Night Flight Remembers Cinéma Vérité Giant Albert Maysles

By on March 6, 2015

Night Flight has learned that Albert Maysles died yesterday, March 5, 2015, age 88, on the eve of the distribution of a newly-restored version of one the Maysles’ best known documentaries, Grey Gardens. Here’s an interview from 2011, in which the legendary filmmaker discusses his classic documentary, Grey Gardens, which had provided the inspiration for a hit Broadway musical of the same name. Maysles gives background and insight into the making of the film, including his and his brother’s relationship with the films infamous subjects, Big and Little Edie Beale, and also discusses his lengthy career making some of the most important and seminal non-fiction films.

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“I think Orson Welles put it very well when he said that, ‘The eye of the cameraperson, behind the lens should be the eye of a poet.’ Well, what is poetry? In a way, there’s no special purpose behind a poem, and yet you end up with something quite beautiful, full of understanding and love.”
~ Albert Maysles

Here’s an excerpt from a recently-published blog by Landon Palmer that examines Maysles’s work.

In 1973, Albert and David Maysles, well known for their intimate portraits of mammoth midcentury public figures from Marlon Brando to the Beatles, were commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwell to make a film about their lives. While in the process of researching, the Maysles encountered their ostensible subjects’ estranged relatives, the Beales – Big Edie and daughter Little Edie – who toil their days unashamedly, often blissfully isolated in a crumbling estate. Alongside co-directors Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, the brothers Maysles realized that the mesmerizing Beales, who were never shy to perform for the camera or confront the filmmakers, were the obvious choice for a documentary subject.

The result was Grey Gardens, which premiered at the New York Film Festival forty years ago and, after an initially mixed reception, grew to become one of the most celebrated and revisited documentaries in the history of the medium, eventually inspiring a stage musical, a new film assembled from outtakes, a HBO film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, and numerous books and inquiries that formed the film’s cult audience. Even within a celebrated career that includes Salesman and Gimme Shelter.

Grey Gardens stands alone not only as evidence of the powerful connections with subjects that the nonfiction medium can form, but as an example about how turning one’s lens to a wonderful but heretofore unexamined corner of life can be a game-changer in of itself. The film also encapsulates the Maysles’ philosophy of Direct Cinema, particularly their directive to form deeply empathetic connections with their subjects. Now a restored version of Grey Gardens will circulate theatrically from Janus Films beginning March 6. So here is as good a time as any to get a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from Albert Maysles.

Read more at Film School Rejects

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Maysles — born on November 26, 1926, in Brookline, Massachusetts — is best known for his work in what is called “Direct Cinema,” but he did not start out to be a filmmaker or photographer. He first earned his BA in psychology at Syracuse University, graduating in 1949, and he went on to earn an MA degree from Boston University, where he taught psychology courses for three years before making a switch to filmmaking. After first taking a trip to Russia to photograph a mental hospital there, he returned the next year to lens his first documentary, Psychiatry in Russia, with a camera purchased for him by CBS.

Maysles and his brother David — who died of a stroke on January 3, 1987 — began working together and ended up making more than thirty documentaries together. As a cameraman, Arthur became known for his pioneering “fly on the wall” perspective and he broke new ground in documentary work, coupled with the separation of the camera from David’s sound recording techniques with a portable Nagra recorder — by keeping the camera and recording devices separate, he was able to move independently of what his brother was doing, so that the sights and sounds weren’t married to each other, and neither relied on the other to convey what was being seen or heard. They became strong proponents of the counterculture documentary filmmaking style of the 1950s and 1960s known as both cinema vérité or direct cinema, which centers around the philosophy of being a “reactive” filmmaker, recording events as they unfold naturally and spontaneously rather than investigating the subject matter through documentary techniques such as interviews, reconstruction and voiceover.

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After first learning that Truman Capote had claimed his In Cold Blood was a “non-fiction novel,” the Maysles brothers decided they wanted to be the first to make a nonfiction feature film. In January 1967 (perhaps also December of 1966), they turned to their own experiences as door-to-door salesmen, selling everything from encyclopedias to cosmetics, but decided to focus not on themselves but instead trained their camera and sound equipment on four bible salesmen (Jamie Baker, aka “The Rabbit,” Raymond Martos, aka “The Bull,” Charles McDevitt, aka “The Gipper,” and, primarily, they focused on Paul Brennan, who was known as “The Badger”), each of whom was struggling to sell their expensive bibles in low-income neighborhoods, in both New England and in southest Florida. We also see them attending a sales meeting in Chicago.

The film, Salesmen, was made on a very low budget, costing approximately $100,000. It was a challenge after post-production and the tedious task of assembling what they’d shot into something worth seeing, to find distribution for what some believed what was relatively depressing to witness, but ultimately the brothers booked theaters through their own production company, Maysles Films, and had their first theatrical screening on April 17, 1969, at the 68th Street Playhouse in New York City, NY.

It was a critical success. Vincent Canby in the New York Times wrote “It’s such a fine, pure picture of a small section of American life that I can’t imagine its ever seeming irrelevant, either as a social document or as one of the best examples of what’s called cinema vérité or direct cinema…It is fact, photographed and recorded with extraordinarily mobile camera and sound equipment, and then edited and carefully shaped into a kind of cinematic mural of faces, words, motel rooms, parlors, kitchens, streets, television images, radio music—even weather.”

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In 1970, the Maysles and a team of cameramen, were on hand to witness the the last weeks of The Rolling Stones’ 1969 US tour, which culminated in the disastrous Altamont Free Concert on December 6, 1969. One year to the date, on December 6, 1970, and with assistance from their editors Charlotte Zwerin and Ellen Hovde, the brothers saw the release of their documentary film Gimme Shelter, which revealed that a cameraman named Baird Bryant, who had previously worked on Dennis Hopper’s ground-breaking Easy Rider, had captured the stabbing death of an 18-year old man named Meredith Hunter by a member of the San Francisco chapter of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club, Alan Passaro. A young George Lucas is also said to have also been one of the cameramen at the Altamont concert, but his camera had jammed and none of the footage he shot (about 100 ft. of film) made it into the Maysles’ film.

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Two of their films, Salesman and Grey Gardens, have been preserved in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.

In 2005, Albert founded the Maysles Documentary Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the exhibition and production of documentary films that inspire dialogue and action in Harlem, New York City.

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Bonus:

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.