Albert Maysles (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed David Sterritt
by Joe McElhaney. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009. 206 pp., illus. Hardcover: $60.00 and Paperback: $19.95.
Joe McElhaney took on quite a challenge when he decided to write about Albert Maysles for a series called Contemporary Film Directors, because Maysles is not the kind of auteur in which director books normally traffic. Other filmmakers covered in this series range from Paul Schrader and Atom Egoyan to Edward Yang and Claire Denis, all of whom generally have direct control over their projects. Maysles is different, as McElhaney acknowledges in his opening pages.
Although he is still an active filmmaker, Maysles’s most famous and influential movies—Salesman, Gimme Shelter, and Grey Gardens—were made decades ago (in 1968, 1970, and 1975, respectively) in collaboration with his brother David Maysles, who died in 1987, and additional codirectors. His main hands-on technical work has been cinematography, but on most films he has shared the camera chores with others. He stays completely away from the film-editing process. While he’s been CEO of the production company Maysles Films since its founding in 1962, first with David and then by himself, other managers run the operation day by day. Starting right after GreyGardens, moreover, Maysles Films has focused almost entirely on commissioned films and commercials, a far cry from the art-minded features on which the Maysles reputation primarily rests. In sum, Al Maysles is an auteur with a difference, if he’s an auteur at all.
All this notwithstanding, McElhaney’s book Albert Maysles makes a persuasive case for Maysles as a filmmaker with a distinctive and personal style. More precisely, McElhaney makes this case for the particular kind of cinema crafted by Maysles and associates, which is inflected by the technical preferences and overall filmmaking philosophy that Maysles has cultivated throughout his career. Among his signatures are an affinity for subjects that reveal the personalities of artists and aspects of the art-making process; a gift for seizing the spirit of the moment with striking accuracy; and a rapport with his subjects that reflects his conviction that all art works, including his movies, are autobiographical at their core.
Maysles started out in the Fifties when he filmed two documentary shorts in the Soviet Union, not expecting to start a career–his education and early work experience were in psychology–but as a way of satisfying his curiosity about the everyday realities of Russian life. Not long afterward he met Richard Leacock and Robert Drew, who were developing new “objective” approaches to direct cinema (a term many Americans preferred to cinema vérité) based on advances in lightweight camera and sound equipment that allowed filmmakers to enter the field of action more unobtrusively (they hoped) than was previously possible. Maysles joined their company, Drew Associates, and did camerawork for seven of their films, starting in 1960 with Primary, their influential direct-cinema account of a Democratic Party election battle.
David Maysles soon joined Al at Drew Associates, but within a couple of years the brothers’ own sensibilities began to emerge in ways that conflicted with the Drew-Leacock approach. While the Drew team gravitated toward political subjects and structured their films around personal and professional crises, Al and David wanted to see what they could do in more intimate documentaries with structures as free and improvisational as their characters’ daily lives. To this end they left Drew Associates, set up Maysles Films, and made Showman, the 1963 portrait of Hollywood producer Joseph E. Levine that launched them as noteworthy independent filmmakers. It also launched the controversy that has often surrounded their movies: French critic Louis Marcorelles deemed Showman one of the “ten or fifteen great films” he’d seen since World War II, but Italian neorealist Robert Rossellini called it “formless and the antithesis of art,” in McElhaney’s paraphrase. Levine didn’t like it either.
The brothers’ next film, What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A., consolidated their allegiance to a loose, spontaneous style–the Beatles were on exactly that wavelength, needless to say–and it also illustrates the vagaries of documentary distribution, since there have been five different versions of it since its 1964 premiere. (McElhaney devotes a five-page appendix to demonstrating the superiority of Maysles’s favored version to the longer one you can get from Netflix as The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit). After half-hour shorts on Truman Capote and Marlon Brando, the brothers made the feature-length Salesman, which presents the first full flowering of their fascination with what sociologist Erving Goffman calls “the presentation of self in everyday life” and what McElhaney calls “the acting of those who are nonprofessional actors.” This accurately describes the pitching and spieling of the picture’s four Bible peddlers; and as McElhaney observes, the filmmakers’ affection for such “acting” explains why they have likened the movie’s central figure—the woefully unsuccessful Paul Brennan, aka The Badger—not to Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s middle-class drama Death of a Salesman but rather to the highly theatrical Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s great tragedy The Iceman Cometh, which shares with the Maysles film a vision of working-class culture “dominated not simply by failure and destructive memory… but by ruin and dirt—a multiethnic, multiracial world of left-wing political disappointment.”
The brothers returned to the world of professional performance via the Rolling Stones in Gimme Shelter, an account of the band’s free post-Woodstock concert in 1969 that devolved into violence and death. I’ve always found a whiff of sensationalism in this film’s editing structure, which uses suspense-movie techniques to build anticipation for a few frames of murder footage at the climax. McElhaney writes about it well, though, with due attention to its Jean Rouch-like device of having two of the Stones view and comment on some of the film’s own material; and it’s fun to picture Mick Jagger instructing the directors not to try “any of that Pennebaker shit,” evidently wishing to avoid the negative vibes that hooked onto Bob Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker’s classic 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back. Five years later came Grey Gardens, the Citizen Kane of amateur performance and a full-fledged cult phenomenon to this day. It was instantly accused of exploiting the eccentric mother and daughter it portrayed—Molly Haskell called it “an ethical and aesthetic abomination”—but I spoke at length about this with Edie Beale in 1975, and her only complaint was that the 100-minute movie should have been a whole lot longer.
Acknowledging the comparatively minor status of latter-day Maysles films, McElhaney recognizes that the era of Salesman and Grey Gardens now belongs to “an unreachable and unrepeatable past.” He also sees the contradictions and limitations of direct cinema’s desire to capture so-called reality in “pure” and “objective” ways. His response is to approach the field dialectically, using Maysles cinema to build an argument that “justice cannot be done to the world without the mediating elements of fantasy and seduction, of obsession and fetish, that are not always central to direct-cinema discourses but are part of the reality in which we live.” Jean-Luc Godard, usually no friend of direct cinema, has said that Al Maysles is “a painter in his way of seeing.” The best Maysles movies bear this out, and McElhaney’s sensitive commentaries live fully up to their subject.
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David Sterritt, Chair of the National Society of Film Critics, currently writes about film for Tikkun.
Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste, Inc.