Posted by Susan Doll on March 23, 2015
Tonight TCM celebrates the career of filmmaker Albert Maysles by showing four of the documentaries he made with his brother David: Grey Gardens, Salesman, Gimme Shelter, and Meet Marlon Brando. Albert died on March 5, leaving only D.A. Pennebaker and Frederick Wiseman as the last of the cinema verite giants.
Understanding cinema verite and its agenda is important for appreciating the Maysles Brothers’ films. Cinema verite dominated nonfiction filmmaking from the 1960s to the early 1980s; its goal was a more objective, less obtrusive approach to documentary, using observation as a primary tool. Verite filmmakers like the Maysles Brothers gained intimate access to their subjects through a consistent presence and long-term observation. This persistent access allowed them to capture explosive moments in the lives of their subjects—the Rolling Stones, Marlon Brando, Muhammed Ali, Fidel Castro—that now belong to history. Attaining a closeness generated sympathy and loyalty between filmmakers and subject, but it did not prevent the Maysles from exposing flaws. The Maysles seemed to balance the intimate and the historic, the empathetic and the unsparing.
A production company called Drew Associates launched the movement in America. The company was formed in the late 1950s by Robert Drew, who had worked at Life magazine, where photo editors told stories about important issues, people, or events through the careful selection of images from world-renowned photographers. Because the articles were image-driven, they were thought-provoking but not didactic. Drew wondered why documentary could not also be less word driven and less obtrusive. In America, documentaries were dominated by those with voice-of-God narrators, who told viewers what they were looking at and what it meant. Drew and his associates, who included Albert and David Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, and Richard Leacock, held a completely different view of nonfiction film.
Their approach to documentary would not have been possible without the advent of new technology. Drew and Associates built some of the first film equipment in which the sound recorder was not cabled to a camera, allowing for unprecedented flexibility and freedom. Albert built one of the first hand-held cameras, which was huge by today’s standards, but the filmmakers could take this camera anywhere, no matter the crowds or obstacles. Now, events could unfold before the camera in the present tense—as though the film crew was not even there. As Albert recalled in an interview, “We could now film in such a fashion that the viewer could feel present at the ongoing event.” In America, this approach was called direct cinema.
The term cinema verite (“film truth”) came from a group of filmmakers in France who were following a similar course. But, the French and Americans disagreed regarding the intent of the filmmaker: The French felt it was okay to provoke with their camera; that is, to prod their subjects with provocative questions. The Americans strove to be as unobtrusive as possible, the proverbial “fly on the wall.” In the beginning, the two camps emphasized the differences between direct cinema and cinema verite, but with the passing of decades, most writers and critics have conflated the two as simply “verite.”
After working with Drew Associates, David and Albert struck out on their own around 1962 to produce documentaries. Until his death in 1987, David worked sound, supervised the editing, and coproduced. Albert was primarily the cameraman—but what a cameraman. His shooting style was renowned in the documentary community. Godard called him “the best American cameraman.” In our current era when brash new directors insist that hand-held camerawork should be synonymous with “shaky cam,” Albert’s hand-held shots prove otherwise. They are fluid, controlled, and graceful—akin to visual poetry. Check out his handiwork in Gimme Shelter (airing 11:45 EST), the Maysles’ chronicle of the notorious 1969 Rolling Stones tour that ended tragically at Altamont Speedway. Watch the way Albert has captured the cocky but charismatic Mick Jagger as he performs onstage (Altamont excepted). Jagger prances, swaggers, and undulates across the screen, and yet he is always in focus, always framed, always the center of attention. Albert anticipates Jagger’s movements, because he has observed him in performance. We feel we are in the audience and yet the camera does so much more. It depicts the singer orchestrating the crowd—controlling their reactions, teasing them with his movements, strengthening their bond with him. Upon reflection, we see that Jagger’s fatal error was to think he could always control or orchestrate them, because in the vernacular of the 1960s “we are all one generation, we are all together,” but the final concert at Altamont shatters that ideal.
Like the other advocates of direct cinema (or verite), the Maysles developed a loose set of guidelines in order to remain unobtrusive. They liked to say that they dispensed with all elements that distorted truth. The brothers eschewed voice-over narrations, and they were not thrilled with interviews, though Albert later conceded that on occasion, they might be a benefit with certain topics. But he cautioned, “If you go into making a film with interviewing in mind, then you’re foreclosing the opportunity to get something for real.” The Maysles used no script or shot list; they did little research prior to shooting, because they felt more truth came from fresh encounters. They provided no direction for their subjects, nor did they ask them to re-do something for the camera. Arguably, the best result of this approach is Grey Gardens (8:00pm EST), which revealed the daily lives of two eccentric socialites—both named Edith Beale—who lived in a decrepit mansion in the Hamptons. A codependent mother and daughter, the Beales were cousins to Jackie Onassis, which created controversy at the time. When the film exposed the Beales’s eccentricities, peculiarities, and unsanitary living conditions, the Maysles were accused of exploitation rather than observation.
In retrospect, verite films, in their strict, unobtrusive observation, seemed to capture a historical moment with an almost purity that is like going back in time. Earlier this year, I taught a section on documentary in one of my classes and showed Gimme Shelter as an example of cinema verite/direct cinema. The film is infamous for capturing the fatal stabbing of an attendee at the free concert given by the Rolling Stones to mark the end of their 1969 tour. But to my students’ generation, the stabbing is less remarkable than the film’s chronicle of an era that is distant history, one they have experienced only through feature movies or news-style documentaries. As one of my students noted after the film, “I have seen movies made about the 1960s, but this is the only one that shows what it was really like.”
Albert continued making documentaries after his brother’s death, keeping the company name Maysles Films. Given the change in the film industry, and the realities of distribution and the exhibition of nonfiction, many of his films ended up on cable. In 2001, Albert was nominated for an Oscar for LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton. Through the years, he mentored or fostered other filmmakers, passing along his knowledge and skills to new generations, including Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger, Muffie Meyers and Ellen Hovde, and Rebecca Dreyfus.
An award-winning documentarian and coowner of Snapdragon Films, Ms. Dreyfus directed Stolen, about the infamous art heist at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. Though not cinema verite per se, Stolen includes verite-like sequences shot by Maysles, who followed acclaimed art detective Harold Smith around the world on his dogged quest to locate the stolen paintings.
Ms. Dreyfus was kind enough to visit my classroom this semester and screen her documentary Close-Up: Photographers at Work, which originally aired on the Ovation channel in 2007. Close-Up chronicles the careers of five major photographers, including Albert Maysles. Albert had begun his career as a photographer and continued to hone this craft throughout his life. Dreyfus’s segment on the aging Maysles shows a spry senior walking the streets of his neighborhood, warmly connecting with his neighbors, asking to take their pictures, and then capturing his subjects perfectly in just a brief encounter. His ability to communicate so readily with his subjects was a valuable lesson for his followers. As Dreyfus noted, “Albert was a role model for connecting with the deepest, most honest and loving parts of yourself and everyone else. As a documentary filmmaker, if you can connect with that while you’re working, you will have better films. . . Al was the quintessential humanist. I think that is something to strive towards in filmmaking and in life.”
Cunningham, Megan. The Art of the Documentary: Ten Conversations with Leading Directors, Cinematographers, Editors, and Producers. New Rider, an imprint of Peachpit, a division of Pearson Education, 2005.
Doll, Susan. E-mail interview with Rebecca Dreyfus, March 22, 2015.
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