Albert Maysles by Joe McElhaney

[7 June 2009]

By Sarah Boslaugh

Albert Maysles is the first documentarian to be included in the “Contemporary Film Directors” series published by the University of Illinois Press, but author Joe McElhaney makes a persuasive case that he belongs among the likes of Joel and Ethan Coen, Roman Polanski and Neil Jordan. Not only did Maysles (often working with his brother David) create some of the best-known documentaries of the 20th century, he also developed a distinctive style of filmmaking which has generated much debate about the documentary as a creative form and the ethics of creating documentary films.

To get an obvious question out of the way, the book is called Albert Maysles rather than ‘The Maysles Brothers’ because Albert Maysles not only had a career before and after the time he worked with his brother David (who died in 1987), but also because McElhaney believes that in the films upon which they collaborated, Albert was primarily responsible for filming and David for sound. While acknowledging that David also shot some portions of their most famous films, and that it would be impossible to assign with any certainty the authorship of many sections of these films, McElhaney argues that Albert was not only the primary cameraman but that the films reflect his affinity for particular types of images, whoever may have actually been behind the camera recording them.

McElhaney begins with a chronological summary of Albert Maysles’ career, which began in a suitably unconventional manner with Psychiatry in Russia (1955). This film was funded by CBS who (according to Maysles) sent him to the Soviet Union with “a wind-up 16mm Keystone camera” despite the fact that Masyles had no formal experience or education in filmmaking at the time. Psychiatry in Russia was instead an outgrowth of his interest in psychology: Maysles held a BA and MA in the subject and taught it for three years at Boston University.

In 1957 Maysles again ventured behind the Iron Curtain, this time with his brother David, and shot two more films: Russian Close-Up and Youth in Poland. In 1959 Maysles met the documentary filmmakers Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker and worked as a cameraman with Leacock, Pennebaker and Albert Drew on the breakthrough film Primary (1960) which took advantage of the flexibility offered by the new lightweight Auricon Cine-Voice camera to “walk in and out of buildings, up and down stairs, film in taxi cabs, all over the place, and get synchronous sound”, as Leacock put it.

In 1962 the Maysles brothers formed Maysles Films and began to develop their distinctive style which retained the direct cinema approach of Drew without his focus on moments of decision or crisis: this led to early criticism that their films were meandering or unstructured. Indeed, Anthony Jay of the BBC said that their 1964 film What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA was “hardly a film at all”. But they persisted, and were encouraged by Truman Capote’s blending of fiction and non-fiction as exemplified by In Cold Blood to persist in their endeavors to make a “non-fiction feature film” and in 1969 produced their first major work in this genre: Salesman, which followed four ordinary Bible salesman through their sales calls and meetings. 

Their most famous works followed: Gimme Shelter in 1970, which recorded the Rolling Stones’ infamous 1969 “Altamont Speedway” concert, including the murder of an audience member and Grey Gardens in 1976, which introduced the world to the eccentric recluses Edith and Edie Beale, relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy and now the subject of the Broadway musical of the same name. They continued to work, and since David’s death in 1987 Albert has continued to work with other collaborators, but their later films have largely been commissions and have not engendered the level of critical response (either positive or negative) which greeted their earlier work.

Most of Albert Maysles is devoted to an analysis of individual films, and of Albert Maysles’ style and philosophy of filmmaking. McElhaney recognizes the contradiction in the ethos of direct cinema: filmmaking is always a matter of selection and arrangement of elements, and although the final product may deliberately be left open to multiple interpretations it still represents the choices of the filmmakers. 

Because several Maysles films have provoked extreme and opposite reactions from critics, McElhaney notes that in comparison to contemporary filmmakers such as Barbara Kopple and Frederic Wiseman they have avoided making overt political statements in most of their films, while also pointing out that the Maysles are not slaves to the “codes” of direct cinema: among other things, at times they have used voiceover narration, musical underscoring, nonchronological editing and have had subjects address the camera directly.

None of this is surprising, as the Maysles were artists making films rather than pedants creating examplars of a particular theory, but it pays to keep such details in mind in order to remain grounded in the reality of the films rather than in endless arguments about what is “real” or “authentic”.

Albert Maysles concludes with a chapter-length interview with the filmmaker, conducted in 2006, and a selective filmography of Albert Maysles’ films and a five-page bibliography. Only the best-known and most available works are included in the filmography, and advertising material is excluded: McElhaney’s logic in this case is that documenting all the films that Maysles worked on would be a gargantuan task not directly relevant to this book and thus best left for another day (and presumably another researcher).

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/94462-albert-maysles-by-joe-mcelhaney/