Tribute honors legendary filmmaker
Forty years ago, when Albert Maysles first touched his toes to the waters of documentary filmmaking, he was told three things:
You have to use a tripod. You have to shoot in 35 millimeter. And you have to have a point of view.
"Each of those things I threw out the window,'' said Maysles, 65, half of the legendary Maysles brothers, speaking from his office on Manhattan's West 54th Street. One by one, he ignored the rules: He shot in 16 millimeter and blew it up to 35. He dispensed with the tripod when he realized people behaved falsely around it. And, most important of all, he discarded point of view.
"It was common practice among many documentarians at that time -- and certainly today, too -- to start out with a preconception and try to prove it, regardless of whatever facts they come across along the way to throw it out of joint,'' said Maysles. "My son criticizes me for making that critique -- 'Well, you have to have a point of view, too.' Being human, we all have frames of reference, but the best of us in making a documehntary film make a very concerted attempt to distance ourselves from our point of view.
"It's not anthropology exactly, but it's respect for the facts -- and along with that is a fairness to all sides.''
Maysles will be on hand to answer questions -- about his films, philosophy and late brother, David -- Thursday, March 25, at the University at Albany's Page Hall, 135 Western Ave. His appearance will cap "Direct Cinema: The Nonfiction Films of Maysles Films, Inc.,'' a two-day tribute sponsored by the New York State Writers Institute. In the lineup are two nights of screenings: "Gimme Shelter'' (with the short "A Visit with Truman Capote'') at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; and "Salesman'' (with "Meet Marlon Brando'') at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Maysles will speak following the Thursday screening.
Expect him to speak directly. Known for their straightforward, politically unencumbered filmmaking, the Maysles brothers founded the Direct Cinema movement of the 1960s -- an American parallel to French cinema verite. Albert, the younger of the two, held the camera, while David manned the sound. But in their roughly 20 films together, they often shared and swapped responsibilities; the terms "director,'' "producer'' and "editor'' are useful as labels, but no word describes their relationship better than "co-filmmakers.'' The films themselves are even-handed and democratic, finding narrative where it lies and eking revelation out of undressed human drama.
"Salesman,'' filmed in 1969, follows four door-to-door Bible salesmen as they ply their trade. "Gimme Shelter'' (1970) looks at the Rolling Stones' ill-fated free concert at Altamont Speedway, where a fight involving Hell's Angels hired as security led to the death of a concertgoer. Both are documents of a particular time and place. And both are fascinating cinema.
"It's very close to journalism -- and photojournalism,'' said Maysles. It's also art -- and like all good art, Maysles' asks more questions than it answers. "The very nature of art is such that there's no purpose. . . . It does belittle the whole enterprise by converging all effort into making a statement.''
While documenting a life means pointing a camera at highly personal agonies (and oddities), Maysles feels sure that he's never crossed the line into voyeurism. "It's something that's never bothered me for myself, because I'm confident that I'm not doing it. And later on, when someone accuses me of it, I think back and see the film again and say, 'No, no. They're wrong.' A lot of it is blaming the messenger.''
Take "Salesman,'' for instance. "We started off thinking, 'Well, it might converge on one person's story, or it just might be the four of them.'
But by the third week of filming, they had their focus: Paul Brennan, "The Badger,'' a weary, middle-aged man who's tired of the grind, tired of returning day after day without any sales and tired of a business that's never suited him. "We began to feel such a natural kinship with him,'' said Maysles. "He was the obverse of my father. My father was a (Boston-area) postal clerk who worked 29 years toward getting a pension -- and then died just before the 30th year.''
The brothers struck up a friendship with Brennan that lasted until his death. (Two of the four salesmen are still alive.) With obvious affection, Maysles recalled the film's New York premiere -- at the 68th Street Playhouse, rented at their expense -- and Brennan's emotional response. "I watched all of them as I watched the film, and Paul was the one that reacted most sensitively to it,'' he said. "I saw him crying at times, I saw him laughing hilariously. The others you couldn't tell much what they thought; I think it went by them a bit. But we got along great with all of them.''
The film remains one of Maysles' favorites (along with "Gimme Shelter'' and "Grey Gardens,'' about an eccentric, secluded mother-and-daughter pair). It's also, to this day, one of the most significant documentary films ever made: Vincent Canby, writing for The New York Times, called it "beautiful and incisive''; Arthur Miller called it "an adventure into the American dream.''
"They took that style, method of filmmaking into a narrative form in those films, and not a whole of people had done that before,'' said documentarian Charlotte Zwerin, a frequent Maysles collaborator and the woman behind "Salesman's'' graceful editing. The film still matters, she said, "because I think people still pursue that dream. It's very American.''
(Zwerin recalled the brothers as "pretty wild characters'' with "crazy-looking'' wardrobes. "I remember one day waiting for an elevator with them, and Albert had on some kind of cape with epaulets and gold braid on it, and David had on his Finnish army coat, which was died purple, and somebody came up and said, 'Are you guys the doormen?' )
Yet try as they might, the Maysles brothers couldn't sell "Salesman'' to television; it was 25 years before PBS agreed to screen it. And not everyone has had kind words to say about the pair. "Gimme Shelter'' was torn to shreds in The New Yorker by Pauline Kael, who accused the filmmakers of creating the setting for violence -- she stopped short of saying they caused it -- and compared their Altamont handiwork with Leni Riefenstahl's rapturous account of a 1934 Nazi rally ("Triumph of the Will'').
"If the events are created to be photographed, is the movie that records them a documentary, or does it function in a twilight zone?'' she asked. "Is it the cinema of fact when the facts are manufactured for the cinema?''
Maysles was, and is, irate. "She wrote a review that was just totally, totally, totally, totally, totally false,'' he said. "I still have nightmares -- and here it is 30 years later. I should have gotten over it by now, but when you do something that's quite correct by all standards -- and she comes up with this wonderful theory that's totally incorrect but makes it sound so clever and so smart. . . . ''
Almost as irksome was the filmmakers' inability to respond in print; The New Yorker didn't run letters at the time. Maysles is soothed somewhat by the publication of "Imagining Reality,'' a book about documentary filmmaking that includes both the Kael review and the brothers' response. "That's the first time that's ever been done,'' he said.
Currently, Maysles is working with filmmaker Susan Froemke (his main collaborator since his brother died of a stroke 12 years ago) on an HBO documentary about "a very, very poor family in Mississippi with all the problems of being poor and black: lack of education, illegitimacy, the welfare reforms.''
There's one more thing he's been banging around. Not long ago, PBS' "American Masters'' series expressed interest in shooting a piece on his life and work. Maysles liked the idea, but discussions hit a snag when he suggested a filmmaker for the job.
Who was it? Whom would America's seminal documentarian choose to document his own life?
"Myself,'' he said.