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Albert Maysles
Filming Kenyan travelogue Safari Ya Gari (1961)Courtesy the artist

Albert Maysles: the Docfather

Albert and David Maysles – a brother-brother duo of documentarians – revolutionised filmmaking with their jaw-dropingly free motion portraits. Here, Albert talks about his passion for capturing reality

Taken from the April 2012 issue of Dazed:

As he sits unwinding in a grand hotel lobby alongside Bradley Kaplan, his new co-filmmaker, documentary legend Albert Maysles’s husky Boston accent cuts through the swimming pool clamour of the crowded bar. “The documentary form is one of the very best communicators,” the 85-year-old Grey Gardens director shares. “If there’s a story to tell, it tells it from its source. It’s not this indirect sort of thing where somebody’s heard about it or was there – it puts you there, as a viewer, so it’s for real. There’s a connection between reality and truth, so it’s truthful as well, if the people making the film, including and especially the cameraman, have a perceptive eye, intelligence and sensibility; which is another way of saying it’s not fly-on-the-wall, when the camera picks up everything but really nothing. Get close, get close. Get behind the scenes. It doesn’t always have to be a face, although a face is so revealing; it might be that the hands are telling more than the face.” 

Albert Maysles and his brother David were among a pioneering group of filmmakers who began experimenting in the 1950s with new lightweight mobile technology that could synchronise sound. The consequences stretched the boundaries of documentary form. Gone were the staged documentary sets and stiff narration-led authority – these images spoke for themselves. A new style referred to as Direct Cinema was emerging that aspired to be a natural documentation of reality as it unfolded. This fed into their approach, but, with insight and compassion, the pair injected creativity into the reality of the everyday and transformed the rigid landscape of docs. “He is one of the true innovators of the documentary form,” remarks Hussain Currimbhoy, programmer of Sheffield Doc/Fest, which awarded Albert with a lifetime achievement award in June 2011. “Maysles was part of the movement of doc directors that freed documentary from its roots by freeing the camera. He is called the world’s best cameraman by Godard, no less.” 

Both brothers were trained psychologists. Albert began his career teaching at Boston University but after shooting his first film on a trip to a mental hospital in Russia in 1955, he was hooked. With Albert as cameraman and David on sound, perfect timing meant the pair were present at a succession of monumental events in the 60s: their 1960 election documentary Primary concludes with John F. Kennedy’s victory as the Democratic Party’s nomination for US President; What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA (1964) captures the band’s hysterical reception upon setting foot on US turf; and Gimme Shelter (1970) depicts the fatal stabbing at The Rolling Stones’ Altamont Free Concert show in December 1969 that marked a sobering conclusion to the liberal decade. Sensitive to his subjects and perceptive to their illuminating environments, Albert’s background in psychology informed his eye as a cameraman. “It’s the same whether it’s Fidel Castro or a grandmother of a poor family in the American south”, Albert emphasises. “They’re all human beings and we must respect their humanity by displaying it in a truthful, experiential fashion.”

Following their film With Love From Truman (1966), a short about Truman Capote, they were inspired by the writer’s mission to create the first “non-fiction novel” to attempt a cinematic equivalent, and came up with Salesman (1968), now widely considered to be one of the most important American films of all time. Fascinating and often deeply uncomfortable, Salesman documents a group of door-to-door bible salesmen that use persistence and psychological manipulation to convince people of the necessity of their product as they trawl through the suburbs of Boston, Chicago and Florida. Struggling economically, they are cajoled and occasionally humiliated by their bulldozing boss, Kennie, whose face gleams slimily with the sweat of a confident huckster, rehearsed in well-oiled charm. Salesman plays out like a modern American fiction of disillusionment with the American Dream, like a Steinbeck novel or an Arthur Miller play. In fact, David had been inspired by Eugene O’Neill’s 1939 play The Iceman Cometh, a tragic portrayal of working-class life, to seek a subject that encapsulated wandering and small-time tragedy and adventure. On returning to their own hometown of Boston, the brothers found in these salesmen their own version of the everyday man, and captured a narrative unfolding within real lives. 

“It’s the same whether it’s Fidel Castro or a grandmother of a poor family in the American south, they’re all human beings and we must respect their humanity by displaying it in a truthful, experiential fashion” – Albert Maysles

Over the course of Salesman one of the four bible pedlars, Paul Brennan aka The Badger, slips into the lows of financial instability, and struggles with the moral discomfort of making a living by battling people in their homes, most of whom are as strapped for cash as his own family. Albert’s unwavering, mute shots peer into the desperation of these men. “Well, that’s why I showed that long moment with Paul when he’s sitting in the cafeteria, and the sound is simply the ambient sound of the silverware or whatever it was, not a narrator telling you what he might be thinking. You know damn well he’s had a rough time of it, he’s gotta be thinking it over. But you don’t need to know precisely the words. The emotion is there – you get it so clearly, so profoundly and you never forget it. That image of Paul.” 

Such lingering shots permeate our experience as they probe the internal. In Gimme Shelter the Altamont event, crammed with hundreds of thousands of people and policed by Hell’s Angels, plays out like a bad trip. The troubled vibe violently escalates, resulting in a murder so close to the stage that it was caught on film by the Maysles. As the movie approaches the fateful moment, Mick Jagger’s voice gently implores over the images, “Can you roll back on that, David?”, and the division between viewer and subject, idol and followers is shattered. Peeling through layers of subject and audience, we watch the Rolling Stones watch themselves and listen to their recordings in an extraordinary exploration of the absorbing power of music. Slowed-down footage captures the immersed faces of the crowd, lost in music, and Mick Jagger’s figure crossfading and splitting on stage to “Love in Vain”, drenched in a red light that fluidly filters the next scene of Jagger listening to the song in the recording studio. “Blue light was my blues and the red light was my mind,” go the lyrics, as the red light dissipates and Jagger starts as if waking from a dream. 

Albert shrugs off the misconception that he sensationalises reality – “Critics are critical!” – and champions what can be achieved with documentary if the cameraman has a poetic eye. “With the kind of documentary we make and with documentaries in general, some people have a hard time seeing where the art and creativity is when all you’re doing is filming reality. So the assumption is that if it’s a fiction film there’s an artist behind it, but if it’s a documentary or documentary photograph then you’re just turning the camera on and off. But in the hands of one person it’s so different than in the hands of another. Art can take place when the camera’s in the hands.” 

Intuition and intense focus made Gimme Shelter’s “Wild Horses” sequence a classic. As Alma Har’el, director of Bombay Beach, elaborates: “When the camera is in this man’s hands he is as present as a man can be… Being present is one of the greatest artforms in this world. Capturing reality the way he does, making choices every moment in a pure creative process that allows the unconscious to use the building blocks of life, is a matter of being present.” As the Stones listen to a playback of the song at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, the camera roams from Keith Richards’s closed eyes and snakeskin-boot-tapping to Mick Taylor’s little wide-eyed face. Mick Jagger hangs his head while Charlie Watts looks deep in concentration, his gaze occasionally swinging to the camera, perhaps uncomfortable with being captured in such an intimate moment. In a movement of perfection, Albert shifts the focus from Charlie to Jagger’s hands, which contentedly flourish at the final note before breaking into applause. “It would have been nice,” Albert reflects, “not that we would necessarily use it, but if there were a camera on the wall picking up all four of them then we’d be able to judge whether I was on the right person at the right time. But without that it certainly seems as though I was with the right person. And one couldn’t do any better than that.” 

Capturing such intensely communicative moments is Albert’s passion, “when I’ve caught something that’s just right. You’ve seen Grey Gardens? Well, that moment – ‘Tea for two… you for me’ – told it all.” The fantastic and infamous Grey Gardens (1976) sees the Maysles enter the lives of Edith Beale, 79, and her daughter Edie, 56 – cousin and aunt to Jackie O – at their dilapidated East Hampton house. Albert and David filmed the theatrical pair after they narrowly avoided eviction for letting the house decay into a health hazard. Highly revered, Grey Gardens is arguably the most involved and intimate of the Maysles’ legacy, for the filmmakers openly reveal their own presence in the film. “Grey Gardens is such a leap forward because of his openness to collaboration,” Currimbhoy enthuses. “This is something that takes a lot of courage and a deep mutual trust between the filmmakers and subjects that few have managed to repeat but many aspire to.” 

The film’s tremendous reception included indignant accusations of exploitation. Albert: “Some said, ‘Well, the camera’s there, so they must have behaved differently.’ My answer to that is that before coming to their house each time we arrived, we hid behind the bushes, and we’d be spraying ourselves with stuff so that we wouldn’t get bitten. We put on ankle stuff so we didn’t get flea-bitten. And during that process we could hear them talking, and it was the same stuff. Exactly the same stuff.” Edie and Edith were more than happy with the film, proud of the true representation. “Edie wrote this beautifully understanding, loving response (to The New York Times’ Walter Goodman’s damning criticism) and – I’ll tell you what the editor said when I asked him why he didn’t publish it – he said, ‘Oh, she’s schizophrenic’, as if that’s a reason for not publishing, or as if she was!” 

Some years later, Albert received a letter from Edie titled “Long-overdue Love Letter”. “We made a lot of correspondence by telephone and there was a point where, many years after the film, I got a letter from Edie saying ‘Dearest Al’ – 50 ‘Dearest Al’s – and finally, ‘Dearest Al, Edie’.”

After his brother David died in 1987 from a stroke, Albert continued to create numerous documentaries from his base in New York, including Academy Award nominee LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (2001) and, most recently, The Love We Make (2011) with Bradley Kaplan. “I’ve reached a point where I can’t stop it,” enthuses Albert. “Too many good things to go out on, especially having Brad as a co-author of what I’m doing. We’re a neat couple! We have very similar purposes and goals and somewhat different talents which are in perfect harmony with one another. It’s great.” The Love We Make follows Paul McCartney’s preparations for The Concert for New York City, a response to the 9/11 attacks. Watching it back, McCartney was delighted. Bradley remarks: “He was suitably blown away and very, very thrilled with the results, but also acknowledged that as he had asked us to do, we made a true Maysles film. Meaning the edges are there, warts and all. But reality is truth, truth is reality, and he said, ‘You know, I’ve come to a place in my life where I’m really ready to look at myself this way. I could always watch De Niro do this and never cringe. Watching myself, I’d cringe. Now I’m ready to accept it for what it is, to embrace the fact that that’s me.’” 

“There’s so much stuff in this world that should be explored in documentary terms,” urges Albert, currently chasing an abundance of new projects and ideas. Whether a famous figure or one of the masses, everybody is equal in front of the lens: “Anyone in any of our films, I can look them straight in the eye knowing that we’ve done well by them.”

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