VCU students, faculty, and members of the Richmond community filled the seats of the Grace Street Theater last Tuesday evening for a special 35mm screening of the Maysles brothers’ 1969 documentary, Salesman, loaned to VCUarts Cinema directly from Albert Maysles himself. Sitting comfortably at the foot of the stage and waiting patiently to introduce the film was critic, author, and honored guest J.M. Tyree.
The film, a direct look into the lives of Bible salesmen traveling door to door across the East Coast, is considered the first feature length documentary film ever made. We see men ranging from mid 30s to early 50s, some smartly dressed, some slightly harried, all trying their luck at being their own bosses. Masculinity and worth become tied to sales quotas. An immediacy pervades as we follow the salesmen from door to door to, finally, the motel, where 3 to 5 men are crammed into a room at a time. And they review the day’s catch, fully aware that they are both compatriots and competitors to one another, sometimes unable to look one another in the eyes.
“It’s a hard film to watch,” Tyree had warned, and he was right. There is no entirely happy way to talk about America’s vulnerable adolescence, America’s 1960s, or America’s American Dream. Everything you know about Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman makes itself subtly present in this film.
After the screening Tyree encouraged the audience members to stay and ask any questions they might have had about the film. He answered questions regarding the salesmen backgrounds, how the customers of the salesmen reacted to cameras recording them and the criticism the Maysles brothers received for their observational approach to filmmaking and their choice not to acknowledge the camera crew.
Salesman came out in the 1960’s and immediately found itself under scrutiny for its use of direct cinema style. The goal of direct cinema, as Tyree defined, is to “capture real life as it happened using camera and sound technologies that allowed film to capture an unprecedented form of immediacy… To transfer some of the texture of real life onto the movie screen.” With the development of handheld cameras and lightweight sound recording devices in the 1950’s and 1960’s, “the real world seemed open to film in a way it had never before,” Tyree said.
In the world of non-fiction film making, however, it was unprecedented to shoot real life without revealing the camera crews or an interviewer. What made “Salesman” special was the deliberate choice to exclude all indications of the film making process. The content was non fiction, however the presentation was in a movie-like, fiction form; none of the subjects acknowledged the fact that they were being filmed. For this reason, the Mayseles brothers were criticized for manipulating the story through editing.
Tyree was kind enough to extend his visit into Wednesday and speak to the freshmen in the Cinema program about nonfiction film and film criticism. The VCUarts Cinema department would like to thank J.M. Tyree for guest speaking for VCUarts Cinematheque and extending his stay through Wednesday afternoon to share his insights with the freshmen.
J.M. Tyree’s works include BFI Film Classics: Salesman and BFI Film Classics: The Big Lebowski. He also contributes to Film Quarterly and has taught Creative Writing at Stanford University. He was most recently awarded the position of Associate Editor for Nonfiction at New England Review.
On September 10, the Grace Street Theater filled up for the VCUarts Cinematheque as it does most Tuesday nights. But instead of screening a film, we welcomed world-renowned film critic and historian, Dave Kehr, to share in an evening of discussion.
For the better part of the 70’s through the 90’s, Kehr reviewed films for the Chicago Reader, Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News. During this time he was once dubbed by Roger Ebert as “one of the most gifted film critics in America;” very likely in response to his unique mastery of language and perspective. In addition to writing criticism, Mr. Kehr served on the selection committee for the New York Film Festival and as a judge for the Berlin Film Festival. It was during one of many festival seasons that Mr. Kehr met Dr. Rob Tregenza, a then first-time director fresh off the set of “Talking to Strangers.”
Kehr joined us for a Q&A, led by Dr. Rob Tregenza. The two engaged the audience in a discussion regarding topics such as the value of the auteur theory in film criticism, how formatting has changed the movie-watching experience, all-around film theory and the changes in how films are perceived and criticized.
Currently a member of the National Film Preservation Board for the Library of Congress, Kehr raised the audience’s awareness of the absolute wealth of old films that exist all over the world, and the dangers of film extinction due to lack of money and interest in restoring old film prints. As a cinephile to the truest sense of the word (Kehr watches 10-12 films a week), his interests now tend to lie in older films from the 20s to the 40s and 50s. Kehr finds a special quality in the films of that age that he fears is slowly being lost with the advent of modern film making technologies. “There is no more wind in the trees… You now have to program that wind,” the element of life happening while an image is being captured, and the element of chance that can cause a welcome accident is extinguished when the frame is meticulously planned years ahead of time in the case of CGI films like Avatar.
For the latter half of the talk Kehr took questions directly from the audience. When asked what he thought about modern movie watching methods, such as streaming and pirating, Kehr responded “It has been, in a sense, downhill since they have banned nitrate film.” He then went on to explain how the depth and visual engagement of old film is something left to be desired in today’s society. However; practically speaking, Kehr still favors a seen movie over an unseen one: “by any means necessary, if you can see it, see it.”
Overall, the talk was very engaging and enlightening. “Dave was willing to talk about movies and be completely humble” VCUarts Cinema graduate Alex Dennison said. On the same topic, sophomore Clara Kelly appreciated the fact that Kehr “wasn’t some film critic up on his high horse,” and that he viewed film as “an art form that is accessible to everyone.”
The audience also appreciated Dave Kehr’s classic approach to film criticism.
“Those are the critics I care about. They talk about images, they talk about sounds, they talk about editing… I knew it was going to be a good talk,” graduate student Lee Spratley stated.
Despite his own personal love for early cinema, Mr. Kehr expressed a pious clarity towards the importance of an open mind. Kehr seldom imposed his opinion on the audience. Instead, he emphasized the idea that film criticism is, in its own way, fluid to the times. New films should be written about by the younger generation, Kehr said.
The VCUarts Cinema Department is most honored to have had Dave Kehr as a guest speaker at Cinematheque. On behalf of the department, we would like to thank him for dedicating his evening to share his extensive knowledge, and we would also like to extend that thanks on behalf of the Atlantis Program, with whom Mr. Kehr spent Wednesday evening.
Photos and reporting by Francesco Basti and Zoe Sarris
The Fall 2013 Cinematheque Calendar is now up on the website! The VCUarts Cinematheque screening series brings international art house film to Richmond at the VCU Grace Street Theater, always free of charge and open to the public. Which Tuesdays will you tell out of town friends/family/alums to plan to be in Richmond?
Tuesday night and the Grace Street Theater is packed. The Richmond community got to share in a very special experience with Richmond native Michael Gottwald, producer of the four-time Academy Award nominated film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Gottwald shared some first hand accounts of what it was like working with Behn Zeitlin, the director and co-writer, on a film fueled entirely by the desire to tell a story.
The film was shot on location in Louisiana, crewed largely in part by Court 13, a creative collected formed by Zeitlin and Gottwald along with their colleagues from Wesleyan University shortly after graduating. Court 13 put out Zeitlin’s first film, a short called “Glory at Sea,” which significantly paved the path for Beasts of the Southern Wild on both a creative and financial level. “Short films are one of two things. They’re incredible experience builders,” Gottwald explained during a guest lecture with the senior Cinema class; “Short films are also calling cards.”
“Glory at Sea” made the festival circuit run and put the filmmakers on the radars of the right people at exactly the right time, particularly a non-profit organization called Cinereach, whose representatives were so impressed with “Glory at Sea” that they pledged aid for Zeitlin’s next project, whatever it may be. Gottwald called this relationship an absolute stroke of luck, something that never happens to first time independent filmmakers. Cinereach kept their word and rolled with every strange decision, from casting non-actors, to having the cast and crew live on location, immersed within the community, to shooting tiny, Vietnamese pot bellied pigs as the beasts rather than opting for CGI.
In return, Court 13 is actively seeking opportunities to give back. Of the many projects on the table now, Gottwald spoke of a non profit, educational endeavor currently in the works among his Court 13 colleagues centered around providing after school programs for children within the community that became home for the crew during filming.
Oh behalf of the VCUarts Cinema department, we extend our warmest thanks to Michael Gottwald for sharing his experiences with the next generation of filmmakers, and making our weekly Cinematheque screening extra special!