The late director was – despite his modesty – much more than just a simple technician; in Grey Gardens, he and his brother David created one of the great American works of art
Friday 6 March 2015
Before reality TV became a cornerstone of popular culture, and perhaps even before direct cinema and cinéma vérité were widely understood, Albert and David Maysles had created their masterpieces of documentary movie-making. Albert (who yesterday died at the age of 88; David died of a stroke in 1987 at 55) pioneered the art of the cameraman being the unobtrusive fly-on-the-wall in documentary. Which is to say: his camera was unobtrusive only as far as the documentary subject was concerned. The audience watching the finished product would be highly conscious of the film-maker with his camera, observing, selecting, intervening.
The Maysles’ movie Salesman (1969) was a study of salesmen going door-to-door in the US, selling Bibles, and this hard-hitting study forms a kind of link – though perhaps not exactly a missing link – between Arthur Miller’s 1949 play Death of a Salesman and David Mamet’s 1984 play Glengarry Glen Ross. The brutally plain capitalist imperative in selling is in contradistinction to the rejection of money and materialism inherent in Christianity. Selling and the service economy is the purest example of the American ideal of making something of yourself, lifting yourself up by your bootstraps, without any primary source material other than yourself and your self-belief. The Maysles’ movie Salesman was to be a locus classicus in this field, freighted with implied irony and tragedy.
Their equally famed movie Gimme Shelter (1970) was another study of compromised idealism and contemporary anxiety. It is a record of the Rolling Stones 1969 US tour and the notorious concert at the Altamont Speedway Park in northern California in which chaotic “security” was allegedly provided by Hells Angels motorbike gangs, whose aggressive machismo and self-importance were exacerbated by drugs and headspinning proximity to the biggest rock’n’roll band in the world. Violence spiralled out of control: an 18-year-old was stabbed – a horrific event captured on film. The era of peace and love is widely thought to have finished rather neatly at the 1960s’ end with the disbanding of the Beatles and the death of Jimi Hendrix. But it was the Maysles’ 1970 film which captured on celluloid the very moment when this epoch of idealism finally, definitively, curdled.
But the Maysles’ finest hour came in 1975, with their remarkable film Grey Gardens. I will never forget seeing it for the first time in 1999 at the Edinburgh film festival – and seeing Albert Maysles on stage, a shy, self-effacing man who behaved as if he was merely a technician who just pointed the camera. He was more than that: Maysles had an artist’s sense of what was humanly important. He also, I suspect, had what Graham Greene called the “splinter of ice” in his heart which would allow him to go ahead and film what was happening: an old woman living through her final days, hours and minutes.
Yet always there is compassion. The heroines of Grey Gardens (it is not wrong to call them that) are not ridiculed. The film is a study of two grandly patrician Wasp ladies, a mother and daughter both called Edith Beale, distinguished by their nicknames Big Edie and Little Edie – related to Jacqueline Bouvier Onassis who before filming commenced had evidently paid some money for futile repairs to their still spectacularly dilapidated home, Grey Gardens, in Long Island, New York. The house, like its occupants, is a tragicomic ruin and part of the film’s fascination is how entirely naive the Beale women are about how they will be perceived; how childlike in their innocence about the modern age.
They could have come from the 19th century. They were stranger than fiction. Tennessee Williams could have scripted Big Edie and Little Edie – but it would have been too operatic. Gore Vidal might have done so – but he would have been too caustic. Albert Maysles, with his brother David, was perfect: reticent, cool, gentle, and yet shrewd. In Grey Gardens, Maysles created a great American work of art.
Film-maker behind celebrated film about reclusive socialites, as well as Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter, dies at home in New York
Friday 6 March 2015
Albert Maysles, the celebrated film-maker who pioneered the fly-on-the-wall style of documentary making, has died at the age of 88.
Together with his brother David (who died in 1987, aged 55), Maysles made a string of documentaries from the early 60s onwards – initially specialising in entertainment, such as with their 1964 film about the Beatles’ first trip to the US – that would radically influence the entire documentary movement. They were regarded as leaders in the field of “direct cinema”, which prized intimate, unselfconscious observation that was made possible by lightweight cameras and sound recorders. French new wave director Jean-Luc Godard called Maysles “the best American camera-man”.
Their most famous film was perhaps Grey Gardens, the 1975 film about two reclusive socialites who lived in a crumbling mansion in East Hampton, New York. Their most widely seen film, however, is probably Gimme Shelter, the 1970 documentary of the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert, which captured the murder of audience member Meredith Hunter on film. Mayles himself said his own favourite of his films was Salesman, the 1969 study of bible salesmen on the road.
Mayles continued making films after the death of his brother, including The Gates, about the Christo and Jeanne Claude art project to “wrap” Central Park in New York, and The Love We Make, a film about Paul McCartney’s 9/11 benefit concert. His final two films, Iris, a portrait of fashion icon Iris Apfel, and In Transit, a study of passengers on the Empire Builder train, will be screened in 2015.
In a statement, his family said: “For more than five decades, Albert created groundbreaking films, inspired film-makers and touched all those with his humanity, presence and his belief in the power of love. He was also a teacher, mentor and a source of inspiration for countless film-makers, artists and everyday people.”
In the same statement it was announced that Maysles died at home in New York on Thursday 5 March “after a brief battle with cancer”.
Albert Maysles, the godfather of documentaries, tells Danny Leigh the secret of his success
Wednesday 15 June 2011
Albert Maysles seems to have just woken up. His breakfast sits untouched, his crumpled black shirt is undone, and he's wearing odd socks, one grey, one green. Outside his hotel room, the attendees of the Sheffield documentary festival are in the process of paying tribute to this legendary documentary-maker, with screenings, masterclasses – and, last night, a party that reportedly found him drinking shots until 4am. Not bad for an 84-year-old.
Asked what he thinks of such reverence, he suddenly snaps into focus. "It can take surprising forms," he smiles, eyes fixed on mine through black-framed glasses. "When I got there last night, there were two dozen people with their arms raised, saluting, like a guard of honour. That was nice. But surprising."
Ever since he set out to make a film about Soviet mental hospitals in the 1950s, Maysles's "direct cinema", as he calls his graceful, observational style, has been the bedrock of the whole genre. It's tempting to regard every hungry young film-maker here in Sheffield as one of his children. "Well, people do come up and say they started making films because of me – but children? Hmm."
A little after we speak, he will lead a parade of fans to an outdoor screening of Grey Gardens, his 1975 portrait of two reclusive New York socialites, a mother and her daughter. There, as everywhere else at the festival, his every word is hung on, like a Dalai Lama in odd socks. In fact, the Dalai Lama is just one of many notables to have passed in front of his camera over the last half-century, along with JF Kennedy, Brando, Ali, Dalí, Castro, Capote, the Beatles. But the interesting thing about a Maysles film is that, however illustrious the subject, his camera has a knack of catching the tiny gesture, the sideways glance, that illuminates a whole character.
His favourite work, however, isn't a document of 20th-century celebrity, but Salesman, a 1968 portrait of four door-to-door Bible salesmen of which one, the eternally luckless Paul Brennan, emerged as one of cinema's most absorbing characters. "It's the most personal of the films. Much of it takes place in Boston, where I'm from, and it's about these four Irish guys. Growing up Jewish in Boston in the 30s, hardly a day went by when some Irish kid didn't come up to me and say, 'I'll see you outside.' So I never had the chance to get along with the Irish. The film gave me that. And, because he had the intelligence to be something better than a salesman, Paul reminded me of my father, who became a postal clerk when he should have been a musician."
Maysles made his documentaries with his late brother, David. Salesman showcases their incredible rapport with their subjects, persuading a man like Brennan to open up. "I never knew what to call it – until I read an essay that my wife, who's a psychotherapist, had on connecting with patients. It said you had to use the gaze. First meeting: your eyes, their eyes, the gaze. And you develop that with empathy. Constant empathy. And I thought, yeah, the gaze and empathy. That's my technique."
It's a technique that could have been used to lull unsuspecting victims into humiliating themselves. But the thing about Maysles films is that they are endlessly compassionate. To Maysles, that's the point: he believes he has a "duty" to "find the good" in his subjects. So could he make a film about someone badly flawed, even monstrous? "You have to find the humanity. Take Mr Bush, whose misdeeds are obvious. You can still find the human reasons. The most extreme example is Hitler. I've thought about this a lot, and maybe if you just have this figure sitting alone in a Viennese restaurant, in a kind of a shameful trance, that might do it. Because any psychologist will tell you: violence comes from shame. Always. So maybe that's how you find the humanity there. As humans, what else can we do?"
In December 1969, the brothers were in Altamont, California, filming what was to become an infamous concert by the Rolling Stones. The documentary that resulted, Gimme Shelter, featured the killing of black teenager Meredith Hunter by Hells Angels as a panicked Mick Jagger stumbled through Under My Thumb. Maysles says there was no question the footage had to be included once they knew they had it. "But then the New York Times ran their review with the headline, 'Making murder pay.' Nice, huh? But had we not had that footage, we would have been criticised for being sloppy, or for censoring ourselves." His expression grows darker when he mentions the late critic Pauline Kael. She isn't the only enemy this man with the gentlest handshake in history has made: he has a long-running beef with Michael Moore over his bruising approach to his subjects. Even 40 years on, Kael's hostility to Gimme Shelter and Maysles himself, complete with comparisons to Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl and accusations of staging scenes, still rankles. "She made awful claims. False claims. And some people believed them. It was devastating." Ironically, other films now seen as classics were also given distinctly chilly receptions. Critics said the brothers should be "disgusted" with themselves after Grey Gardens, while Salesman could hardly find a cinema to play in. Such is the lot of the pioneer.
All around Maysles in Sheffield are new documentaries tagged with very 2011 buzzwords: crowdfunded, promoted on Twitter, made on video. "The democratisation of documentaries delights me," he beams. "I'm too busy making my own to see as many as I should – but that they're being made is wonderful."
He's still a working film-maker, he is at pains to point out, his brownstone HQ in Harlem being a hive of activity. The project closest to his heart at the moment is In Transit, in which he will strike up conversations with passengers on trains all over the world. Not thinking about retirement, then? "Oh, there are too many films to be made for that," he says. "Where there are people, there are stories – and I want to tell them."