ripper was "a totally sane, highly intelligent psychopath whose sense of fun animated in some esoteric area of his thinking where humor and homicide collide." It's a mouthful, but in this whopping, 800-page monster of a book, Robinson will often interrupt his own narrative, as if he'd handed his keyboard over to Lester Bangs for a moment while he went to the toilet, with something sort of clever and angry. At times it appears Robinson takes the whole Ripper deal as a personal insult. (For instance: he bristles at the "perverse, almost heroic status that has evolved around this prick, as though he were someone special.") Robinson not only hates the Ripper, but despises the silly police force that mucked things up, and the hundreds of "Ripperologists" who have, through the decades since 1888, turned the case into a sort of cozy mystery. These Ripper fanboys, with their "constipated thinking," set Robinson off on regular tangents. (My favorite is when he depicts them as "a gang of shagged-out seagulls in the wake of a phantom steamer.") Of course, like anyone writing about the Ripper, Robinson doesn't shy from the grislier aspects of the case - he undoubtedly had fun writing that the remains of Mary Kelly were "carried out in a bucket" - but if you're as bloody serious as Robinson, you're allowed to rub a reader's nose into the gore.

When not bashing Ripperologists, Robinson puts the boot to Victorian England. It was a toweringly hypocritical and complex place; the age of consent was 12, the Royals kept up a pompous, untouchable front, and "the sub-British ate, slept, and wiped their arses in cellars full of vermin and promiscuous death." Wartime violence was in the air, with stories of British atrocities making their way home. Particularly riveting is Robinson's depiction of General Herbert Kitchener, who raided a temple near Khartoum, dug up the corpse of the Madhi, and bashed it to bits with a hammer. "With that hammer in his hand," writes Robinson, "Kitchener belonged to Satan." For sure, the first fifth of the book seems written so we understand that bloodletting and brutality was ingrained in England's character, equaled only by the Victorian love of money. "Wealth was a deity in Victorian England," says Robinson, "and everything was subservient to the maintenance of it."

Where Robinson's research differs from most Ripper investigations is in his treatment of the "Ripper letters," those sinister notes written in jagged scrawls and sent to Scotland Yard from various far-flung locations. Rather than dismiss them as hoaxes, as has usually been the rule, he makes a beautiful case for their authenticity and links them to his suspect. Michael Maybrick's ability to change his handwriting, plus his fiendish sense of humor and wordplay, fit into Robinson's theory, as does Maybrick's traveling schedule. And even if Maybrick wasn't the author, the letters contain facts that only the Ripper would've known. Maybrick or not, these letters, long thought fraudulent, indeed appear to have been written by the killer. If Robinson has done nothing else, he's convinced me that the Ripper was writing to the police, taunting them all the way.

The Ripper's connection to the Freemasons has been explored in the past, but with nothing like Robinson's pit bull ferocity. Through painstaking research, he's believable when he portrays the Ripper as a man very familiar with Freemason rituals, and that the Freemasons not only did their share to cover up anything having to do with the crimes, but divorced themselves from both Michael and James Maybrick (both, incidentally, involved with the Freemasons). That Robinson goes on rather obsessively (and for far too many pages) about the Freemasons nearly spoils what is otherwise a thought-provoking, occasionally brilliant book. And I was also put off by Robinson's one-note argument that Michael Maybrick was simply a psychopath, and that psychos do crazy things. That's it?

Ultimately, Robinson succeeds in what he sets out to do, which is to blow the dust from the old theories and expose them as claptrap. The rogues gallery of suspects that have taken root over the years don't stand a chance with Robinson, from the "insane surgeon", to the "vengeful homosexual", to the "womb collector". The same goes for the Duke of Clarence, described by Robinson as an ineffectual wimp who could barely cut his own meat, never mind obliterate a live woman, and the jittery foreigner Kosminski, "a 98-pound weakling, living off crusts in the gutter." They're all waylaid by Robinson, gutted like fish, the remains of their mythology ready to be taken out in buckets.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016


Gimme Danger Movie Review

It was back in the 1980s when I attended an Iggy Pop concert at the Orpheum theater in Boston. The sound mix was terrible - he sounded like he was singing from under a blanket - but I still have vivid memories of the night. Most have to do with him jumping around like an orangutan; at one point he used his microphone stand as a battering ram on some kids who were too close to the stage.

Iggy was still a young man at the time, but he didn't resemble any rock stars I'd seen. He looked like a fisherman who'd spent a long day hurling nets into the sea, perspiring and broken and gnarled. His band was unmemorable, faceless journeymen hired to provide background noise. It was hard to figure out what songs they were playing; I remember 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' was a highlight, and 'Lust For Life'. Near the end of the show Iggy unbuttoned his pants and threatened to expose his fabled hog. That brought the house down.

I'd brought a friend of mine who knew nothing of Iggy Pop. I'd said, "You'll love him. He's just like Ted Nugent." I don't know if my friend had a good time or not. But by the end of the show I'd made up my mind about Iggy. He was not a towering talent. He had a unique presence, but he was less a great artist than a sideshow attraction. He's always reminded me of some second-rate contortionist who had pushed aside the rat-eating geeks and fire eaters to become the main star on the midway.

Iggy rarely entered my mind after that, though his popularity climbed. (The IMDB lists more than 200 soundtracks that feature Iggy's music, which is rather astounding.)

When I listened to him at all, it was usually the first Stooges album, which to me was a beautiful mix of early Rolling Stones, late 1960s guitar fuzz, and something like Neanderthals pining from inside the cave. It saddened me to hear that Ron Asheton, and then his brother Scott - the Stooges' guitarist and drummer - had died. They'd been the pillars of an interesting sound. They didn't get enough credit.

And that's how I felt this weekend when I traveled several miles out of my way to see Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch's respectful, if strangely reserved, tribute to The Stooges.

There was the Iggy Pop of today, looking leathery but healthy, telling the story of his early years; his eyes are still frighteningly blue and mesmerizing, his teeth look suspiciously large and too white. He's no longer the Alfred E. Neuman of rock 'n roll; he's stately now, like an old gigolo who fell into some money. But it's still a shock
when he talks and that farmer's voice comes out.

The story of the Stooges is not a particularly fascinating one, and only proves that all bands have more or less the same origin: A few guys meet; they share an interest in music; they let it rip. Then they're taken down by drugs, or clashing egos. For The Stooges, it was the former. "We all started to look dirtier and thinner," says Iggy about the heroin days. He ended up living with his parents, while they supplied him with methadone.

Jarmusch is an avowed fan of Iggy's, and put him in one of his previous movies, Coffee and Cigarettes. Nobly, he felt The Stooges deserved some attention and spent years putting this documentary together. Fortunately, there was enough footage of Ron and Scott Asheton that their deaths didn't hamper production. James Williamson, who joined a later incarnation of the band, is still alive, having traded the rock lifestyle for a CEO gig in Silicon Valley.

Jarmusch also interviews Mike Watt, the great Minutemen bassist who once used Stooge music as a way to regain his bass chops after a serious illness had nearly destroyed his ability to play. He'd later be part of a Stooge reunion in the 2000s. And Danny Fields, the Stooges' manager, is interviewed here like an old sugar daddy.

The movie is watchable, and at times entertaining, but Jarmusch reveals little that is new or thought-provoking. Mostly, it's just the usual Stooges' story, which we've seen elsewhere, including a surprisingly good episode of VH1 Behind The Music. He doesn't dig up much dirt, and keeps the more sordid stuff vague. There are references to the fellows behaving badly, and Iggy admits to being a heroin user, but it's as if Jarmusch is too polite, or too reverent, to go all the way down the rabbit hole. Perhaps Jarmusch felt too much detail would distract from the mission at hand, namely, to pay respect to the Stooges.

There is a lot of music here, but it doesn't pound our heads in as I'd hoped it might. Much of it sounds tired, and watching old footage of Iggy prowling around a stage like a spider-monkey loses its charm after a while. Much better is the bit where Iggy talks about growing up in a trailer, and being picked on by local hoods. Iggy is near 70, and to call him a survivor is an understatement. But I think he's survived more than drugs and a heartless music industry. He's endured some sort of sadness and anger, feelings that show up in that scene where he talks about the hoods; Jarmusch only turns away from it, too polite to linger on the more painful memories of this aging rocker.