Tribute: Documentary Pioneer Albert Maysles

Posted on March 6, 2015 at 3:05 pm

We mourn the loss of film visionary Albert Maysles, who with his brother David, showed us a new way to see film and a new way to see the world.  They were the first Americans to create intimate, unstructured documentary storytelling without experts talking from behind their desks or extended narration.  This is “direct cinema,” the distinctly American version of French “cinema verité.”  The Maysles brothers were the first to make non-fiction feature films where the drama of human life unfolds as is, without scripts, sets, or narration.  In part, this was due to their way of looking at the world, which was open-hearted and non-judgemental.  But it was also due to changes in technology since the very earliest days of documentary.  In 1960, he said, “With the equipment we have today, which is directly descended from the equipment we made; you could go beyond the illustrated lecture for the first time. These innovations made it possible to get what was happening so clearly and directly that the person viewing the film would feel as though he was actually present at those events. For the first time, it was possible for someone watching a documentary to feel as though he was standing in the shoes of the person he was seeing onscreen.”

Maysles’ subjects had lives that were in some ways ordinary, like those of us in the audience. Salesman was about door-to-door Bible salesmen.  He said, “There are daily acts of generosity and kindness and love that should be represented on film.”

But he also made extraordinary films about extraordinary lives.  Perhaps his most famous was Grey Gardens, about “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale, relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who continued to live in their crumbling East Hampton mansion with no money and very little contact with the outside world.  The movie was later adapted into a hit Broadway musical and a movie with Drew Barrymore.

He filmed Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Otis Redding, and the Mamas and the Papas.

He filmed the Rolling Stones.

He filmed Paul McCartney.

He said,

As a documentarian I happily place my fate and faith in reality. It is my caretaker, the provider of subjects, themes, experiences – all endowed with the power of truth and the romance of discovery. And the closer I adhere to reality the more honest and authentic my tales. After all, the knowledge of the real world is exactly what we need to better understand and therefore possibly to love one another. It’s my way of making the world a better place.

May his memory be a blessing.


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