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Past Article

Albert Maysles's Reality Check: 50 Years of Documentaries
By David D'Arcy
September 12, 2005 - 9:51 AM PDT

"You can see that there's an eye there."

In Salesman (1969), one of the great American documentaries by Albert and David Maysles, black-suited men who introduce themselves to housewives as coming "from the church" sing the praises of the bibles that they're selling for "a dollar a week." The good book doesn't depreciate, like a car, the men say, and besides, the bibles "have a great utility."

The salesmen look and talk like priests - all they lack is the Roman collar. This black and white self-financed movie reminded its small audience that the ministry had evolved into a commercial enterprise in this country of ideals and prosperity, yet there weren't enough ideals and prosperity to support the peddlers. The would-be customers don't have an extra dollar - literally. Nor is religious faith much of a selling point, since we never hear any expression of it. Selling is like purgatory, like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill and starting all over again when it inevitably rolls down.

Since David's death in 1987, the Maysles team has had only one brother, Albert, now 79 and marking fifty years of filmmaking. When they worked together as a crew of two, Albert operated the camera and David recorded sound. The brothers called their work "direct cinema," a translation of the French "cinéma direct" that they found less pretentious than terms like "cinéma vérité" or even "documentary." You don't hear the term much any more in today's doc-glut, probably because Albert Maysles isn't interviewed as frequently as directors one-third his age, even though the Maysles' influence is everywhere.

On September 14, the Toronto International Film Festival honors Albert Maysles with a screening of his rarely-seen 1965 documentary, Meet Marlon Brando (1966), and a public interview. The festival will also screen a trailer for Maysles's forthcoming autobiographical film, Handheld and From the Heart. Through September 30, the Louise and Bernard Palitz Gallery of Syracuse University's Lubin House in Manhattan is showing Albert Maysles Photographs, 1955 1959. Later in the fall, the Museum of Modern Art will show a retrospective of films by the Maysles Brothers. If that weren't enough, a stage version of Grey Gardens, directed by Michael Greif (Rent) and starring Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, is well into taking shape for its opening in the spring at Playwrights Horizons in New York.

And the credits could roll forever. Rather than catalog fifty years of work, I'll give you my favorites.

Salesman (1969) still makes you wonder what it actually is. The Maysles are given such access as they follow down-on-their-luck bible salesmen in snowbound Boston and in a Miami of unbuilt spaces and empty lots that the documentary is an agile, modulated drama - with characters that fiction writers wish they could imagine - before it's anything else. You find yourself aching with anxiety each time the door opens, hoping that the customers who haven't got an extra dollar to spare won't spend it on a bible. You want the pitch to fail, yet every failed pitch sends the salesman that you've gotten to know (and even like) deeper into the hole. It's a portrait of an America that comes up short - these were supposed to be the good days, bear in mind - and it's all the grimmer for its uncompromising black and white palette (unmarketable at the time) and for the persistent interplay between the salesmen's nonstop huckstering and the timid terseness of the customers. As what I'm sure is an unintended consequence, the film has a black and white stylishness that goes beyond the Blues Brothers garb of the bible sellers. You could see this documentary as American neo-realism. Look forward, and you think of the staccato cruelty of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. There's a starkness that the Dogme filmmakers have also drawn on. I credit Albert Maysles's eye for that. It's seductive, and if you don't believe me, just look at the black and white fashion shoots in Vogue or other magazines, which borrow shamelessly from that style.

Just a year later, the Maysles were on to Gimme Shelter, a legend thanks to the serendipity of a murder during a free concert in San Francisco, the city of peace and love, at the end of what had been a successful tour for the Rolling Stones. The concert was a performance in a performance film, but violence turned out to be the new performance art. (Albert had been one of the cameramen on that hymn to music and community, Monterey Pop). It was far from the first time that innocence was struck down, but the camera was right there, and the fatal beating of a man with pool cues now ranks with the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald and the point-blank execution of a Viet Cong suspect by the Saigon police chief as an indelible image of a violent decade.

In Grey Gardens (1975), nothing much happens [though the film has inspired a fanzine and a fan site]. A mother and daughter change their clothes and feed a few dozen cats in a crumbling mansion as they recall the lives that they might have had. Vulnerable and nasty at the same time, these close kin to Jackie Kennedy were the idle rich who lived outside the spotlight for everyone but the Board of Health, which tried time and again to shut down their house. If Salesman was a response to Arthur Miller's august Death of a Salesman, then Grey Gardens was an answer to Sunset Boulevard. Here are the waxworks, and you almost have to hold your nose - because you can't drag yourself away. Their stories are too seductive. There's no romance, no nostalgia in this documentary, which shows its seams as the two women talk directly to the filmmakers filming them and reproach each other for playing to the camera. If this is reality, the making of the documentary is part of it.

By the 1970s, the Maysles had begun a relationship with the Bulgarian-born artist, Christo, which continues today. (The Gates, a chronicle of the Central Park project from last February, is being edited, and could be in theaters next spring.) From the men who made Salesman, we get a picture of a salesman of grand art projects whose longevity in the spotlight defies general shifts in taste. Christo and his wife and partner, Jeanne-Claude (who now gets billing), are nothing if not persistent. In a film like Umbrellas (1994), about installations of metal umbrellas in landscapes in California and Japan that resulted in two deaths, Albert Maysles offers a portrait of the artist in surprisingly full detail. You can make up your own mind about Christo. Is he a charlatan (two deaths in Umbrellas are double the number of deaths in Gimme Shelter), or is his repetitive work the creative gift that keeps on giving? Are thousands of low-paid workers noble to toil on those projects, or are they deluded?

In Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Center (1997), the Maysles team documented the construction of the Getty Trust headquarters on a Brentwood hilltop that cost more than $1 billion. Normally these project films are vanity vehicles, and that's what the Maysles were hired to make. It turned out to be much more than that, revealing ugly rifts between the institution and its architect, Richard Meier. The film hasn't had much influence. In every museum's construction budget, there is a budget for a documentary. Each one turns out to be an all-you-can-eat self-congratulation. The Getty is now renovating and expanding its Roman-style villa in Malibu (once the original J. Paul Getty Museum), which will be a separate museum for antiquities. The Maysles team was not invited back to film that project.

I spoke with Albert Maysles in New York this summer.

You've just gotten back from overseas. What were you working on?

I spent ten days in Pretoria, South Africa. You'll never guess with whom - Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former president of Haiti, now in exile.

What's going to happen with that?

It's going to go on television, I hope.

Are you working on any projects in New York these days?

Funny that you should ask. We just found out that to shoot in the New York City subways, you now have to be insured for $2 million. That doesn't make things easier.

When did you first pick up a camera?

When I was a kid, about eight years old. I had enough money to buy a brand new camera. It cost only 35 cents.

How much?

35 cents. It was brand-new, a little Bakelite camera with a lens and a shutter.

Did a drunk sell it to you?

No, I bought it in a hardware store in Boston. I took pictures of my family. And right now, my daughter is preparing a photo show of those early pictures. It isn't set yet, but I'm hoping that one of the places that it gets shown is the Henri Cartier-Bresson Museum in Paris.

How has still photography affected the way you make moving pictures?

If you look, you can see that there's an eye there, but you'll also see that there isn't one of the photographs where I directed the action. It's just something that I saw at the moment, and then took the picture.

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"You can see that there's an eye there."
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David D'Arcy
Besides reviewing art and film for National Public Radio, David D'Arcy has also written for the Art Newspaper, the Economist and other publications.

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