4/27/20: Anger and Immediacy

Another beautiful day outside, again spent inside in ugly boredom. And Ohio is beginning to reopen, obviously prematurely, as conservative death fetish pushes the wellbeing of businesses ahead of people, again, as it always has and always will. The idiocy of this country has been an ongoing catastrophe for more than a hundred years, but for me the last several years have felt, personally, the worst. It feels like we keep shunting into worse and worse timelines, ugliness and darkness shading down and down on all sides continuously.

Watching all of the towering cruel political machines come to life and move in unison to break the only movement in mainstream American politics worth believing in, and seeing the tragedy of that breaking get lost and unmourned in red mist of pandemic: it’s bleak, and likely to get bleaker. Things that seemed possible a few months ago seem like unwieldy fantasies now. The pandemic is laying bare the horrifying degree to which America has failed its citizens; we all knew it had sold its soul a long time ago, but I don’t think we appreciated the horripilating terms of that transaction – at least I didn’t; and this failure is happening into total silence, sinking into the morass of broken American indifference.

There are lots of people, lots of good people, who will continue to fight for good here, and for as long as I live in the U.S. I will too. But 2020 broke something in me. I’m ashamed to admit that, but given the choice between staying here and fighting, and leaving – I’m going to leave. I don’t want to be in America anymore; I refuse this horrifying parentage.

Last night I watched Salesman, the 1969 documentary by the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin. This is a documentary about four travelling salesmen for the Mid-American Bible Company as they go about the country – a snowbound New England and a contrastingly bleached and bone dry Miami – trying to get people to buy Bibles, of the big tacky leatherbound sort that always (fittingly) reminded me as a kid of the Book of Mudora, and have been given the Imprimatur by the Church and whose pages are larded with paintings “from the Old Masters.”

Salesman is an example of direct cinema, an approach to documentary filmmaking that coincided with the advent of lighter weight cameras and audio equipment: without the inherent need to set up for a filming, makers could capture the immediacy of a moment without (as much) artifice.

Anyway, that’s how I understand it. And for sure in Salesman that immediacy is evident; apart from text at the beginning and the end, and one scene in which it is clear that Paul Brennan, one of the salesmen, is answering a question posed by the cameraman, the camera is mostly an invisible observer, in the scene but not of it.

(Even though of course it was/is of it, and the people on screen are aware of it, and it must be influencing their behavior to some (quite possibly large) degree. A camera in a room is like sugar dissolved in water: inevitably there even if it isn’t corporeally evident.)

This immediacy really imparts two things: an intimacy and a particular tone. Intimacy: the closeness to which this style brings the viewer, not just to the subject matter, but to the scene, is palpable. The strongest aesthetic impressions I retain from Salesman are from the shots inside of the salesmens’ cars as they drive to their next call, when the camera is picking up street signs, branches bent under loads of snow, a fatassed sedan fishtailing mildly on the wet black tarmac, the glittering Miami beach facades, clouds bleaching to white in a humid sky – picking up all of this with a quiet intensity of observation, an intensity based on a physical and metaphysical nearness.

Tone: because for as observational and removed as the makers are, in another way there is a distinct aesthetic mood established by shots, and by what the directors are choosing to put on screen, and how they choose to edit it. Salesman is still authorial, and the tone is a drabby sad one: a glimpse into the minor desperations of people living day-to-day, sale to sale, talking themselves hoarse and facing evasions from the people they sell to, getting browbeaten by the people one step up on the ladder from them, forced to sit and listen to exhortations and bloviating; and also a glimpse into suburban America in its dissipated youth: the congested living rooms, holding the smoke from four or five active cigarettes, the low tables spilling over with detritus, the baby left mysteriously on the front porch in a high chair, staring vaguely but fixedly at something just off camera…

The movie I recommend, if you want to see the shabby embarrassment of America spelled out in fragments, a picture of a bad place getting quietly worse, assembled out of snatches of sad dilapidation and predilapidation passing by a car window.

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