How ’60s Vérité Transformed American Cinema


When we talk about the “New Hollywood” movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s – that glorious moment in which the lunatics took over the asylum, producing enduring works like The Godfather, Chinatown, Bonnie & Clyde, American Graffiti, and their ilk – we tend settle on a handful of causes and symptoms. First and foremost was the end of the studio system, an extended death rattle than began with the divestiture of studio-owned theaters and ended up dismantling the assembly-line of creative and craftspeople that made the movies, a methodology that was rendered further obsolete by the loud and pricey failures of a series of big-budget, big-studio pictures in the mid-to-late 1960s. Also important, especially early on, was the influence of a lively and rule-breaking foreign cinema, with particular focus on the innovations of the French New Wave. And lip service is usually paid to early American underground filmmakers – names as aesthetically and thematically diverse as Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, and John Cassavetes – who prompted, at least among their sophisticated audiences, a reevaluation of what cinema was, and what it could be.

But not much is said of the documentarians of the 1960s, whose works are typically classified as cinéma vérité or, more specifically, “direct cinema.” These filmmakers – chief among them Jean Rouch in France and, in America, a loose crew consisting of Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers, Robert Drew, and their collaborators – reinvented documentary cinema, which up to that time had consisted primarily of drab pastiches of archival footage, “voice of God” narration, and talking heads. They tossed those conventions in favor of a more observational style, capturing events as they happened, thanks to new lightweight cameras and sync-sound recording equipment that enabled them to follow their subjects anywhere they wanted to go. (Those same cameras quickly became the weapon of choice for French New Wavers like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.)

Sixty-plus vérité films of the ‘60s are screening in a two-and-a-half week series at New York’s Film Forum, which begins Friday; one film noticeably absent from that series, Salesman (directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin) begins a one-week restoration/revival run the following Friday at New York’s Metrograph theater. Taken together, they shed some much-needed light on the often understated influence of this non-fiction style on the fiction films that followed them. The series includes a handful of narrative efforts that clearly convey that influence (like Faces and Cleo from 5 to 7), but said influence goes beyond copping the handheld, run-and-gun aesthetic. These films explored a naturalism in staging (and often even with traditional editing) that would, at long last, match the naturalism in acting that was practiced by Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, and other students of Method acting, yet was often stifled by the stiffness of the studio style.

Salesman is particularly telling when viewed through this lens – functioning, as it does, as a kind of non-fiction Death of a Salesman (or, to put it into a broader historical perspective, as the missing link between Death and Glengarry Glen Ross). The picture features a group of busted out, cigarette-pounding hard cases who sell door-to-door for the Mid-American Bible Co. They can be sorted into familiar dramatic types: the young hotshot, the desperate old-timer on a bad streak, etc. And their conversation often sounds like Miller’s or Mamet’s dialogue: “No action! I can’t get any action! I can’t see no deals here.”

They spend their nights hanging out in motel rooms, trading shop talk and war stories; the camera tags along during the day for their “sits,” which are often genuinely uncomfortable, as they practice a methodology that seems a cross between a hard sell and straight-up connery, pitching ornate family bibles to people who clearly can’t afford them. In those living rooms, which function as their little stages, they offer up small talk and bromides (“Where there’s a will there’s a way, that’s what Charlie Gipper says”). But that confidence falls away in private, and the closing moments of Salesman are, in their own quiet way, a devastating expression of outright despair.

But these films are full of private moments like that. Robert Drew’s The Chair tick-tocks the days leading up to a parole board hearing for convicted murderer Paul Crump (who was also the subject of the documentary The People vs. Paul Crump, one of French Connection and Exorcist director William Friedkin’s first films), and details that hearing, making it something of a real-life courtroom drama. But what’s memorable isn’t the lawyers’ speeches, or even the outcome; it’s the moment when defense attorney Donald Moore hangs up the phone, after a priest promises to speak on his client’s behalf, and the lawyer breaks down in tears of relief and exhaustion. That is good drama.

And Drew’s cameras were lucky enough to catch it. From surveying these films, it seems much of a director’s gift comes from simply being invisible – no one more than the great Frederick Wiseman, who genuinely seems to just walk into his locations and start shooting. In his 1968 feature High School (one of five Wiseman films screening at Film Forum), he’s merely observing the day-to-day comings and goings at Philadelphia’s Northeast High; he’s not following a new teacher through their first year, or whatever structural device a lesser filmmaker might’ve leaned on. Because he’s not looking for anything in particular, he’s open to everything, from sex ed lectures mired in ‘50s morality (“The more girls or fellas a person gets into bed with, the higher the rate of divorce”) to background acknowledgments of a trickier present, like a classroom collage titled “OUR TROUBLED WORLD.” And, by just being around, he happens to be there on the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, capturing the raw, no-holds-barred discussions it prompts between students and teachers.

Similar luck befell Pennebaker when he chose to profile Jane Fonda for his 1962 film Jane, which documents the rehearsals, previews, and quick closing of her Broadway debut, a sex farce called The Fun Couple – a run ended by a nasty (and casually sexist) pan by New York theater critic Walter Kerr, which Fonda helpfully reads aloud as she first lays eyes upon it. “Boy that is depressing,” she notes, midway through; as she thinks about it after, she adds “Oh, God, it really is like needles.” And his cameras are there before the curtain, when their stage manager informs the company, “We’re gonna close tonight, after the performance.” (HAVE A GOOD SHOW, EVERYBODY!!) It’s rather a shocking turn of events, and a reminder of the power of a good documentary – because you couldn’t stage this kind of drama convincingly.

Jane’s private moments, again, are the most telling – though perhaps in a different way than The Chair or Salesman’s. We see her in her dressing room, battling nerves, chattering about this or that, unguarded in a way that seems like she forgot the camera was there- but the things is, she almost certainly didn’t. This is a performer, after all, and one of the most fascinating elements of these films is the manner in which their celebrity subjects choose to present themselves to the documentary camera (other films in the series profile Muhammad Ali, Truman Capote, Marlon Brando, James Baldwin, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Bob Dylan, Buster Keaton, and more).

That’s what makes Shirley Clarke’s 1967 film Portrait of Jason so revelatory. Aside from the content – the candid confessions of its only interview subject, a hustler, houseboy, bullshitter, and raconteur named Jason Holliday, who is explicit about homosexuality in a way mainstream and narrative cinema couldn’t be at the time – it is very much about the line between persona and person. It is, for much of its 105 minute running time, a performance, complete with requests (“Hey, Jason, tell the cop story,” “Tell me the story about the old man”). But as Jason drinks, and gets progressively slurrier, he seems to run out of prepared material. And then it gets really interesting, transforming from an interview to a therapy session, an iron-clad guard finally, truly coming down. (I think.)

It’s also a film acutely aware of its own filminess. Clarke opens with the ephemera most movies discard: slating, off-screen chatter, Holiday introducing himself (and then welcoming himself to another take). As each reel runs out, and the long night of filming continues, Clarke leaves in the new slates, and allows the screen to go black when the image runs out before the audio, cutting out in mid-song, mid-sentence, even mid-word. Portrait of Jason ends up not only deconstructing the interview process, but that of moviemaking itself.

Which brings us, as it must, to 1PM, initially intended as a Jean-Luc Godard-directed snapshot of America’s imminent revolution, to be shot by Leacock and Pennebaker. But when the revolution didn’t happen, Godard abandoned the film – leaving Pennebaker to cut it into something perhaps more noteworthy. It opens with Godard in their office, laying out his plan: to shoot real events and interviews with counterculture figures, and then reenact them with actors and actresses, often in continuous takes. Pennebaker then includes those free-flowing observational scenes, some staged, some clearly and uncomfortably not, but as Leacock’s camera was capturing what Godard wanted, Pennebaker’s was capturing Godard himself, directing the action, viewing footage, coaching the actors. He ends up with, in effect, a deconstruction of a deconstruction.

The closing credits of 1PM are telling, using as they do the credit “Filmed by Jean-Luc Godard / Richard Leacock / D.A. Pennebaker,” rather than the traditional “directed by.” Other films of the era are similarly non-proprietary; often we’ll merely see the phrase “Filmmakers,” followed by a list of names. It doesn’t seem like false modesty; they simply did not see themselves as directors, who orchestrated events, but rather as observers who filmed them. Of course, that’s rubbish; they were making choices all the time, from what person or event or movement they were going to shoot to where they were going to put and point the camera when they got there to how much (if any) they’d use in the editing room. They made those decisions together, in those collaborative and cooperative units, and they became a style, an aesthetic, that would inform nothing less than the rest of cinema.

“’60s Vérité” runs January 19 through February 6 at Film Forum in New York City. “Salesman” runs January 26 through February 1 at NYC’s Metrograph.