Grey Gardens (DVD)

At first, the subjects of 1969's Salesman and 1975's Grey Gardens, two cinéma vérité classics from famed documentarians Albert and David Maysles, couldn't be more dissimilar. Paul Brennan, the most prominent of the former film's eponymous salesmen, is working class to the core; the product of a tough Boston neighborhood, he reeks of desperation and often segues into a dreamy, melancholy Irish brogue. Seventysomething Edith Bouvier Beale (a.k.a. Big Edie) and her fiftysomething daughter (Little Edie), the subjects of Grey Gardens, are fallen aristocrats straight out of Andy Warhol's imagination, relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who live in gothic poverty in a dilapidated 28-room mansion overrun with cats and raccoons. Despite their differences in upbringing and class, Brennan and the Beales have in common a lingering sense of regret and feelings of being out of step with a repressive, stifling society. They're also natural performers, even if their truest talent, as one of the filmmakers suggests on Grey Gardens' audio commentary, is simply being themselves. The Beales are virtual shut-ins who spend each day locked in the same nearly identical loop of confrontation and half-hearted reconciliation, hashing over past slights and rewriting history to suit their respective needs. Not a whole lot happens in Grey Gardens. Little Edie threatens, theatrically and repeatedly, to leave her mother and return to New York, while Big Edie feigns contentment and a remorse-free past to compensate for her daughter's flamboyant misery. But within the pair's seemingly fruitless give-and-take and Little Edie's hypnotic monologues on horoscopes, the church, and men, the Maysles find a funny, beautiful, and horrifying world of loss and regret, where the past has as much presence as the animals that scamper through the crumbling walls. Along with an audio interview with Little Edie and two interviews discussing her influence on fashion, the newly available DVD of Grey Gardens also includes a fascinating audio commentary in which the film's editors psychoanalyze the proceedings while the Maysles defend themselves against charges of exploitation. But in the end, there's something clearly exploitative about Grey Gardens, even if the issue is muddy and complex: After all, the Beales benefited from having the Maysles as an audience just as much as the Maysles benefited from having the Beales as a subject. Brennan, the most colorful and success-phobic of the four Irish-Catholic door-to-door Bible salesmen profiled in Salesman, is far more conventional, but just as memorable. Salesman, the Maysles' feature-film debut, follows the determined salesmen as they attempt to peddle Bibles to predominantly lower-middle-class families in Florida and on the East Coast. Both predator and prey, the salesmen are paradoxical figures who exploit the poor while being exploited by a company that treats faith as a commodity and sells the salesmen fantasies of wealth far removed from the grim, low-budget desperation of their lives. Masterfully edited by Charlotte Zwerin, Salesman gains in depth and pathos with each blown sale and nervously inhaled cigarette, as Brennan's anxiety escalates and his tragicomic persona becomes increasingly bleak and morbid. The door-to-door salesman was something of an anachronism even in 1969, but Salesman's sad, trenchant observations about the tangled interplay between faith and commerce remain as timely as ever. The DVD also includes a revealing, emotionally charged audio commentary from Zwerin and the Maysles (who deal at length with their working-class upbringing and affection for Brennan), as well as a radio interview with one of the salesmen and a television interview with the Maysles brothers. More than 30 years removed from its theatrical release, Salesman looks less like the story of four traveling salesmen than the story of America itself.

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