Prior to 1969, documentary films were accepted as truth films, dispassionate chronicles of untampered reality. The public believed in them as much as they believed in the evening news. Although we know now that photographers as far back as the Civil War were adjusting the corpses on the battlefield for maximum effect, the naivety of the average American accepted as reality most of what was presented to them as such. Historical events of the sixties, from the assassination of the Kennedys to the daily fighting in Vietnam, were funneled through the television eye and, despite the biases and cover-ups, we got some sense of what was happening outside the shells of our own homes.
Today, all media is entertainment media, regardless of the source material, and no rational person believes a bit of it. From Michael Moore’s political comedies to the pathetic singing contests from which tomorrow’s pop stars are being drawn, media is an information intestine that drains the intellectual waste products of our misinformation mavens into our collective brain. So we go to a documentary film such as “Capitalism: A Love Story” looking for a few laughs, never for a minute taking Moore’s Oliver Hardy incarnation of Che Guevara as seriously as he does.
Despite the many myths that have passed into our annals of collective truth because of things we have seen in documentary films, among them the idea that lemmings commit suicide by walking into the sea upon reaching the coast which was perpetuated by Walt Disney’s “White Wilderness” in 1958, a clear demarcation between the fiction film and the documentary film existed until 1969, when the Maysles Brothers’ “Salesman” had the traditionalists standing up in their church of newsreel truth yelling. “Fraud!”
“Salesman” is structured and paced like a feature film, and has more drama and character development in it than a six-pack of David Mamet. Following the four New England bible salesmen who prey on poverty-stricken Christians, the Maysles favor Paul Brennan, a weary cynic who is on the verge of packing it in. About the only joy he has left in life is repeating fabricated anecdotes in an exaggerated Irish brogue.
Rare is the documentary film that has not found its form in the antics of its most charismatic subject. Without Nanook, “Nanook of the North” might have been an indifferent portrait of Eskimo life. What is different about “Salesman” is the film’s complete dependence upon performance. Since a sales pitch is a performance in itself, it can be argued that the Maysles are simply documenting the way in which these men gain their livelihoods. But that would not be true. As a piece of dramatic theater developed from improvisations and re-enactments of situations having their origins in personal experience. “Salesman” is closer to the Living Theater than to Flaherty.
This was not the first documentary to brazenly manipulate or reconstruct reality. Flaherty, Leni Reifenstahl, and D.A. Pennebaker are among the many who were roundly criticized for trespassing into the realm of fiction. But “Salesman” came at a time when truth and illusion were merging into the same portrait. That same year, Haskell Wexler used real footage of the Chicago riots in his story of a television journalist’s struggle for objectivity in reporting the news. “Salesman,” widened the parameters of documentary filmmaking to such an extent that the genre dropped all pretense of portraying an objective reality and became one of subjective essaying.
Now 46 years have passed since “Salesman” gave commercial potential to the documentary film. Today, people watch documentary films for information on trendy subjects instead of reading books. An hour and a half of leisure time in a movie theater can transform an illiterate into a cocktail party authority on nearly any subject. Today’s documentaries do not merely transform reality, they compact it. And one thing that determines how it is compacted is the relative entertainment factor of its participants. The result of this is that the measured, if dull, reasoning of a Noam Chomsky may be trumped by the loud stupidity of a bellicose, if entertaining, Michael Moore who, in Jennifer Abbott’s documentary “The Corporation,” bellows about Orange Fanta being a conspiracy between Coca Cola and Nazi Germany.
Which brings us to “Iris.” the subject of Albert Maysles’ last film. David Maysles died in 1987. He and his brother hadn’t made a feature film together in ten years, although they did work for television right up to David’s passing. and some of their unfinished work found its way into several features released after David was gone. Albert continued to work alone and with other collaborators until his death in May of 2015. His final solo feature is “Iris,” a portrait of 90 year old fashion freak Iris Apfel.
Although “Iris” features brief passages devoted to Apfel’s legitimate achievements in the world of interior design, most of the film focuses on her eccentricities as a shopaholic with an oddball sense of style. Imagine Andy Warhol as a 90-year old woman and you get a sense of the personality that dominates every aspect of the film. She is certainly entertaining, but what we are left with after her antics fade is the feeling that the whole thing is a lollipop train that she has hitched her cart to, and that those who surround and adore her are the lowest kind of morons, and who ,to the misfortune of all those who depend upon the blessings of New York’s art world for their own visibility, seem determined to keep the United States in a cultural dark age where your stuff has to prove itself in a shop window on 5th Avenue before it will be considered for a 57th Street art gallery.